Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings

Claude Monet "Fruit Trees" 1865-75
225mm x 292mm
Private Collection

Pastels, drawings, sketchbooks and Monet - four of my favourite things are combined in the new exhibition about "The Unknown Monet" at the Royal Academy of Arts until 10th June 2007. The exhibition then moves to the Sterling and Francine Carter Art Institute in Williamstown in Massachusetts from 24th June until 16th September 2007.
‘You must begin by drawing … Draw simply and directly, with charcoal, crayon or whatever, above all observing the contours, because you can never be too sure of holding on to them, once you start to paint.’ CLAUDE MONET, 1920

Despite his statement, Claude Monet (1840–1926) spent most of his life staunchly denying the role drawing played in his creative process. Critics, biographers and journalists did not write about it, and his paintings were often praised for their lack of it. The reality, however, is that Monet carried pocket-sized sketchbooks with him throughout his life, setting out into nature to make notations and jot down scenes and people that caught his eye.
This exhibition is a first in more ways than one.
  • It's the first exhibition to be solely devoted to Monet's pastels and drawings.
  • It's the first time his use of drawing in the preparatory stages of full scale works has been examined and displayed.
  • It's the first time it's been possible for the general public to access and review the contents of his sketchbooks - examples are available within the exhibition as online digital images online
  • It's the first time that some of the works have ever been seen as they belong to private collections.
I'd recommend this exhibition to:
  • all those who like Monet's art - you'll probably see and learn new things
  • people interested in nature of artistic process - to see how graphic works can be produced before, during and after the execution of a painting
  • people who use pastels and/or sketchbooks on a routine basis. It's always interesting to look over somebody's shoulder and see how they do their work.
  • and, slightly facetiously - people who collect 'firsts' and historical events - I don't expect this exhibition will happen again in many people's lifetime.
Claude Monet "Waterloo Bridge" 1901
305mm x 480mm, pastel
Triton Foundation, the Netherlands

I saw this exhibition last Saturday with Vivien and Glen and had a big blog post worked out on Monday - and then lost it due to the computer having a tizzy. I'm now torn between trying to remember it and writing a different one with the benefit of an extra couple of days distance from having seen the exhibition.

The exhibition broadly follows a timeline but with different sections having clear themes. You can read more about these on the website here. I can't do better than use the exhibition's own summary of its scope.

Drawn from major public institutions and private collections, the exhibition consists of 80 works, many of which have never been exhibited. Beginning with the artist’s early caricatures and landscape studies, the exhibition explores the genesis of his drawing skills and powers of observation during his teenage years in Le Havre, while also showing his awareness of the prevailing graphic modes of the 1850s. The exhibition moves on to examine Monet’s use of drawing in the preparation of paintings such as the large, but aborted, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, and the Normandy landscapes of the 1860s. His mastery of pastel and the medium’s relationship to the oil paintings of the period is explored in telling juxtapositions.

Links between drawing, pastel and painting are further established through Monet’s works in mid and late career. They include the scenes he executed at Etretat on the Normandy coast in the early 1880s; the series of Views of the Thames such as Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, begun on Monet’s trips to London between 1899 and 1901, remarkable for their fusion of pastel and paint; and the waterlily panels of the late 1910s, which stem from line drawings in sketchbooks inspired by his water gardens at Giverny.

A further section of the exhibition is devoted to the drawings Monet made of his paintings for reproduction in lithography in art journals such as L’Art dans les Deux Mondes. They highlight his engagement with printmaking techniques and the freedom with which he translated the painterly forms of his canvases into a personal language of line suitable for mass reproduction.

Fundamental to our understanding of the artist’s œuvre is the dialogue between line and colour in Monet’s drawings and pastels. This important exhibition, the product of entirely new research, sheds new light on the role of drawing in Monet’s working practice, making direct connections to his paintings and exploring the often-overlooked links between the series paintings and his sketchbooks.(abridged from the text of Introduction to the Unknown Monet - a guide for students (pdf) )

The exhibition contains examples of pages from his sketchbooks and loose leaf sketches executed from when he was young through to later life. Use of and frequency of use seems to have varied during his artistic career. Although his earlier work shows he was a competent at landscape drawing, content from his later sketchbooks is rather scratchy and minimalist. He mainly seems to use sketchbooks to plan compositions and work out crops for different images and series of paintings - including the haystacks and the front of Rouen Cathedral. I'd personally liken his lines to those you trace in a rough way when trying to work out how an object works and which are the most important graphical elements in a piece.

The pastels don't appear great as pastels if you're more used to a traditional approach and lots of attention to detail. However they're very interesting and demonstrate clearly the dominance of colour in his work. Some of the ones of Charing Cross and Waterlook Bridges in fog are colourist in nature and look amazingly contemporary.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the light that was shed on Monet's early life and artistic development by a new document which was made available to the curators during the course of preparation for this exhibition. For more information about this click the link to read about The Grand Journal.

A well researched and comprehensive catalogue is available for the exhibition. James A Ganz and Richard Kendall The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings (Clark Art Institute) Yale University Press 2007. And the postcards are rather good!



  1. Interesting to hear about the different phases that an artist goes through, especially this long-lived and famous man.
    I am re-discovering drawing for my own work. I always knew the value, but am now plumbing the depths of drawing's value as a foundation to everything art related.
    I'll be linking here, today.

  2. I love Monet so it is interesting to hear more in depth about his process.

    Also, I live in western Massachusetts so I am excited to know such an incredible exhibit will be coming locally.

    My enjoyment and appreciation of this exhibit will have been enhanced by this post. Thank you!

    - Diane Clancy

  3. a great write up :)

    I was just toooo tired to go into so much detail!

    I actually prefer pastel used in the way Monet uses it, though I can enjoy it used in other ways - Degas used it very freely as well.

    and as you know I love sketchbooks! using them and seeing other peoples.

  4. I would love to see the monet show. thanks for posting this. The waterloo bridge is amazing.

  5. For weeks now I had been meaning to find out how long this exhibition was running for. Reading your post convinced me to stop procrastinating and book a ticket immediately. Pastels, sketchbooks and Monet ... I really don't think it can get any better than that ... I am very, very excited. :-)


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