An Artist Not Slowed by Age: Monet’s Later Years at the Kimbell
Monet: The Late Years, now at The Kimball Art Museum, is an exceptional investigation of the prolific artist in his 70s and 80s, as he continued to challenge himself despite his failing eyesight. The revolutionary cycle of paintings shows the master still developing new approaches to paint application while growing the scale of his canvases.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Monet built the pond at Giverny, which was eventually enlarged, showcasing his talent as a gardener. He was quoted as saying, “Beyond painting and gardening, I am good for nothing.” Paris’ Musée de l’Orangerie has famously housed Monet’s Water Lilies pieces from this phase. This show, a companion to the Early Years show from two years ago, gives greater context to the Kimball’s own Weeping Willow from 1918, seen now in proper historical context and a gilded frame more suited to the period.
The extraordinarily energetic return to painting followed years of relative inactivity, shrouded by the loss of his wife and son, in 1911 and 1914, respectively. Eventually, the painting returned with great enthusiasm and profound joy. Curator George Shackelford describes Monet’s ambitious pursuit of the study of light conducted at his pond as, “liberation from grief.” As though these deeply moving meditations on the subtle changes of light and color were a powerful means of returning his focus to the beauty of nature.
By shifting the eye into the surface of the water, Monet has, as one critic was quoted saying, “No horizon is given in these paintings, which have no beginning and no end other than the limits of the frame, easily extended by the imagination as far as it wishes.” In 1915, the artist quadrupled the canvases, making them far too large for him to carry. He required helpers from the gardens to move big canvas and incorporated large rolling easels in order to work on many of them at the same time, allowing him to move them around his studio as he worked.
Culminating with a 6-foot-by-14-foot panel of water lilies, his massive canvases are followed in the next gallery by a reduction in scale, where a series of more abstract pictures show his process working through the study. Condensing the energy from the larger pieces into smaller spaces intensifies their impressionistic potency. Monet’s cycle of inspiration returned him time and again out to the pond to paint before hauling back to his studio to further develop the larger pieces.
Shakelford and The Kimball present an inspiring depiction of an artist not slowed by age, despite losses personally and physically, who showed dedication and bravery. When many artists would have been overwhelmed, Monet embarks with surprising power on an ambitious undertaking. The artist utilized prodigious memory and improvisational skills to develop the pieces into something more complex on the large canvases – which were larger than he was.
Rotating the frame in 1917 into a series of horizontal expanses, the broader opening of these pieces has the impact of being surrounded by the environment. A champion gardener, Monet was known in gardening circles as well as the art world; the flora is truly on display, especially with the striking images of Irises and wisteria. The radiant colors and cool abstraction, of little interest in their own generation, were rediscovered by the mid-century tastemakers who fueled Abstract Expressionism.
With World War I bursting, Monet could hear the cannons bombarding Paris off in the distance, clearly reflected on these canvases, whether in bold color composition or the symbolic use of the weeping willow to convey mourning. The complex surfaces resonated with spiritual vibrancy bursting beneath the layers of paint. Viewers are encouraged to closely observe the master’s ability to mix colors on the brush with a single stroke on the canvas, maintaining control and brilliance despite three surgeries to correct cataracts – an inspiration who has ever had to overcome physical limitations.
Through great scholarship, art historians have only recently learned of Monet’s full plans for the work, which was only considered complete when the artist passed away in 1926 at the age of 86. His constant activity in the years up to that point had been conducted mostly in secret in order to surprise the audience when they finally saw the work.
An Austin native, Lyle Brooks relocated to Fort Worth in order to immerse himself in the burgeoning music scene and the city’s rich cultural history, which has allowed him to cover everything from Free Jazz to folk singers. He’s collaborated as a ghostwriter on projects focusing on Health Optimization, Roman Lawyers, and an assortment of intriguing subjects requiring his research.