French painter Claude Monet became one of the world’s leading artists of the late 18th and early 20th centuries thanks to his skill in capturing the shifting light of sky, water and landscape, but there’s more to the Impressionist’s work than first impressions might suggest.
Retired art scholar Paul Hayes Tucker, one of the leading experts on Monet and his work, will speak on the deeper levels of the artist’s painting in a 6 p.m. Thursday lecture at Mabee Theatre in Baylor University’s Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center. His talk, sponsored by Baylor’s Allbritton Art Institute, is free and open to the public.
Tucker will speak on “The Sacred & Secular and Monet,” a topic he admitted he chose as a conversation-starter at the Christian university. “He was Catholic, but he did not go to church and did not participate in almost any religious function,” he said. “His work was grounded and enriched by visual experience, a basic tenet of Impressionism . . . and therefore, he was deeply secular.”
French realist Gustave Courbet, who preceded Monet but whose philosophy shaped the young artist, famously said he could not paint an angel or a goddess because he had never seen either and Monet largely stayed with natural scenes and physical objects as subjects throughout his career. Still, there was something more to his work. “For Monet, art becomes something more than translating a visual sensation,” he said. “I’d like to explore that.”
Tucker’s lecture comes at a time when Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum is hosting a major Monet exhibition. The 55 works in “Monet: The Early Years” start with the first painting the artist exhibited in 1858 and extend to 1872, when he began to paint scenes from the town of Argenteuil, capturing much the first decade of his work as the French painter began to solidify his eye and style.
“Monet: The Early Years” will continue through Jan. 29 at the Kimbell.
Tucker, who retired in 2014 after 36 years with the University of Massachusetts at Boston, spent much of his academic and professional career delving into the French master’s life and artwork, without exhausting it. With seven books on Monet and his times to his credit as well as curation of several acclaimed Monet exhibitions, Tucker is notable in art circles for his use of history and biography in creating an interpretative context. “(Monet’s) work operates on many, many levels,” he said.
At the same time, it’s often misunderstood. While Monet avoided highly detailed representation of the scenes before him, using short brush strokes that suggested dappled or changing light, or water in motion, he was far from slapdash in his approach or technique, Tucker pointed out.
“The largest misperception of Monet was that he painted out of doors, painting the scene in front of him. While he painted rapidly and spontaneously (outdoors), putting down impressions in thick, rich paint, most of his paintings were finished in his studio,” Tucker explained. “He was too good of an artist not to do that.”
Related to that misconception is another that the French painter was spontaneous in his approach and composition. “There was no one better in plotting, then painting the perfect painting,” he said. Monet’s sketchbooks show how the artist arranged the objects of his paintings and drawings, with objects sometimes added or removed. Tucker also suggested looking at his work from unorthodox angles. “You can turn one of his images upside down or backward and see how they work,” he said. “Monet worked very hard at that structural integrity.”
He also had an eye on the commercial end of things. Though most famous for his landscapes and cityscapes, Monet painted a number of still lifes, because that was a popular subject for buyers of his time, Tucker said.
For a landmark dissertation on Monet, Tucker lived in Argenteuil, a small town outside Paris where Monet painted many of his most famous vistas. He walked city streets and researched city council discussions, newspaper articles and letters of protest to reconstruct the world which Monet was recording.
What Tucker found was that Monet’s paintings weren’t recording an idyllic past dotted by cottages, sailboats and trains, but a contemporary look at a growing suburban life. “He painted about 700 pictures in this town. It was not a big town and he combed it relentlessly . . . It was a classic case of suburban development. Argenteuil was a town close to Paris — about 15 minutes away by train — and it became a popular place to live and work and play.”
The sailboats found in his paintings of the place weren’t an older mode of transportation, but a new recreation for suburbanites.
“It was a brand-new sport imported from England,” he said. “It was as current and jazzy as jet skis.”
By recreating the community in which Monet painted, Tucker found a different motivation for the artist. “He was embracing the new, not retreating in the old,” he said.