If you’re like me (cranky, moody, envious, and fault-finding) you will take heart in the fact that even the great Claude Monet had a steep learning curve when it came to painting his now-famous water garden pictures at Giverny. Compare these two canvases:
The one on top is the very first picture that Monet painted of his brand new water lily pond at Giverny, in 1895. The one below it is from 1899. I’m not being petty when I say that in 1895 Monet obviously had no idea what he was doing. I mean, look at it. It’s all icky pink surface color and wimpy brush strokes.
But by 1899 he’s really seeing the landscape, sculpting it with his paintbrush to catch incredibly subtle textures of light and shadow. From here Monet then shifted his attention to the water beneath the bridge, painting the water lily pictures that preoccupied him for the rest of his life, the ones that fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction these days. (If you missed my post about the $43 million dollar auction, read about it here.)
I have nothing new to show you this week — everything I have painted in the last seven days is pure crap-o-la. I’m still in Giverny, Garden No. 4 in my Garden-Book-in-Progress, and I’m stuck when it comes to illustrating Monet’s “paint box” flower beds (that’s what he called the 38 plots where he experimented with unusual color combinations, such as red tulips popping out of blue forget-me-not ground). I know about a dozen ways to paint really ugly pictures of Giverny…it’s a small consolation that Monet himself rarely painted his own flower garden, maybe because he, too found it too hard? Could that be why he concentrated on his water garden?
Well, since I will be in Philadelphia at the end of this month…
…I am going to investigate this matter of Monet’s learning curve myself, in person, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It turns out that they have a magnificent collection of 21 Monet paintings, including the two “bridge” pictures I’ve shown you (above), plus this one:
When you look at Bend in the Epte River Near Giverny, painted in 1888, you’re looking at a picture that Monet painted at the hieght of his confidence as a painter, right as he was starting to get rich and famous and selling loads of paintings in London, Paris, and New York, and you’re looking at the river that in 1901 (13 years later) Monet had the power and money to divert from its course so he could enlarge his famous lily pond.
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art you can also see what is perhaps the most significant painting in Monet’s career when you look at this picture:
This is called City of Antibes, painted in the south of France in 1888. If you’re a Monet fan, you should know about this picture because this is the painting that a Parisian art dealer named Theo van Gogh (brother of Vincent) sold, in 1889, for 10,350 francs — setting a record price for the artist and establishing Monet’s career as the leading (and richest) Impressionist of his day.
Now, if you’re like me (nosey, detail-oriented, tired of painting ugly pictures of Giverny, and dying to find a way to kill some time so you can stay as far away from your paints as possible), you will wonder about that price of 10,350 francs. As of now, this figure of 10,350 frances is merely data; in order to turn it into information you have to answer the question, Exactly how much is that in today’s money? It only takes a few hours out of your day to look up the history of Monet’s sale prices during his lifetime and follow that up with some very clever triangulation of the size of a pork chop in France in 1889 to figure out the relative pouvoir d’achat of 10,350 francs in 1889 vis-a-vis 2012.
If you know the price of a pork chop in France in 1889 (25 centimes)and you can guess that it weighed about a pound, and you find that its equivalent cost in New York was 12 cents, and by comparing the extrapolation of that price with comprable quotes of Monet sales in London when the English pound equaled 3.19 American dollars, and then revert it to the French pork chop rate, then the original 10,350 franc purchase price of this City of Antibes equals $134,136 in today’s dollars. Or so I figure, after hours of research. Because I have a lot of time on my hands, now that I’ve given up painting. $134,136 is good money for a living artist, even today, but it’s dirt cheap for a Monet.
Also while I’m at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I’m going to re-visit one of the most important paintings in my lifetime:
The year is 1977 and it’s January and I have just turned 20 and I’m wandering around the Philadelphia Museum of Art wondering what I am going to make of my life since the only thing I really love about living is being in Paris, and I see this painting, In The Luxembourg Gardens painted by John Singer Sargent in 1879. I love the effects of twilight in this picture, I love the subject matter, this famous garden in the heart of Paris. I decide right there and then that John Singer Sargent is the best painter ever in the history of the world and I begin investigating his work, adding “John Singer Sargent Fan” to the very, very, very short (see previous sentence) list of things that I know about myself at age 20.
And that is how I ended up in London, that following Summer, in the basement of the Tate Gallery (the story is on page 141 for those of you reading along in my book When Wanderers Cease to Roam) standing alone and face to face with this:
This, of course, is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. In 1977 John Singer Sargent was not a popular painter (remember, this was when “artists” were putting piles of dirt and twigs in galleries and calling it “Installation Art”) so although the Tate had purchased this painting directly from Sargent himself in 1887, in this moment of 1970s art history the painting was deemed to be not worthy of wall space in the museum and was sitting in the basement, in storage. Just by asking “Hey, where’s Carnation Lily Lily Rose?” to a gallery attendant I was invited down to the cellar where a junior curator pulled this canvas out of a row of extraneous paintings — it was mounted on rollers — and then left me to gaze at it for as long as I wanted.
This picture is huge — over six feet tall — so as you stand in its presence it’s easy to feel as if you are in this garden, watching these lovely girls light these delicate lanterns. Engaging with this picture in this way on that Sumer day in 1977 is one of the most incredibly magical experiences in my life. In a way, I regret that Sargent has burst back into popularity the way he has and that this picture is so well known around the world now because I’ll never be able to have him all to myself and because I didn’t buy me a damn Sargent when his prices were at rock bottom.
Oh, one last thing about John Singer Sargent: he and Monet were very friendly and Sargent was one of the few artists whom Monet invited to Giverny to paint ensemble:
It is said that during one of his visits with Sargent in the 1880s Monet saw Carnation Lily Lily Rose and he admired it excessively. He loved the use of light in the picture, he loved the garden as subject matter, he loved the Japanese lanterns.
Shortly thereafter, Monet made a Japanese bridge for his water garden and he started painting the effects of light on the lilies in his water garden.
Copy catting? Or just great minds thinking alike? And did they have pork chops for lunch?