What do you think of when you hear the name Monet? It likely conjures images of sun-filled meadows, colorful gardens, or ethereal water lilies floating in space. It does for me, too. But more than particular images, Monet also signals feelings—a quiet energy, a contemplative spirit that underscores his paintings and draws me in. To me, his paintings aren’t simply pretty pictures of meadows or trees or flowers. They invite close observation; their relatively small scale allows for intimate, personal engagement. Though we celebrate him as a leader of the Impressionists, Monet was also, of course, a human being, who lived a long and full life. Married and widowed twice, a father of two sons, and stepfather to six other children, he lived through wars and periods of political upheaval and social unrest that divided his country. Yet he kept painting, transforming humble views of his gardens and the surrounding countryside into dazzling, vibrant canvases.
Before the MFA closed in March, I looked at Monet’s paintings almost every day—and I always saw something new: a single white brushstroke indicating a sailboat, golden light radiating off a snowy field, a reflection of a tree (or is it a cloud?) shimmering on a watery surface. Among my favorite Monet paintings in the MFA’s collection are the two examples depicting the Rouen Cathedral, part of a series of roughly 30 paintings Monet produced of the famed Gothic monument. Our two paintings, in their most basic elements, are essentially the same, yet they convey completely different experiences. I’ve always been drawn to the tonal subtleties of Rouen Cathedral Façade and Tour d’Albane (Morning Effect). The light of dawn glows on the Tour d’Albane in shimmering pink and purple pastel tones while the darkness of night remains tangible in the deep blue recesses of the facade’s portals. In comparison, Rouen Cathedral, Façade seems almost like an explosion of color and light. Vibrant oranges and pinks of the late afternoon sun emanate from within the stone edifice itself.
Like many artists, Monet struggled with his artistic practice at times. While working on the Rouen Cathedral series, he wrote to his wife Alice, “I am furious at myself….I am doing nothing of value: I don’t know how many sessions I have spent on these paintings and do what I may, they don’t advance…it’s depressing.” He didn’t know how these paintings were going to turn out. The process wasn’t always quick or easy or simple; he worked and reworked these canvases for months, even years. His sustained toil is evident; layer on layer of paint encrust the canvas, creating a distinctive, roughly textured surface. Each time I look at them, I’m reminded of his struggle, which somehow resulted in objects of mesmerizing beauty.
This year, when nothing has gone to plan and so much feels unsettled, I think we’ve all encountered a similar sense of struggle. After months of working from home, I recently returned to the MFA to help install our entire collection of spectacular Monet paintings in “Monet and Boston: Lasting Impression.” I didn’t know what to expect when I first returned to the Museum. Some things felt different, but most were unchanged: simple things, like the familiar squeak of a door in the Museum’s basement, the echoes of my footsteps in dark galleries before an early morning installation, and seeing longtime colleagues, who are also friends. The paintings were of course the same, but when I first saw them again, they felt even more radiant and enchanting than I remembered. With their thick layers of paint and rich gradations of light and shadow, the Rouen Cathedrals beckon in-person close looking. Despite the months that separated us, there they were, ready and waiting for my return.