During this period, Monet also aspired to create large-scale figure paintings intended for Salon exhibitions. In 1865, he began an ambitious plein-air composition, Luncheon on the Grass (1865–1866, Musée d’Orsay), in response to a painting of the same title by Édouard Manet (which was lambasted by critics when it was exhibited at the Salon des Refusés in 1863). Monet's composition featured his future wife Camille Doncieux and friends Gustave Courbet, Frédéric Bazille and others having a picnic in the forest. Daunted by its large size, Monet abandoned the painting, which he eventually presented as collateral to a landlord when his rent was late. By the time Monet could afford to get the painting back, the canvas had become moldy. Monet cut the canvas into several pieces, two of which survive and are presented in this exhibition.
In contrast to the social conviviality represented in Luncheon on the Grass, the artist’s lesser-known still-life paintings from the same period, including Still Life with Melon (1872, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon), are focused on reproducing objects in sensual and meticulous detail. This emphasis is also reflected in Red Mullets (1869, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts), in which two stark and somber fish lay in opposing directions on a soft white cloth.
Monet was also proficient in creating portraits and genre scenes, many of which included members of his budding family. On view in the exhibition are two tender, affectionate paintings of his eldest son — Jean Monet Sleeping (1867–1868, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen) and The Cradle — Camille with the Artist's Son Jean (1867, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), the latter also depicting Doncieux, by then his wife, who is set against a white curtain as she gazes over the infant.
The exhibition demonstrates Monet's increasing mastery of painting the effects of light in multiple weather conditions. Such skills are notable in the two of eight works on loan from the Musée d’Orsay that show winter scenes, A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur (1865) and The Magpie (1869), which shows with chilling stillness a single bird clinging to a fence in a snow-blanketed landscape.
Claude Monet, "The Magpie," 1869. Oil on canvas, 89 x 130 cm (35 1/8 x 51 1/8 in.). Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Fleeing the Franco-Prussian War, Monet left France in 1871. He first moved to London, where he painted images of vast public parks (Hyde Park, 1871, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence). Upon his return to France in 1872, Monet moved to Argenteuil, a town about 12 miles downriver from Paris, along the Seine, where he produced extraordinary views of the sky and water.
A group of paintings that depict the towpath along the river capture the appearance of the scene at different times of the day, prefiguring his serial experiments two decades later, when he would paint a single subject under a wide array of atmospheric conditions. In addition, Regatta at Argenteuil (1872, Musée d’Orsay) displays the looser handling of paint that the artist would further develop in the successive phases of his career. Monet: The Early Years tracks the young artist to the end of 1872, the moment his mature style began to emerge.
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