Late Monet Symposium Part One

Late Monet Symposium Part One


(audience chattering) – Good morning, everyone. – [Audience] Good morning. – I’m George Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum, standing in for Eric Lee, who
is under the weather today, and who welcomes you all
to the Kimbell Art Museum and to the inaugural symposium
for “Monet: The Late Years,” the exhibition that is a
sequel to our 2016 exhibition, “Monet: The Early Years.” This is the first museum
show in more than 20 years to focus on the final
phase of Monet’s career, the final, hugely productive
and exciting phase of Monet’s life as an artist. At this time, he remained
close to his home at Giverny, but that was not necessarily
a restriction on him, as he sort of had boundless ambition, producing some of the most
radical and forward-thinking works of his entire career. They’re marked by bold
application of paint and surprising harmonies
or clashes of color as well as imposing scale. It’s been for me a great pleasure working on the show with our colleagues at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where the exhibition appeared
previously this year, opening in February, and I’m delighted that
my friend Melissa Buron, the head of the Fine Arts Division of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is here with us this morning. She was in charge of the show
when it was in California. I’d like to thank Kimbell
Wynne, Kay and Ben Fortson, and the Kimbell Art Foundation’s
entire Board of Directors for their commitment to
bringing our audiences exhibitions like “Monet: The Late Years,” and I’d also like to
thank the Kimbell staff, many, many hundreds of people,
and a really dedicated team, which has worked so hard to
bring this show to fruition. Our utmost gratitude must be extended to the lenders to the exhibition, and I’m very pleased
that a number of them, both private collectors and
representatives of institutions, are here with us today. We’ve been really fortunate
to receive an indemnity from the Federal Council
on the Arts and Humanities that gives insurance
protection to the paintings when they are on loan to us, and this is one of the
things that makes it possible for us to bring such
magnificent works of art to you, to be able to afford to bring such magnificent works of art to you. We’re also tremendously grateful to the Leo Potishman
Foundation at JP Morgan Chase for a grant supporting the exhibition, and for their dedicated support of our promotional activities, we want to thank our sponsors, American Airlines, NBC5, Visit Fort Worth, and the Omni Fort Worth Hotel. Additional support is provided by the Arts Council of Fort Worth. As always, and many of
you here are members and donors to the museum, our appreciation goes out to you for making it possible for us
to do “Monet: The Late Years,” and to our volunteer docents,
also many of whom are here. By the time this exhibition
closes in September, the Kimbell’s docents will have spent thousands of hours preparing
for and giving tours to bring the exhibition to
life for thousands of visitors. We are incredibly grateful
for the role that they play, interfacing with people of
all ages at this institution. Now, when you are finished here, in this morning of talks, you will be going to the exhibition, and we want to remind you
that non-flash photography is indeed not only
permitted, but encouraged. We invite you to use your cameras and hope you will share your pictures, when you do make them, on social media, if you’re a participant. Our hashtag is latemonet, and you can tag us also
at kimbellartmuseum. We have an exciting lineup of
guest speakers this morning. Before we begin to introduce any of them, I would like you to give
me a big round of applause for John and Kathy Nugent, who have generously helped to bring these extraordinary
speakers to Fort Worth. (audience applauds)
For John and Kathy. Thank you. Now in thinking about
who I wanted to invite to speak to you this morning in conjunction with this
exhibition of Monet’s late work, I thought, and also
since one of our themes in the “Monet: Early /
“Monet: Late Years” is time and the passage of lifetime, I wanted to invite a group of
speakers who would, in a sense, reference the notion of
giving over a lifetime to the study of a particular artist, or studying that artist
early, late in his career. So our first speaker this
morning is Robert Gordon, who has for 40 years been publishing books about Monet’s life in Giverny. He has a really remarkable
passion for research, and I am amused that he reminds us that John Russell
once referred to him, who was the great critic
for “The New York Times,” referred to Robert as “a
ferret in human shape.” (audience laughs) So agile is he in coming up
with a way to get at the facts. I was delighted to
speak with him yesterday about the lunches that
were prepared for him by Monet’s last cook and his encounter with Monet’s laundress, and their discussion of the difficulty of ironing Monet’s shirts. (audience laughs) He was the first to examine the history and evolution of the water-lily pond and was one of the people who spearheaded the campaign to restore
Monet’s garden at Giverny. In addition to his work on Monet, he’s published important
books on Manet, Degas, 19th-century photography, Prud’hon, and the contemporary
sculptor Deborah Butterfield, for something completely different. He’s also served as an
art director, a filmmaker, a book designer, a photographer. He told me he also spent some
time correcting color proofs, which is a very meticulous act and role. He has from time to time
served as the intermediary for the sale of important works of art, including paintings by
Valentin de Boulogne in the Metropolitan and works by Degas and Chardin, and he accompanies this
fascination for the real thing, having been a collector
of paintings, sculpture, and photography throughout his life. So today, Robert Gordon
is going to speak to us about his vision of Monet, about his lifetime of work
in the fields of Monet, shall we say, and I ask you to give him a very hearty welcome. Robert Gordon. (audience applauds) (grunts) – For over 40 years, I have
been obsessed with Monet, most of all with what I consider his greatest series of works,
the water-lily paintings. After I graduated from college in 1968, I moved to New York City. Most afternoons, I would go
to the Museum of Modern Art. The museum was most
welcoming, even friendly, having benefited from
the intellect and vision of its founding director, Alfred Barr. Often I would spend hours in the gallery, lit by a warm daylight
of the museum garden. I would sit on the bench
and face the water lilies and the clouds of Monet’s triptych. That’s me. (chuckles) (audience laughs) A long time ago. (audience laughs) Before I started creaking. (chuckles) (audience laughs) And this is the painting
at the Museum of Modern Art that I loved. I found it calm, a beckoning solace. I was mesmerized by the painting. In truth, I understood little. Somehow I decided to travel to the garden that had inspired this painting. So began my 40-year
trek, my homage to Monet. For the next 45 minutes,
please join with me as I describe my path. At the time, we were living
unknowingly in the Dark Ages. Pre-computer, pre-Internet,
pre-GPS, pre-Google Maps. (audience laughs) We each grew up having
to find our own way. In 1971, I went to France, determined to find the spot
that had inspired the artist. I shipped over my Volvo, and
at any time could hit the road. The world was open. All I had to go on for guidance was the name of the village, Giverny, where Monet had spent the
latter half of his life. I decided the gardens were
located in the south of France, why I do not know, perhaps
the quality of the light. The Festival d’Avignon, close
to Aix-en-Provence, lured me. While in Avignon, I
checked a local bookstore. I riffled through the
“Michelin Green Guides,” and lo and behold, I
discovered that Giverny was neither in Provence,
the Alpes-Maritimes, nor the Cote d’Azur, as I had thought, but relatively close to Paris. (audience laughs) I drove there through the night. The following day, I was
at the water-lily garden, though in truth, it now
more or less resembled an abandoned pond. The bridge was there, sort of, the rest was overgrown. I had arrived, but still felt
unsettled and out to sea. I decided to explore Giverny. It was sunny and the village was asleep. Along the road, I met a local sculptor, who had no idea what to do with me, but nonetheless introduced
me to a local painter, who, too, had no idea what to do with me. By chance, though, he was
having dinner that night with the stepfamily of
Monet and invited me along. They were warm and friendly
and intrigued by my story. We talked long into the night. I stayed over. All that summer, I had been photographing
landscapes and portraits. The family owned hundreds
of unpublished photographs documenting Monet’s world,
his friends, visitors, gardens, and studios. They showed them to me. I was fascinated. I thought I might be able
to help them in some way, perhaps by making copies
of their pictures. The painter’s Giverny
house, studios, and gardens had been donated to the Institut de France by Monet’s son, Michel. The stepfamily had been
pretty much overlooked, even spurned by the Institut, which oversaw the Monet property. (clears throat) Over several months, the
members of the stepfamily and I decided to find a way that might put them back on the map. We proposed an exhibition
of paintings and photographs to the Metropolitan Museum. It would’ve been the first
ever museum-scale show devoted exclusively to
the Giverny pictures. We considered it best that I create copy photographs of presentation quality that could be shown to museum curators. I rounded up supplies and,
eventually, set up a darkroom. Curiously, my darkroom even
shared a wall with Monet’s tomb. In time, I moved to Giverny, settling with my girlfriend
Mary Jo and our cat Orange on the Rue Claude Monet. That Metropolitan show
did not come to pass, but I was able to meet
John Rewald and Bill Seitz, the world’s most
distinguished Monet scholars. They both recommended my
publishing the family photographs. I decided upon two elegant
international art magazines, “The Connoisseur” and
the Swiss magazine “du.” The articles eventually led
to a book, “Monet at Giverny,” which you see on the right. My co-authors were to be
the stepfamily members that I’d encountered the
first night over dinner. After reading the texts they proposed, the publishers decided their words were not quite up to snuff and invited Andrew Forge, an exceptionally gifted
English art critic, to contribute an introduction. Andrew and I never met at that time, missing each other, unfortunately, at a breakfast scheduled with the editors at the Algonquin Hotel. A number of years later,
I traveled to Yale, where Andrew was now dean
of the fine arts school. Andrew was brilliant. I had never before met
anyone quite like him. When he spoke, it was as if all Western
civilization welled up. We would go on to publish
three books together. The first was “Monet,” which
Hilton Kramer in “The New Yorker” described as art history at its best. The “Connoisseur”
editorial by Bevis Hillier, “The Monet Demesne: A
Case for Restoration,” was the first to call for the
rehabilitation of the garden. “Some,” he wrote, “may think “Mr. Gordon is a little
obsessional in his attitude “to the Monet gardens. “But we agree with him
that if the Institut “are going to restore the gardens, “they should try to
recapture their spirit.” One of the great advantages
of my living in the area was having access to local resources. Sleuthing was facilitated. For example, as a resident of Giverny, I was welcome to carry out
research in the mayor’s archives. I could drive to the offices
of Maître Yves Bourdon in the village of Abondant, who graciously shared
with me all the deeds for the exchanges and
purchases of property that permitted Monet to enlarge the pond. It was a leisurely
40-minute drive from my home through the magnificent forest of Anet. The French are not particularly
spur-of-the-moment, could sometimes take weeks
to secure an appointment. That delay would be sufficient to put off most American researchers, but it was fine with me. Cramped attics did not stop me. I would always offer to help
families move things around. I was not afraid of spiders and dust. (audience laughs) Over time, we determined
that the key to unlocking all the pieces of Monet’s life
in the village of Giverny, especially the stories
behind the water-lily pond, would be his stepgrandson, Jim Butler, who had grown up there. Jim was born in 1893. There he is on the left. I knew him when he was about 75, so there’s quite a space of time between when I knew him and when this was taken. Both of these photographs were taken around the end of the 19th century. His mother was Monet’s
beautiful stepdaughter Suzanne, who you see on the right. She posed for this painting
in the Musee d’Orsay, “One Woman with a Parasol,
Facing Right,” in 1886. His father was the American
painter Theodore Earl Butler, who had taken up residence in the village. I found Jim extraordinary,
his curiosity insatiable. It was my luck that he and his wife had recently moved back to France. I would drive through
the night from Giverny to Grasse in the south, where they lived. Theirs was a small apartment
lit by warmth and friendship. I eagerly recorded our conversations and all their recollections. Jim was informal, elegant, and congenial; Margot, his wife, cosmopolitan and chic. She stylishly wore trousers
and a tie and smoked a pipe. (audience laughs) Jim would go into considerable detail when describing the pond. Though the garden was relatively small, it was nonetheless complex. To better understand its structure, I decided it would be best to accurately measure its dimensions. With permission from the
Academie des Beaux-Arts, and watched over by the gardener in charge of the property, Monsieur Blanc, I spent several days wearing
rubber wader overalls, armed with a 20-meter measuring tape. Day after day, I trudged
through the thick silt at the bottom of the pond. Mary Jo was across the pond, assisting me. One day an American couple appeared just outside the garden fence. They seemed intrigued by our endeavors and introduced themselves
as John and Faith Hubley. They hoped to direct an animated film devoted to the Impressionists. They had previously won
three Academy Awards. John created the cartoon
character Mr. Magoo, (audience laughs) based upon one of his uncles, and was a supervising director for one of my all-time favorite Saturday
morning television heroes, Gerald McBoing-Boing. (audience laughs) We had lunch together the following day. Afterwards, they came
back to our apartment. John carefully examined all the presentation photographs of Monet. He was quite tall. Suddenly he lurched up and
began walking around the room. We asked him what he was doing. He exclaimed, “This is how Monet walked.” Needless to say, we were amazed. With his astute eye and
years of experience, John had sized up Monet’s stance, center of gravity, and gait. But how could I be certain? A few weeks later, my friends
and I spent the better part of an afternoon picking wild blackberries. We took great pride in making
homemade blackberry jelly. I learned that a film by
Sacha Guitry from 1915, “Ceux de Chez Nous,” featured
Monet, Renoir, and Rodin while they were still alive and was available for projection at the French Audiovisual Institute. I could not afford the fee but managed to negotiate the exchange of two of my jars of blackberry jelly (audience laughs) (laughs) for the right
to view at my leisure. And there before my eyes was
Monet walking about his garden in precisely the same manner
John Hubley had demonstrated. Now this should become a movie. I don’t know how, but, can we have this as a movie, please? (muffled speaking) There we go. (gentle music) The painting that he’s working
on is here in the exhibition, and it belongs to Portland, so you will see it when
you go through the show. Hmm. Wonderful. The dog was not Monet’s, it
was the dog of Sacha Guitry. Monet would not have
animals in his garden. Jim Butler was a polyglot,
fluent in at least 10 languages, including Latin, Greek,
ancient Japanese, and Dutch. He was also an amateur botanist who kept a small, specialized library. He had served as Monet’s consultant when ordering plants and seeds from Japanese gardening catalogs. He helped Monet identify
plants and flowers through his understanding of Latin. Jim was a true raconteur. For years he had garnered stories of Monet’s interactions
with the villagers. He shared them with great relish. After all, it was Jim who knew firsthand of Monet’s dealings
with the Giverny locals, the farmers and washerwomen
normally opposed to any change. They feared that Monet’s plans
to divert the communal stream would disrupt its normal flow, and that the aquatic plants
he intended to cultivate would poison their animals
drinking downstream. Surely they must’ve wondered, “Why would anyone in his right mind “wish to cultivate these
nonproductive plants?” Jim would’ve been amused
by this Monet letter to his wife Alice, dismissing the townsfolk
for impeding his efforts to create a water-lily
pond on his own property. “Damn the villagers. “Throw the plants into the river. “I wish to hear no more about it.” Jim confided to me that
late one summer evening, once all the digging
had been accomplished, Monet stealthily allowed
the communal stream to flow into its new bed, thereby ensuring as best as possible that the waters would be
clear of all traces of mud and sediment the following morning. Jim Butler was essential
to my understanding Monet. His memory was prodigious. Monet was Jim’s godfather. After 50 years, he could
accurately draw, by hand, the complex paths and sluices
of the water-lily garden and describe the many
horticultural choices that had been made year by year. Often we would sit
together in the afternoon and the early evening. We both loved a glass of good Bordeaux. I cherish those memories. Jim corrected a great deal
of what had been surmised by Monet scholars. He had truly been there,
from the beginning. Art historians most often
have to rely upon slides. The great collector Sam Wagstaff in the introduction to his
catalog “A Book of Photographs” made this statement. “This book is about pleasure, “the pleasure of looking
and the pleasure of seeing, “like watching people dancing
through an open window. “They seem a little mad at first, “until you realize they hear the song “that you are watching.” I love Sam, and I love Jim. He opened a window for me. Thanks to Jim Butler,
my “Connoisseur” article was the first to fully detail the evolution of the water-lily garden. No one before had ever really given it all that much thought. For Monet, the pond was like a canvas. It required time to evolve. And, according to Jim, it
cost like the dickens. (audience laughs) This is one of the earliest
photographs of Monet, whoop, by the pond, the one on the left. It comes from his neighbor, the American painter Lilla Cabot Perry. So on his left is one of the sluices, you can see it’s a
rather complicated device, on the first image, that regulated the flow
of the communal stream that fed the pond. The sluices’ ability to control and redirect the flow of water was one of the principle
reasons his neighbors had gotten so worked up. Monet is seen here with
Thomas Sergeant Perry, Lilla Cabot Perry’s husband. The next image, while Monet stands about, two of his wife’s relatives play gardener. I don’t quite know what they’re doing, but I love that photograph. (audience laughs) It’s one of the first times you see that Monet had a good sense of humor, although I don’t know. (audience laughs) While Monet stands about,
two of his wife’s relatives, they’re probably family, they’re
called Raingo and Pelouse, but I’m not quite certain. Monet’s first elegant
representations of the pond employed the Japanese bridge
as the central element. This painting, fortunately,
is here in the exhibition. These are not. This is in Princeton, and that’s a private
collection in New York. The garden and its bridge afforded Monet only two angles of attack. East towards Paris and west
towards the town of Vernon. Variations in the paintings depended upon the physical depiction of
the bridge, its cropping, the selection of flowers
growing along the banks, time of day, light effects. Conception of these paintings
was not so very different from his earlier works of the 1890s, Haystacks, Poplars, and Rouen Cathedrals. They were easel paintings, small, accessible,
desirable, and sellable. But there were only so many options. By 1901, Monet acquired
additional parcels of land, allowing him to expand
the surface of the pond and enlarge the banks. He now had greater space and freedom, permitting new, more complex compositions. It allowed Monet to shift
the focus of his paintings from the bridge to the water lilies. He slowly began by having his gardeners spiffy up the water lilies’
natural growth patterns. The changes were subtle, but structured. His water-lily pads were to be ordered, trimmed, coddled, and stylized. Over time they formed
intricate constellations floating on the pond’s surface. They became elements of a
mysterious Monet galaxy. Monet surveyed each detail. He was a fussbudget. Every day, each of the blossoms
was dunked into the water, clearing away any dust or grime. When automobiles began
cruising the village road alongside his property, Monet was upset with the dust kicked up. Monet responded, paying
for the road to be paved at his own expense. The pond had now become an
intricate web of water lilies, reflections of clouds,
iris, and agapanthus plants growing along the banks. One of the most important
unifying elements was the triangular formation of light that could only be seen
when viewing the pond from the eastern extremity. The pond became a watery kaleidoscope of intriguing possibilities. Monet had entered a new realm. One of my favorite descriptions of Monet was written by the English
artist Wynford Dewhurst. “Monet is perhaps seen at his best, “and certainly in his most genial mood, “when cigar in full blast,
he strolls around his “ ‘propriété’ at Giverny, “discussing the mysteries
of propagation, grafts, “and color schemes with his small army “of blue-bloused, sabotted gardeners. “He is now 56 years of age, in
the fullness of his powers.” The paintings inspired by
the large pond were entitled “Nymphéas, Paysages d’Eau,” in English, “Water Lilies,
Water Landscapes.” They were triumphantly
exhibited in Paris in May 1909. The success of this exhibition bestowed a new international
celebrity upon Monet. Before the exhibition,
word had spread that Monet had destroyed a vast
quantity of paintings. He’d always been difficult. Attempting to capture all
those fleeting variables onto his canvas must’ve been daunting. Monet, after all, was a Scorpio, a sign where creativity and destruction constantly seesaw with one another. I should know, being one myself, having been born a day
earlier than the painter. Reviews of the 1909 show, especially the one by
the critic Roger Marx, published in the “Gazette des Beaux-Arts,” brought new attention to an
as-yet unrealized project of great importance to the artist. Monet had described it
in an 1898 interview with the critic Maurice Guillemot. “A circular room, entirely
occupied by a horizon of water, “spotted with vegetation of a transparency “by turns green and mauve, “the tones vague, delightfully varied, “of a dreamlike subtlety.” Photographs of Monet’s studio
provide strong indication that some of the paintings
projected for the 1909 exhibition were stepping stones to
that dreamlike vision. These two photographs taken in March 1908 show the wealth of possible candidates at Monet’s fingertips. They indicate that Monet had
begun seriously working through complex picture combinations. Did Monet as yet have a vision of what this new ensemble might look like, or how the paintings might eventually integrate with one another? Probably not, but he was surely
working towards that goal. If you look in the photograph at right, on that top shelf you’ll
see three or four paintings that almost look as if
they could go together, but one of them was destroyed, and that is not quite
what he ended up with. In his review, Roger Marx paraphrased a
conversation with Monet. “For a moment the temptation came to me “to use this water-lily theme “for the decoration of a drawing room. “It would’ve been the
illusion of an endless whole, “of a wave with no horizon and no shore. “Nerves exhausted by work
would have relaxed there, “and to anyone who would’ve lived in it, “that room would’ve offered a
refuge of peaceful meditation “in the middle of a flowering aquarium.” I more than understood. It was what I had sensed all
those afternoons long ago, sitting by myself with the
“Water Lilies” triptych in the Museum of Modern Art. Monet was often interviewed, but his words were frequently altered and interpreted by journalists
who were far more literary. Each had an opinion and an agenda. I was fortunate to have recorded the unbiased words of Jim Butler. His vivid memories
afforded me great insight, and I believe a truer
picture of the artist. In 1910, Paris and the Seine Valley experienced unfathomable flooding. In the capital, the
water rose to the height of the Zouave’s shoulders
on the Pont de l’Alma. You see the Zouave on the left. Giverny was inundated. Monet was concerned, fearing
the loss of many of his plants. He was far more concerned, though, with the state of his wife’s health. Over time, the water receded, and his worries about his
garden were dispelled. His wife Alice passed
away the following year. With her death, Monet was plunged into a long period of
grief and discouragement. His old friend Clemenceau, one of France’s most esteemed politicians, appeared offering Monet
words of solace and wisdom. “You know what I’m wishing
you with all my heart? “Think of the old Rembrandt
in the Louvre, hollowed, “ravaged, under the towel
that hides his bald skull. “He clings to his palette, “resolved to hold fast to the
end through terrible trials. “That is the example.” Clemenceau became a more active
presence in Monet’s life. He owned a chateau nearby and would often visit Monet
and his family on Sundays. Monet’s spirit eventually revived. His obsession for painting
resurged with added gusto. Once again, he bought more land and embarked upon the further enlargement of his water-lily pond. The linear banks of the pond, which had resulted from
the 1901 excavations, were curved into soft,
harmonious contours. This vast water horizon would now become the springboard for the
water-lily decorations he had long contemplated. By the summer of 1914, Monet had plans drawn
up for a third studio that would be sufficiently vast to incorporate the large-scale
work he envisioned. In June, he wrote to his
painting dealer, Durand-Ruel, “As you must know, I’ve
taken up my work again. “Getting up as early
as four in the morning, “I grind away at it all day long, “and when evening comes,
I’m worn out with fatigue. “Thanks to work, the great
consolation, all goes well.” In August 1918, the dealer Rene Gimpel, along with his associate,
George Bernheim, visited Monet. He was astounded by Monet’s appearance. “I asked him his age, and
he answered that he was 78. “I complimented him, and
indeed, it’s astonishing. “I’ve never seen a “man of that age look so young. “He can’t be taller than
about five feet five, “but he’s absolutely erect. “He looks like a young
father on Christmas Day “wearing a false white beard “to make his children believe
in old Father Christmas.” Monet invited his guests into
his new water-lily studio. “We were confronted by a
strange artistic spectacle, “canvases placed one after another “in a circle on the ground, “a panorama of water and
water lilies, of light and sky. “In this infinity, the water and the sky “had neither beginning nor end. “It was as though we were present “at one of the first hours
of the birth of the world. “It was mysterious, poetically,
deliciously unreal.” Monet’s dealer Durand-Ruel
and his family photographed the water-lily panels in the
studio in November 1917. Their pictures clearly illustrate Monet’s determined efforts. The picture on the right
became known as “Agapanthus.” It was completely
transformed at a later date, and part of it is here in the exhibition, on loan from St. Louis. War was now howling through Europe. Military and civilian deaths
climbed into the millions. It was wholesale slaughter. Clemenceau, now Prime
Minister and Minister of War, was leading the effort. The armistice that brought
an end to the bloodbath was signed on November 11, 1918. The next day, Monet sent
Clemenceau the following letter. “Dear and great friend, “I’m just about to finish
two decorative panels “that I want to sign on
the day of the victory, “and I’m to ask you to offer them, “through your good offices, to the State. “It is not much, but it is
the only way I have to report “of the victory. “I would like these
two panels to be placed “in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, “and would be happy if
they were chosen by you.” Within a matter of days, Clemenceau came to visit
with Gustave Geffroy, Monet’s close friend and biographer. A plot was hatched among
the three longtime friends. The donation that had
begun with two paintings would now encompass the entire
series of water-lily panels. The construction of a specially
conceived architectural space where the water-lily panels
might be housed was considered. All deliberations were
conducted among friends and in secret. John Russell, chief art
critic of “The New York Times,” once referred to me as
a ferret in human shape. I have never been able to
uncover anything substantial with respect to the
confidential agreements. Even I came up empty attempting to pierce
their months of intrigue. What is certain is that
everything revolved around the participation of Clemenceau, the Father of Victory. Monet and Geffroy
anticipated that Clemenceau would be elected president in 1920, although he had certainly
ruffled a lot of feathers in his pursuit of power. Had he been chosen to lead the government, the path to Monet’s museum
would’ve been all but assured. On January 16, 1920, it was
Paul Deschanel who was selected. Clemenceau left office then and there and returned forever to private life. He would never again hold public office, though he would still
have many cards to play. The water-lily panels were
now up for grabs, so to speak. They could certainly be
sold to private collectors or to museums. Martin Ryerson, the
prominent Chicago collector, came to Giverny accompanied by
his curator and an architect. The large panels represented a prize, even though Monet preferred
for them to stay in France. In April, an article written
by Francois Thiébault-Sisson in the newspaper “Le Temps”
opened a new dialogue. He was the first to publicly discuss the possible gift of
the series to the State. The projected Monet museum
was no longer a secret. The cat, so to speak, was out of the bag. Thiébault-Sisson poetically marveled, “Imagine the effect
that they would produce “reunited in the hall of the Grand Palais, “and ask how greatly the spectacle “would increase the prestige of France “throughout the world.” Had Monet perhaps been too forthcoming in his conversations
with Thiébault-Sisson? Yes. That October, a groundswell
of articles sprouted. A new museum devoted to
the water-lily panels was to be constructed on the
grounds of the Hôtel Biron, today the Musée Rodin. An architect, Louis
Bonnier, had been selected. The wealth of details
published was incredible. Too much became known, and, unfortunately, it
was still speculative. The government agency that
would officially determine the merits of the Monet pavilion, the General Council for
the Public Buildings, had not even received Bonnier’s completed architectural plans. The Monet museum proposal was presented on the 12th of December, 1920, under the auspices of the
Minister of Fine Arts. Three days later, the
members had already convened and rejected the project unanimously. In his decision, Charles Girault, Inspector of the Public
Buildings, sourly pronounced, “To adopt it means to oblige the State, “which at its own expense
is going to undertake “a construction of so
peculiar an aesthetic “to shoulder a kind of patronage. “It surpasses understanding, “since we are here dealing
with a construction “built at the expense of the State “on land belonging to the State.” At this crossroads in time, the Monet museum project had fallen apart. Where was Clemenceau, you might ask? Well, he was traveling
extensively in Egypt, Ceylon, Singapore, and India, and it is all but impossible to discern what Clemenceau
knew at the time and to what extent his
presence would have helped. In 1979, Charlie Stuckey
and I together published a lengthy article, “Blossoms and Blunders:
Monet and the State,” in “Art in America.” We worked for months stitching together as many accounts as possible. Ours was a noble effort, an exposé, but at that time, we
lacked the actual dossier including the architectural
plans of the museum, and without that vital information, the article was incomplete
and could never be considered the defining word. There was just too much conjecture. Again dogged research paid off. I contacted a curator at
the National Archives, a graduate of the prestigious
École des Chartes, where a sophisticated cadre of researchers trained to navigate the intricacies of the French administrative system. The phrase the “General
Council for Public Buildings” proved to be key. It opened the doors to reveal a folder that had lay hidden for over 50 years. This is on the outside of the folder. This is where the Monet museum
would’ve been, on the left. It’s the octagonal building,
hexagonal building. That was the facade. Never built. And that is the interior to show you the four different series
of water-lily panels that would’ve been housed. One dedicated three-quarters
of an hour was sufficient. The curator left for a while, and then appeared with
dossier F21 6028 in her arms. Every document, architectural, structural, engineering, bureaucratic, was there. Mission accomplished. Georges Routhier, my trusted
French photographer, and I recorded everything, privately, and kept it under wraps until 1983, when my book “Monet” with
Andrew Forge was published. Monet must have destroyed his copy of the architectural plans, as there is no trace of them whatsoever. What I had unearthed was most likely the Minister of Fine Arts,
Paul Léon’s, personal dossier. Finally, after being gone for months, Clemenceau returned to
France on March 21, 1921. As soon as he set foot in
France, he sprang into action. Clemenceau immediately attempted to right the whole Monet museum ship. He concluded that if the government would not allocate funds
to build a new museum, it might nevertheless be possible to incorporate the water lilies
into an existing structure under the control of the
Beaux-Arts administration. Clemenceau had all the connections. He set about carving out a
suitable home for the panels. A letter from Clemenceau
to Monet in March 1921 provides a clear picture
of his expediency. “I went this morning to visit “the Jeu de Paume with Paul
Léon, Geffroy, and Bonnier. “Good light that could
be increased at will “by piercing the ceiling. “Width, perhaps, insufficient, 11 meters. “We compared it with the
Orangerie, near the water, “13 meters 50. “That seems very good to me. “The ceiling will be
redone the way you want it. “It will cost more than the Jeu de Paume, “but Paul Léon will take care of it. “I advise you to strike a bargain there.” The two buildings cited, the
Jeu de Paume and the Orangerie, had only recently come under the control of the Ministry of Fine Arts. They were each situated between
the Place de la Concorde and the Musée du Louvre. Each offered an ideal location. Clemenceau opted for the Orangerie. Over time Monet went along. After many frustrating months, Monet had become dissatisfied
with the architect Bonnier. Monet was impatient. Bonnier lacked sufficient standing. Clemenceau and Paul Léon saw
to it that a new candidate, Camille Lefevre, chief
architect for the Louvre Palace and the Tuileries Gardens, was assigned. Monet had no hesitation
throwing Bonnier under the bus. Months of correspondence
between government officials and Monet followed. Secrecy once again became
the order of the day. A letter from Clemenceau
to Geffroy in November 1921 sums it up. “Upon the initiative of Monet, “negotiations have once again become, “once more for the donation of the panels. “Both sides are in agreement. “I am alerting you as all
this is thanks to you. “But not a word until further notice.” In April 1922, after another
year of deliberations, Monet signed an act of donation. Two oval exhibition
rooms were to be fitted within the linear layout of the Orangerie. I can only ask that you
compare these two to see that this building would’ve
had an overall wondrous kind of circle navigation, and this building, unfortunately,
had two rooms, isolated, where you could not even
see all the paintings at the same time. The single space at the Hôtel Biron and the purity of its construct
would have been ideal. The paintings were all but finished, and the space as designed by Bonnier conformed to Monet’s wishes and standards. To be blunt, the Orangerie
was a compromise. Compared to the Hôtel
Biron, it was disjointed. Monet had envisioned a
single, integrated environment in which the paintings and the
viewer’s space interlocked. You can see that the Biron had a diameter of 18 meters 50, and the Orangerie did not
have quite the same capacity. For Monet, having to
fit all his compositions that were conceived for one space into an entirely different
one proved perplexing. It would haunt him for
the rest of his life. Paintings once considered
complete were rethought. Again and again, Monet continued to add and subtract compositions. Monet’s later years involved
many personal battles. His eyesight rapidly declined. Cataracts in both eyes,
originally diagnosed in 1912, wreaked havoc with his
sight and disposition. Discouragement ebbed and flowed. After consultation with
several specialists, he accepted to undergo
a series of operations that were administered by
Dr. Charles Coutela in 1923. At the time, patients
had to remain immobilized between sandbags with their eyes bandaged. Monet was nervous and restless. One can only imagine his distress. Think you can see that in the picture. There were complications, both
physical and interpersonal. Communication between doctor and patient remained respectful, just. Coutela at times relayed
messages through Clemenceau, who was also a doctor at one point. Several specialists later
prescribed corrective lenses. The lenses worked at times but were never entirely successful. In a letter dated October 5, 1923, a frustrated Monet inquired, “Do you know of an artist who
underwent cataract surgery “and is satisfied, able
to see colors as before? “I am terribly unhappy to find myself, “at the end of my life, in the
dreadful situation I am in.” The next three years were marked by on-again, off-again
eyesight complications. Clemenceau implored Monet to consider an operation on his other eye. Monet refused. He was far too fearful. In truth, no one can subjectively understand another’s vision, especially a vision as
exceptional as that of Monet’s. Out of the blue, Monet wrote
to the Minister of Fine Arts, Paul Léon, seeking to
annul the entire donation. Clemenceau took this personally, at one point becoming so furious that he refused to see Monet. Their friendship was threatened. Anguish and gloom pervaded
the Monet household. It became all too much, and then, with considerable
relief, they reconciled. Clemenceau profited from his
time off from government. He became enthralled with a woman who was 40 years younger than himself, Marguerite Baldensperger. They exchanged hundreds of letters. Some contained glimpses
of Monet’s struggles. In September 1924,
Clemenceau confided to her, “Monet writes me somber letters
as he has done all his life. “His stepdaughter cries, “and I am required to wind up his clock, “which persistently strikes
midnight in broad daylight.” Monet’s later years were marked by a cascade of deaths of
close friends and relatives. In April, Clemenceau again confided, “The machine creaks on all sides. “He’s stoical and even cheerful at times. “His panels are finished and
will not be retouched anymore.” The last few years of his
life, Monet was wearing down. He was diagnosed with pulmonary sclerosis. His final summer, he could
no longer enjoy eating. The cigarettes he had smoked incessantly all his adult life choked him. It was not revealed to him
that he was dying of cancer. Clemenceau was by his side
when he closed his eyes one last time on December 5th, 1926. There. I would like to leave
you with this quotation from a letter by Paul Signac. “Generally, when I leave an exhibition, “I am glad to see the skies,
trees, and streets again. “When I left the water lilies, “everything looked dry and flat to me. “Monet was able to conduct
his orchestra to the end.” I invite you to enjoy
this beautiful exhibition that will allow you to study paintings, sketches, and compositions that represent exquisite components of Monet’s visionary waterscapes. Voilà. (audience applauds) Thank you.

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