Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
By Ross King
Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner
By Franny Moyle
Penguin Press/508 pages/$35
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Claude Monet and J.M.W. Turner were long-lived painters whose later years witnessed the creation of some of their greatest works of art. Both were self-centered, occasionally difficult, men who did "not go gentle into that good night..."
The words of Dylan Thomas's famous poem seem to have been written with Monet and Turner in mind. Yet, neither of these "wise men at their end" raged against "the dying of the light."
The aging Monet did battle a variety of eye ailments including cataracts, and Turner was widely considered to be deranged. Instead of raging against the spreading shadows of mortality, these Old Masters glimpsed the dawning of new visions of art.
The prophetic experiences of Monet and Turner are recounted in two outstanding recent biographies, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King and Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner by Franny Moyle.
Mad Enchantment focuses with fascinating detail on Monet's reclusive last years in his garden at Giverny. Moyle's portrait of Turner, by contrast, stretches from his birth to the post-death litigation that was part of his momentous legacy.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) and J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851) have been paired in a number of recent art exhibitions. The comparison is not without its merit. Turner was the premier landscape painter of the first half of the nineteenth century while Monet dominated the latter part of the 1800's. Beyond this timeline relationship, the question of "passing the torch" is exactly that. A question.
Turner was not the "first Impressionist," as some writers assert. He hardly ever painted out-of-doors, even with watercolor of which he was one of the greatest masters in art history. Instead, Turner preferred to take notes of what he observed.
Moyle vividly recounts the story behind one of Turner's key works, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. In 1810, Turner observed a storm sweeping over the hills and moors of Yorkshire. He was entranced by the spectacle but declined the offer of a sketch block upon which to make a detailed drawing. A few notes scrawled on the back of a letter were enough.
"There," Turner exclaimed to the young son of his great patron, Walter Fawkes. "Hawkey, in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal crossing the Alps."
J.M.W.Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812
Turner was as good as his word. In 1812, he exhibited the finished painting, filled with references to the conflict of empires and to the awesome power of nature.
The creative process behind Snow Storm differed from Monet's approach to painting. Monet did not merely observe the world, but painted directly from nature for much of his life - but not entirely. King notes that Monet was a bit disingenuous when he claimed that he "painted entirely out of doors." Virtually all of Monet's paintings were completed in his studio, "often far from the motif and with much teeth-gnashing labor."
Monet was, none-the-less, the greatest student of nature among the major painters of his era. Even the vast paintings of water lilies of his last years, painted in his studio, were the result of an obsessive effort of continuous investigation of nature. The fabled nymphéas represent a "dialogue" between man and nature, between Monet and the very stuff of creation, earth, water and air, as revealed by the water garden he created at Giverny.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916
Turner's influence on Monet is therefore a matter of controversy. Many commentators claim that Monet's sojourn in England, 1870-71, was a transforming experience, owing to the influence of studying Turner's works on display in London museums. Such a contention is dubious, certainly in terms of artistic technique. Monet, along with Renoir, had already painted the "proto-Impressionist" works at La Grenouillere in 1869. Monet confided to Camille Pissarro in 1871 that Turner's works were "antipathetic because of the exuberant romanticism of his imagination."
So, is there a basis for pairing Monet and Turner in art exhibitions or in a joint book review? The answer, based on the fascinating insights provided by King and Moyle is an emphatic "yes."
There are so many parallels in the life experiences of Monet and Turner that differences in technique might easily be forgotten. Both men loved the sea and rivers, capturing the reflection of light upon water as they navigated their painting boats on the Seine or the Thames.
Both men also dedicated themselves to grand visionary enterprises. Turner devoted himself to provide a financial endowment for "decayed" artists (later contested by his relatives) and to bequeath a impressive array of his greatest paintings to the British nation. Monet painted works to benefit wounded soldiers during the First World War and labored to create a permanent exhibition of his nymphéas in appreciation of France's trial and triumph in the Great War.
The agonized effort to create the Grand Decoration, as Monet's series of water lilies is called, is the overarching theme of Ross King's Mad Enchantment. It is a story that has few counterparts in art history, except perhaps Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes, about which King has also written a splendid book.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-26
This version at MOMA is similar in size to the Grand Decoration in Paris
One of the most notable accomplishments of Mad Enchantment is the gripping descriptions of the herculean efforts involved in painting the cycle of water lily paintings for the Grand Decoration. Far from withdrawing from the world, Monet at Giverny probed to the very essence of nature, just as Turner had done decades before. King writes:
Paradoxically for a man who wished to give the impression of the spontaneous capture of a fleeting moment in time, he sometimes used a dozen or more layers of paint on a canvas.
Henri Manuel, Monet at work in his large studio,1920
Monet, as King relates, used every "trick" in the painter's book to create the effect he wanted. Turner had been a kindred spirit in this respect, using varied undercoats of color, thick layers of paint in some instances, stretches of canvas barely painted at other times, rubbing-off paint, applying pigment with brush, palette knife and - in Turner's case at least - the artist's oldest utensil, his fingers.
Both Ross King and Franny Moyle have placed the humanity of their respective protagonists "center stage" in their accounts. These are classic biographies, blessedly free of deconstruction, political agendas and other post-modern baggage. Wide-ranging research, perceptive analysis of the great works of art and compelling narratives make each book a "must" read for art enthusiasts.
The story of how Turner and Monet struggled against the art establishments of Britain and France is, of course, well-known. King and Moyle, however, show that Monet's battle against the Salon and Turner's controversies lasted much longer than generally realized.
Félix Nadar, Claude Monet, c.1899
Even after Monet's desperate financial woes began to lesson in the 1890's, he still faced criticism over the place of Impressionism in art. Acceptance in some conservative circles came at the expense of dismissal by a number of avant garde critics for being passé.
Monet was fortunate in having a powerful advocate in Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France who masterminded the Allied victory in 1918. Clemenceau guided, goaded, pampered and encouraged Monet to complete the Grand Decoration. When Monet died in 1926, it was Clemenceau who saw to the installation of the nymphéas in the Orangerie Museum in Paris.
Félix Nadar, Georges Clemenceau, early 20th Century
After a rapid rise to prominence in the 1790's, Turner had to contend with opposition from Sir George Beaumont, co-founder of the National Gallery, who strongly disapproved of the lack of "finish" of Turner's paintings. Beaumont died in 1827 but Turner's reputation had sustained critical, if not mortal, injury.
Richard Doyle, Turner Painting One of His Pictures, 1846
For the rest of his life, Turner faced derisive criticism for allegedly painting with "soap suds and whitewash."
It was Turner's good fortune to find an advocate like Clemenceau - though not as highly-placed in the British establishment.
Francis Holl (after George Richmond), John Ruskin, 1857
John Ruskin (1819-1900) championed Turner with his multi-volume work, Modern Painters. And just as Clemenceau handled the details of installing the nymphéas in the Orangerie, Ruskin was the principal executor of the great mass of Turner's works, eventually displayed in the Tate Gallery in London.
There is a further parallel between Turner and Monet that needs to be examined in more detail than King or Moyle were able to do. This task however might best be handled by a psychologist rather than by a biographer.
Both Turner and Monet were accomplished at depicting the human figure - early in their careers. Monet in fact started as a caricaturist and a very good one. But he abandoned this celebrity art form to devote himself to landscape. The longer Monet painted, fewer and fewer people appeared in his works, until they disappeared entirely from his garden scenes in Giverny.
Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899
The young Turner painted a masterful self-portrait in 1799 and never bothered to create a really creditable human likeness again.
Moyle, with her astounding insight into small but significant details, notes that Turner presents himself in the Self-Portrait with powdered hair. This coiffure had gone out of vogue due to the French Revolution. Aristocrats, anxious to keep their heads on their shoulders, affected a more plebian hair style. Turner's father, whom he deeply loved, was a barber and wig-maker. The change-in-style had ruined the business of Turner Senior.
J.M.W.Turner, Self-Portrait, c. 1799
Turner's Self-Portrait was painted around the time he was elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy. The whitened-hair can be interpreted as flattery of the British political establishment in the hope of getting full Royal Academy status, which he achieved in 1802. But it is more likely to have been a sensitive gesture of a loving son to his proud father.
For the rest of his long life, Turner resorted to populating his paintings with hobbit-like figures or even "stick-men," as in the case of Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. People just don't seem to have mattered much in Turner's world-view, when compared to the cosmic forces of nature. A similar emotional process apparently affected Monet as well.
Both Moyle and King present evidence that some of this blinkered approach to their fellow human beings was due to the very human foibles of Turner and Monet. Turner, for all his generosity of spirit, was so focused on his income that he charged one of his most devoted patrons, Sir John Leicester, a consulting fee to critique an amateur painting by the nobleman. It was an incredible gaffe.
Turner was also so competitive, even when he was a well-established and wealthy artist, that he could not resist turning the "tables" on rival artists. Yet, when David Wilkie died in 1842, Turner painted one of the most affecting memorial works in all of Western art, Peace - Burial at Sea.
J.M.W.Turner, Peace - Burial at Sea, 1842
Turner and Monet certainly had their faults but lack of humanity was not one their shortcomings. In actuality, people did not shrink in size or disappear from the canvases of Turner and Monet. Instead, these gifted painters placed the viewer, the beholder, in short, us, into the picture.
When we look at Hannibal's troops cowering under a threatening sky, we become protagonists, no longer spectators, in this drama. We stand in meditative communion with Monet's nymphéas and we are no longer in an art gallery. We are truly one with nature.
Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1908
In her moving commentary on Turner's last works, Moyle writes:
In these late paintings Turner used every ounce of his painterly virtuosity to depict a complex, mysterious world and contain it within a single holistic emblem. As if encouraging his viewer to peer through a multidimensional telescope, he shows time, science, different worldly planes and natural phenomena in a mysterious kaleidoscope.
Turner, Moyle concludes "sought to communicate the ultimate truth about the world of which he was a part..."
If one really wants to trace the influence of Turner on Monet, this example of seeking "to communicate the ultimate truth" is where the trail leads. This "example" rather than painterly technique is the gift that Monet found for the taking during his sojourn in England in 1870-71
Cherishing "the ultimate truth about the world of which" we are a part is still here - for the taking. And you don't have to be a Modern Painter to partake of this gift.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Introductory Image: Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. 2016 (book cover ) Courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
J.M.W.Turner (British, 1775-1851) Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. Oil on Canvas, Support: 1460 x 2375 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856 N00490
Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1916. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. Photograph by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1914-26. Oil on canvas, three panels, each 6' 6 3/4" x 13' 11 1/4" (200 x 424.8 cm), overall 6' 6 3/4" x 41' 10 3/8" (200 x 1276 cm). Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, ID # 666.1959.a-c
Henri Manuel (French, 1874-1947), Monet at work in his large studio, 1920. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and Getty Images
Félix Nadar (French, 1820-1910) Claude Monet, 1899. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Félix Nadar (French, 1820-1910) Georges Clemenceau, early 20th Century. New York Public Library Digital Gallery: [http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1158342] and Wikimedia Commons
Richard Doyle (British, 1824-1883) Turner Painting One of His Pictures, 1846. Woodcut, 3 3/8 in. x 4 1/8 in., Acquired, 1973. National Portrait Gallery, London, D6996
Francis Holl (British, 1815-1884) John Ruskin, Stipple engraving of portrait by George Richmond, 1857. 21 3/4 in. x 16 in. (551 mm x 407 mm) plate size; 22 1/2 in. x 17 3/4 in. (573 mm x 450 mm) paper size. Given by Mrs C.M. Baker, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D33440
Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) The Japanese Footbridge, 1899. Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 101.6 cm (32 x 40 in.) framed: 101 x 120.7 x 7.6 cm (39 3/4 x 47 1/2 x 3 in.) Gift of Victoria Nebeker Coberly, in memory of her son John W. Mudd, and Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. No.1992.9.
J.M.W.Turner (British,1775-1851) Self-Portrait, c.1799. Oil paint on canvas, Support: 743 x 584 mm, frame: 985 x 820 x 110 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856. N00458
J.M.W.Turner (British,1775-1851) Peace - Burial at Sea, 1842. Oil paint on canvas, Support: 870 x 867 mm framed: 1110 x 1108 x 120 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856. N00528
Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1908. National Museum Wales, Cardiff. Photograph by National Museum of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images