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Published 04/05/2007 email E-MAIL print PRINT

The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings

Royal Academy of Arts, London
17 March-10 June 2007

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
Williamstown, Massachusetts
24 June-16 September 2007.

'The Unknown Monet' is the first exhibition devoted to the pastels and drawings of Claude Monet. Eighty works are on show at the Royal Academy, which provide an insight into the working methods of one of the most popular and well-documented individuals in the history of art. From the point of view of art scholarship, this exhibition breaks new ground in exploring the role of draughtsmanship in Monet’s oeuvre. This may not appear unusual, except for the fact that Monet himself exerted a great deal of influence on his official biography. He contributed greatly to the notion that he worked straight onto canvas, from his impressions of nature. He clearly believed that if his works on paper from a young age, and his exquisite pastels, were known to the public at large, his status as a revolutionary artist would be reduced.

Vital to Claude Monet’s public image was the specific denial of the role of drawing in his working method. In fact, as the new exhibition has revealed Monet had developed the habit of travelling everywhere with a sketchbook. The notebook pages offered Monet a private space in which to jot down ideas. His mental processes were often, represented by shorthand notes. His were practical drawings, not aesthetic entities; evidence of Monet’s own attitude towards them is the fact that none were sold in his lifetime, and were effectively suppressed by him. Pastels on the other hand were useful as presents to close friends and colleagues and sales to those who might not be able to afford a painting. Where the pastels were finished works, the drawings were visual notes. Monet was an accomplished draughtsman as one would expect of an artist trained in the nineteenth century. Early drawings of children, the figure and boats and precocious caricatures done in his teens show his skilled handling of shape and form. Evidence of Monet’s early drawings in the form of eight carnets, which he left to his son Michel, were then bequeathed by him to the Musée Marmottan Monet in 1966. Only two scholars have studied them in relation to Monet’s painted oeuvre.  John House in his monograph of the artist: Monet: Nature into Art (1986)1 added an appendix in which he presented a concise preliminary study of dates and subjects.  In 1991 Daniel Wildenstein’s Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné  in five volumes,2 reproduced 300 sheets  (nearly all of the originals) as well as embarking on the ambitious task of matching sketches to places and paintings. With the 100 drawings made in his teens, there are therefore just over 400 drawings in 11 sketchbooks. This is a significant, but modest compared to his mentor and friend Boudin who left 6,000 drawings or Degas who left 2,500 pages of drawings. While an extraordinary effort is made on the part of the curators and researchers in their outstanding volume, it is amusing to read that Monet’s systematic approach to serialised works such as 'Haystacks' (1890-1891) and 'Water Lilies' (1906) is thrown to one side in the sketchbooks:

For a painter whose reputation is based in part on his systematic approach to serial imagery, his sketchbooks offer a startling glimpse into another side of his artistic personality. If there is anything deliberate about these books, it is the very casualness with which he filled them in, throwing them open almost at random, continuing studies across the binding, and paying little attention to composing each page. It is hardly an exaggeration to state that organized chaos reigns within the covers of Monet’s sketchbooks.3

The scholarly tome that accompanies the exhibition is the joint product of new research in America and Europe. In 1984 Genevieve Monnier wrote, Pastels From the 16th to the 20th century4 (Skira); her brief appraisal of Monet was based on the scarcity of pastels available by Monet in Paris. Her research was based at the Louvre from where she had catalogued all the pastels in the Musée du Louvre, Cabinet des dessins Musée d’Orsay, in two volumes.5 She understood the importance of pastel for the Impressionists:

For the Impressionists, pastel offered a medium well suited to recording the sudden excitement of visual sensations, the fresh colours of nature and fleeting effects of light. The fragility of its texture corresponded to the evanescence of sense perceptions: Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, Guillaumin, Caillebotte.6

Monnier points out that twenty years before Monet created 'Impression, Sunrise' (1873), Eugene Boudin in the 1850s anticipated that fresh way of transcribing light effects and the artist’s response to them, which the Impressionists evolved in the 1870s. In 1879, James McNeill Whistler received a commission to produce twelve etchings in Venice. These were expected to take three months; instead Whistler stayed in Venice for 14 months, so that when he returned he brought back the etchings as well as a large series of pastels, 53 of which were exhibited at the Fine Arts Society in London.7

The exhibition in 1987, 'The Private Degas', (Arts Council of Great Britain) firmly established the lesser known works by Degas. Recent exhibitions of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassat have incorporated their pastel works within the entire oeuvre. With Monet, this has been prevented, to a large part, by the received wisdom that Monet did not draw, and the fact that the drawings and pastels have not been concentrated in Paris or London. With hindsight it makes perfect sense that pastel, would have been used, alongside paint, by artists interested in light effects as the Impressionists were. What is surprising is that the exhibition 'Monet: The Seine and the Sea'(2003)8 showed some 70 paintings by Monet painted between September 1878 and April 1883, when he was based in the village of Vétheuil, 70 km north-west of Paris. This was a period of tremendous upheaval, hardship and grief for the artist, yet the pastels, that are now exhibited in, 'The Unknown Monet', which were painted close to the same period and of the same subjects, were not acknowledged or included. These include such as poignant works as, 'Étretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval' (c.1885). The importance of the new work by Ganz and Kendall and their respective research teams, for the understanding of Monet’s working method therefore cannot be underestimated. The relegation of pastel in the case of Monet reflects to some degree the similar relegation of the medium itself in its uneven history. Wildenstein revealed the startling fact that Monet did as many as 108 pastels, mostly fully-completed works.

In 1986-1987 this author was commissioned to write a history of pastel in Australia, by Macmillan, Australia, which involved visiting museums in America, Britain and France, before researching the Australian context. As the research proceeded, it became apparent that pastel, as employed by modern artists was, more often than not, a private research tool. The Testing Ground,9 explored the way in which artists in the history of the twentieth century and particularly contemporary artists were drawn to the extraordinary combination of drawing as 'the very directness of the transmission, be it impulse, feeling, perception or concept … the subtlest movement, the most clinical analysis, the most precise drama',10 charged with the spiritual, optical and dramatic power of colour. The Unknown Monet, reveals that the pastel works by Claude Monet, often showed this most intense, private side to his working method. 'Unlike Morisot, for example, Monet rarely used pastel to draft out a composition that would culminate in a painting on canvas, or like Degas, to explore a subsidiary feature - such as a figure or landscape element - for a larger design. In this definitive sense, the majority of Monet’s pastels were conceived as extensions to his pictorial repertoire, parallel representations of the visible world with their own techniques and imaginative history.'11 The pastel works produced in parallel to the paintings between 1878 and 1885 reveal more of Monet’s intense and private suffering, following the death of his wife in 1879, aged just 32, and the precarious and worrying financial position he experienced, than is evident from the relatively calm paintings done at the same time. 'Étretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval' has a dark mood, unlike Monet’s oil paintings of the same subject:

A unique vertical depiction on paper of the rock arch and its needle, this is also a rare case in which a dark mood in a work by Monet changes a familiar subject almost beyond recognition. Pervaded by the shadowy blues, creams, and browns of an overcast dawn or approaching night, the scene has an elegiac air of the kind favoured by Monet’s friend and occasional correspondent James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1904). The looming foreground cliff and brittle outlines in the distant arch also hint at gothic dread, suggesting an early exploration of a bleak psychological register that Monet would return to in the canvases of Belle –Île in 1886 and in Fresselines three years later. Not the least claim of this exceptional image, therefore, is the possibility that Monet chose pastel to embark on an often-underestimated journey into his psyche.12

Of the same year, (1885) his preparatory drawings reveal a structured working method at mid career. 'Linear and painterly together, all these works show an artist in dynamic control of his technical practice, achieved through decades of experimentation and struggle. After the Étretat campaigns, it would be more than ten years before he again took up his pastels, a period in which drawing itself seems to have faded as an independent activity.'13

Since it was invented in 1574, pastel as a medium, has generally suffered from the hierarchical nature of art. In the eighteenth century it came into its own when the facility of its finest practitioners made it a much sought-after medium. It was especially suited to portraiture, the fluid and spontaneous application lending itself to capturing the psychology of the sitter as well as minute detail.

Pastel is a dry medium - pure pigment in a binder. As a result, it has a number of qualities that cannot be achieved by any other medium. It has a dry, fresco appearance yet has an intimate scale. It possesses the immediacy of the drawn image, is spontaneous and personal but may be heightened by colour. The pastel stick is of a very fine consistency and therefore creates fluid and graceful movement on the paper surface.

As early as the eighteenth century, which was pastel’s period of ascendancy, protests from academicians against pastel argued that it was too delicate a medium and less sophisticated than oil painting. After a number of pastellists became members of the Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris and later of the Royal Academy in London, it was feared by the protoganists of Fine Art that there might be an invasion of their exclusive domain to be followed by a subsequent debasement of artistic practice in general. Moves were made to keep the number of pastellists down. In spite of these actions, certain pastellists such as Rosalba Carriera (around whom society members, intellectuals and artists alike flocked) enjoyed remarkable success. Pastel portraits were preferred to paintings by many, for various reasons. They were more quickly executed and therefore less expensive than paintings. As fewer sittings were required it became a perfect medium with which to capture a good likeness of fidgety children and also of members of noble families at play or, for example, in Arcadian or informal settings. The less rigid qualities in the resultant works made them altogether more enjoyable and personal than their works in what were then considered, major media.

The eighteenth century concept of luxury and a built-in preoccupation of the times with the fête galante, the toilette, costume and opulence, were captured perfectly by pastel. Its delicate texture and the infinite range of colours in the hands of an outstanding technician could produce extraordinary results. This dry, apparently inert substance, captured light more than paint. It was therefore possible to show more substance and so to create perfect likeness of skin, of eyes, of satin and silk, glass, of china and lace. In the intimacy of the boudoir, with such insight as the artist can create within, the close and concentrated situation of a portrait sitting, reality could be well amplified by this medium. Pastel, above all, is an intensely personal medium. The art of drawing, is amplified, by the emotional and symbolic properties of colour. It is instant, and readily predictable in its applications; it is therefore possible in pastel to think straight onto the surface. Nothing interferes with the movement of the hand. Perhaps it is more appropriate to use the Surrealists’ term - Pure Psychic Automatism. Artists did not have to wait until the twentieth century, however, with its easy serendipity to experience the directness of the mark. It was always in fact available.

The women’s movement in the 1970s was a major force in reassessing values in art, and it called for a consequent breakdown of the rigid functional and social hierarchies within the arts. In the 1980s, with the new interest in drawing and a ready acceptance of diaristic personal vision, it was possible, to look at the use of pastel throughout history, free of historic prejudices. Wildenstein’s five volume work on Monet was published in 1991.

Some of the positive qualities of pastel - at the height of popularity in the eighteenth century including its capacity to capture the interior, the opulence of pre-revolutionary France or the innocence of young children, were inevitably those later aspects used to show its decadence and so to precipitate an ideological fall from grace in the nineteenth century. Such literal values undoubtedly clashed with the doctrinaire political and social values of nineteenth century France. They clashed too with Victorian England’s insistence upon an art that conveyed uplifting moral ideas: representation of women or children was at first anathema; instead, history painting was favoured. From a practical point of view, pastel was thus ill-suited to the very large-scale academic paintings of Victorian Society. It was equally inappropriate to the historically very precise renderings of Greek or Roman Temples, or sculpture; or to the uplifting heroic scenes of which they formed the backdrop. When, in the nineteenth century, pastel in its social role attempted to imitate painting - and those values deemed superior within that medium - it failed. Furthermore, it became a transparently weak substitute for over-painting technique in oils, and hence its decline and damning categorisation as a medium for amateurs and even worse, as Joshua Reynolds classified it, a playground for mere female accomplishment.

Since Rosalba Carriera’s introduction of pastel to Paris from Venice in the mid-eighteenth ccentury, it became essentially a French medium; certainly suiting the French temperament, accommodating that perfect poetry of line and colour so valued by artists as diverse as Chardin or Matisse. In the nineteenth century in France, far from being a weak or outmoded vessel for amusement, it suddenly exploded into being, as a new vehicle for experimentation. One only needs to look at the pastel work of Delacroix, Manet and now Monet, to see the exquisite and potent quality of this substance. Such debate seems pedantic or narrow-minded until one actually lays eyes on these pictures. The light does reside inside the line: so that each line possesses a clear potency, heightening the image considerably.

There is at once an unusual delicacy of touch and a requirement for creative determination and artistic commitment in the use of pastel. This is explained by the technical difficulty involved in working with pastel. While it is a medium that can be wielded by many artists each for certain purposes of their own (the colour alone creates an immediately impressive effect) it is an extraordinarily difficult medium to master. While many artists use pastel - one could reasonably suggest that most artists use pastel at some stage - very few dare to exploit its real potential. Further, pastel cannot be erased, or scraped back like paint - what goes onto the paper must remain. The thought and the knowledge that informs each stroke in a Delacroix, a Millais or a Degas is succinct and potent. While pastel is a soft and poetic medium; it is also an extremely economic and simple vehicle for this reason.

After the French Revolution, and its aftermath, pastel effectively went underground. Ironically, pastel, as the medium of truth and realism in the hands of artists such as the portraitist, Jean-Etienne Liotard, and most favoured by artists themselves, was victim of its very own success; its reputation for high fashion tarred it as frivolous. In the nineteenth century, Delacroix employed pastel in preliminary work, yet the majority of his pastels in the Louvre collection are after 1840. Fortunately, in France, the father of Edgar Degas was a keen collector and himself owned works in pastel by de la Tour and Perronneau. Degas experimented with pastel in its own right, using the quality of immediacy to catch the essence of movement in ballet dancers.  Later still in a remarkable pastel landscape, 'Steep Coast' (1890-1892) Degas developed the concept of a shoreline which is in effect the metamorphosis of a female image, inverted, taken from Degas’ 'Woman having her hair combed' (1884-1886). Increasingly the Impressionists favoured landscape as a subject for pastel: Odilon Redon, Millet, Pisarro, Monet, Vuillard, Boudin and Signac all caught the fleeting qualities of light over landscape or seascape in pastel. Berthe Morisot (1841-1897) and Mary Cassat (who had been advised by Degas) became leading pastellists as the final years of the century passed, reflecting those golden summers that France experienced after the Franco-Prussian War.

The pastel works of Monet, have only now, been properly considered. He exhibited pastel works alongside paintings in the 1874 Impressionist exhibition, when he was 33. He was one of five artists who exhibited pastels including Renoir, Morisot and Degas. Monet exhibited three oil paintings, four watercolours and six pastels. The oil paintings have since become internationally renowned as quintessential statements of Impressionist themes. The annual Salon had dominated any young artist’s chance of showing works to the public, and the Salon, was in turn, dominated by large oil paintings, considered the most important among their aspirations. They were hung side by side, one above the other, often reaching the ceiling. Works on paper were shown, but there were over 1000 each year - drawings, watercolours, pastels and prints - and they were shown in another room, separated from works by the same artist. This irritated the Impressionists. In 1870 Degas wrote a long letter to the Jury, challenging restrictive rules and suggesting that works by the same artist be mixed with the paintings. A number of his suggestions were eventually incorporated at the Salon, but not before the Impressionists broke away and organised their own exhibitions. In 1874, therefore, Monet’s work was hung, with graphic works, pastels, and paintings together. This was a crucial development. 'Drawing, was displayed by some, as an activity in its own right, by others as a natural extension of their working procedures, and by many as a validation of their achievement through reference to traditional skills.'14

Works on paper were affordable to those who could not afford paintings and for Monet this was an important consideration. After 1874, however, Monet did not include pastel works in exhibitions. He was determined to assert his importance in the tradition of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet. He also wanted the world to view him as an artist who worked with an impulsive, unrehearsed creativity. Drawing, preparatory studies, in fact traditional methods of any kind, were not in Monet’s scheme of things, adequately heroic. Further, he managed to convince commentators and critics of the immediacy and physicality of his art. In 1880, he went so far as claiming not to require a studio: 'I don’t understand why anybody should want to shut themselves up in some room. Maybe for drawing, sure; but not for painting.' Much of the ignorance of Monet’s pastel work and drawings then, are down to the Monet promotional machine. Most of them were dispersed throughout the world, in private collections; few have been examined, until now, and many have not been exhibited for over fifty years. Ninety per cent of Monet’s pastels have no date inscribed by the artist. Links can now be made to subject, biographical events, first owners such as close friends, and exhibitions, now that a significant body of work has been located and studied. Clusters of London works can be firmly dated, as can others of favourite locations, but a certain number will remain as elusive as aspects of the artist himself.

Many exhibitions make extravagant claims to attract visitors and funding, and every art historian aspires to uncovering the 'unknown' or the 'private' aspect of an artist, especially one as universally revered as Claude Monet. 'The Unknown Monet' makes no false claims. It is a wonderful exhibition for anyone who wants to know the true impulse behind a creative act. In the case of Monet, the pastels resonate with, a wonderment in nature, reverberate with a personal sorrow and continuously reveal an exploratory genius.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. John House. Monet: Nature into Art. London  and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
2. Daniel Wildenstein. Claude Monet. Biographie et catalogue raissonée. 5 volumes, Lausanne and Paris: Wildenstain and Company, 1974-1992.
3. James A Ganz and Richard Kendall. The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings. Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Royal Academy, London, 2007, p169.
4. Genevieve Monnier. Pastels From the 16th to the 20th Century, Skira, Geneva, Rizzoli. New York and London: Macmillan, 1984.
5. Genevieve Monnier, Direction des Musée de France, Inventaire des Collections Publique Français: Pastels XVII eme et XVIII eme Siecles, Musée du Louvre, 1972.
Pastels du XIX e Siecle, Musée du Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins Musée d’Orsay, Ministere de la Culture, Editions de la Réunion des Musée Nationaux, Paris, 1985.
6. Monnier. Pastels, p 8.
7. Ibid: p 53.
8. Michael Clarke and Richard Thomson. Monet: The Seine and the Sea, 1878-1883. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2003.
9. Janet McKenzie. The Testing Ground: A History of Pastel in Australia, Commissioned by Macmillan Australia, 1986, not published.
10. Janet McKenzie. Drawing in Australia, Contemporary Images and Ideas. Melbourne:Macmillan Australia, 1986, p xii.
11. Ganz and Kendall, Unknown Monet, p 119.
12. Ibid: p 156.
13. Ibid: p 159.
14. Ibid: p 106.



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