No, we didn’t have a time machine to go back to Monet’s early career. Instead we went to San Francisco Legion of Honor, which was hosting an exhibit of more than 50 of Monet’s earliest oil paintings
The exhibit begins withView Near Roulles. Painted in 1858 when he was only 17, this was the first of his works to be displayed in public. His La Pointe de la Heve, painted when he was only 23, was the first of his works selected for display in the prestigious Paris Salon.
The exhibit proceeds though a broad range of other works including not only landscapes, but also still lifes, portraits, studies, scenes with friends and family, works that were painted “on location” (traveling in Normandy, Argenteuil, London, Zaandam Holland, etc.) and those painted in collaboration with colleagues including Renoir.
Throughout the exhibit are not only pictures portraying, but also explanations of the stages of his personal life, from his life with his parents, through his first and second wives—from his early days of poverty though 1872, by which his career was relatively established. In fact, one of the 1972 works on display, Regatta in Argenteuil, marked by his move to a looser application of paint, marked the threshold of the artist’s entry into his more mature Impressionist phase.
All though the exhibit you see evidence that Monet, even in his twenties, already displayed techniques and textural subtlety that is seldom seen in such young artists. Most importantly, you see his early understanding of and experimentation with light and color, such as the interplay of light on different surfaces, in different weather conditions and at different times of the day. These include a number of seascapes and a number of his late, early-stage works from 1871 and 1872. Most illustrative is a series of representations of a towpath running along a river that were painted at different times of day and in different weather—a series that presages many of his more famous series of grainstacks, poplars, bridges, landscapes and buildings.
The exhibit provided a nice counterpoint to our last trip to Paris, where we explored the end of Monet’s career with a visit to the artist’s Giverney home and garden and the Musee de L’Orangerie’s series of Nymphéas water lily paintings.