Claude Monet will forever be known for his dreamy Impressionist canvases of grain stacks and cathedrals, the seaside and of course the famous water lilies and gardens that surrounded his beloved home in Giverny. Unlike Degas, Cezanne or Pissarro, contemporaries whose reputations rested on works on paper as well as canvases, Monet was the epitome of the plein-air painter.
Whenever a journalist or collector asked him how he worked, he talked incessantly about the liberating possibilities of painting outdoors, forgoing any mention of the sketches, pastels and prints he quietly produced throughout his life.
"Monet wanted to present himself as the great painter of his day," said Richard Kendall, curator at large at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. "It was a kind of PR exercise, a way of defining himself. But the big, teasing question has always been why didn't he want people to know he drew?"
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Three years ago, Kendall and James A. Ganz, the Clark's curator of prints, drawings and photographs, set out to answer that question. Their findings are the focus of The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings, an exhibition of about 100 works — drawings, sketchbooks and prints, along with some related paintings — that opens March 17 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
The curators say their exhibition will show that Monet wasn't the anti-draftsman he led the public to believe, and that he relied on drawing both to prepare for his paintings and as an independent form of expression.
He drew throughout his seven-decade career, filling pocketsize sketchbooks when he was a truculent teenager and executing pastel drawings of seascapes when he was in his 20s. He drew in different ways using different materials, and in his final years made abstract crayon and pencil drawings as studies for his water-lily paintings.
Although Monet helped perpetrate the myth that he did not, and maybe even could not, draw, nearly 500 of more than 2,500 works mentioned in his catalogue raisonne are sketchbooks, drawings and pastels. Yet, until now, few scholars have paid much attention to them.
They figure prominently in the fifth and final volume of the catalogue raisonne, published by Daniel Wildenstein in 1991 and devoted primarily to works on paper. But when the catalogue raisonne was reprinted in 1996, that volume was dropped.
Ganz was unaware of just how little most scholars knew about Monet's drawings until he began researching a view of Rouen drawn in crayon in 1883 and owned by the Clark Institute. "It was an object that caught my eye especially because I knew it was done after a painting," he said.
(He said the painting, which is in a private European collection, will be united with the drawing for the first time in the exhibition.)
The more he began to dig, Ganz said, the more strongly he felt that there was no substantive scholarly examination of Monet's drawings.
He approached Kendall about the possibility of jointly organizing a small show centering on the Clark's Rouen drawing. But after embarking on their research, they began to envision a far larger exhibition. "We began asking colleagues about Monet's works on paper and consistently got the same reaction -- a blank stare," Ganz said.
After approaching MaryAnne Stevens, a Monet scholar at the Royal Academy, who agreed that the potential show could travel there, the two American curators set out to find as many of Monet's works on paper as they could. Searching in Japan as well as in Europe and the US, they eventually came up with the nearly 100 works that will be in the show.
The Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris, which owns eight of Monet's mature sketchbooks, dating from the 1860s through the 1920s, proved a particularly useful source. A colleague there alerted them to the existence of an unpublished journal by Count Theophile Beguin Billecocq, a friend of the Monet family who was himself an amateur draftsman. The only known firsthand account of Monet's early life, it depicts him as a young man devoted to drawing. Written over roughly a 30-year period, starting in 1854, the journal has remained in the family, passing eventually to the count's great-grandson, Xavier Beguin Billecocq, a historian of the Persian Gulf region.
"It became clear to us that we had stumbled on something quite critical," Ganz said of the manuscript. "It gave us a wealth of information."
Interspersed throughout the journal are observations about Monet. When the artist was 17, for instance, Beguin Billecocq described his rapid sketching technique as "Impressionistic."
Yet the drawings themselves, he wrote, were "detailed, as precise as reality, and delicate, representing the houses, trees, people, etc., in the best possible manner."
In a telephone interview, Xavier Beguin Billecocq said that Monet often drew in the countryside or at the sea while on vacation with the Beguin Billecocq family. "They would go exploring the surrounding countryside, often sketching in the woods," Beguin Billecocq said. "He drew in the country in places like Deauville and Honfleur."
The journal also captures the flavor of Parisian life in an era when friends got together to play musical instruments, attend the opera and concerts and simply draw.
"It gives a good description of the youth and social environment of Monet," Beguin Billecocq said. "You see him growing up, needing money. My great-grandfather would help him, giving him money to buy paper and supplies."
The early sketchbooks described in the journal are pencil studies of local architecture, trees, sailboats and pastoral scenes. "His sketches, whether in crayon or pencil, were always excellent, even if they were rapidly executed," Theophile Beguin Billecocq wrote in his journal. "He knew how to capture the essential characteristics of a scene."
In another revelation he notes that around 1862, the year Monet turned 22, the artist decided to be known as Claude, his middle name, rather than Oscar, his first.
Drafted into the army and sent to Algiers, Monet had been teased by his regiment about the "ridiculous" name Oscar.
"Goodbye Oscar, long live Claude," Beguin Billecocq writes facetiously. It explains why some of the early drawings are signed Oscar and later works Claude. (Monet signed only some of his works on paper.)
While the manuscript, titled Grand Journal, is too fragile to be in the exhibition, the curators say, quotations from it will be incorporated into the installation as a way of telling the story of the artist's life.
Still, questions about Monet's development remain. "It's easy to separate the youthful work," said Kendall of the Clark. "It is less distinctive and powerful." By the mid-1860s, he said, Monet was making "brilliant" drawings of the Normandy coast with a waxy black crayon. "But we still don't know why he did them," Kendall said.
In the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874 in Paris, however, Monet showed seven of his pastels, their research shows, but they were not included in the catalog or mentioned by any critics. "It's one of the puzzles in Monet scholarship," Kendall said, adding that Monet "takes it up again in the 1880s, and for two weeks in 1901 when he went to London and his canvases didn't arrive."
He added, "He wanted to work, so he made pastels of London bridges and rivers."
Of 26 pastels that can be dated to that time, six will be in the exhibition, along with two paintings, of the Waterloo Bridge (1901) and Charing Cross Bridge (about 1900).
Like van Gogh, Monet also created works on paper based on actual paintings. "He wasn't consistent, but had many different manners of drawing," Ganz said, adding: "A lot had to do with his public-private issue. Some, that were sketchy, were meant only for his private use, while others, more in the style of his paintings, were finished works in themselves."
Ganz said he thought the most surprising drawings were those related to the water-lily paintings. Minimalist in style and not pretty like the paintings themselves, these drawings, in black, white and violet crayon, can best be described as agitated, abstract and almost Expressionistic.
"He never meant for the public to see them," Kendall said, adding: "It all comes back to marketing. His public image was important to him, and drawings complicated that picture. In fact, they even contradicted it."
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