Claude Monet’s Encounter with the Mediterranean – Part 2

The Reception of the Riviera Paintings

W891a, Portrait of the Artist in his Studio (1884), Oil on canvas, Private Collection

As we discovered previously, Monet’s encounter with the Mediterranean coast was torn between a fascination for its lush vegetation and the difficulty to render the atmosphere of the Riviera. Upon returning to Giverny in late April 1884, Monet felt apprehensive of his paintings’ critical reception, but in fact was never able to exhibit the paintings all together due to a few unforeseeable circumstances.

Unbeknownst to Monet, Paul Durand-Ruel was in the midst of a financial crisis–the 1882 market crash in France had dismantled the industry for art dealers. Close to bankruptcy, the art dealer pawned several of Monet’s Italian artworks to pay off his debts, a decision the artist took rather poorly. Monet had been eager to hear what critics would say about these innovative paintings and was utterly disappointed to find out they would not be exhibited at all. After Durand-Ruel left for the United States two years later, Monet expressed his frustration in a letter to the art dealer on June 22nd 1886, where he described him as being “only concerned with the United States while we [the Impressionist artists] are being forgotten in France. As we send you new paintings, you make them disappear. For instance, see what happened to my paintings of Italy which are so special within my oeuvre–no one has seen them and what has become of them? If you take them to America, everything will be lost for me here.”

Main room, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris. Photo Courtesy: Musée d’Orsay

Nonetheless, a few paintings were exhibited in the late 1880s, including at Georges Petit’s gallery, as part of a joint deal between Durand-Ruel and Petit. But Monet had then moved on to new artistic experiments and traveled again to the Netherlands and Belle-Ile-en-Mer where he had developed one of his first official attempts at “series” on the Brittany shores. When critics discovered the Mediterranean works, it was three years after his return and lost among more recent paintings. Still, the surprising intensity of colors shocked critics and some disapproved of their abstraction. When a few of them were shown in Brussels during an Exhibition of the XX art group, a critic remarked, “Claude Monet must have been one of the founders of incoherent art […] Just one look at his paintings makes you see how weak his gaudy palette is.” In 1886, Albert Wetz of Le Figaro even went as far as to compare Monet’s “Red Road near Menton” to an alley of cherry-red jam.

W889, The “Red Road” Near Menton (1884), 65 x 81 cm, Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Still, a few critics approved of Monet’s depiction of the Riviera in vivid colors instead of a literal palette, it imbued them with the atmosphere of the Mediterranean coast. Gustave Geoffroy and Octave Mirbeau, Monet’s friends and art critics, were of this mindset: in an article from the late 1880s about the exhibition at Georges Petit’s gallery, Geoffroy praised a painting depicting the “cliff road between Nice and San Remo, a group of fig trees with glistening leaves entangles its trunks and branches and it’s through this intertwining that one can see, far in the distance and way down, like the bottom of an abyss, the blue sea and white houses of a city sleeping in the heat. Extraordinary artwork, full of incredible vegetation, blazing with a light that makes everything pale around it, bursting like the sudden appearance of the sun.”

Octave Mirbeau’s review of Monet’s Mediterranean paintings during the 1887 Exhibition at Georges Petit’s Gallery, 1887

Mirbeau also shared Geoffroy’s enthusiasm when he wrote, “M. Claude Monet exhibits the Mediterranean landscape with a vibe, a warmth, and a joyful palette beyond compare […] There are hills under the sun, covered with olive trees, painted in a delightful grey, and pines on which blue color fades in the overheated air. There’s a street in Bordighera with palm trees, silver vegetation, flowers, pink houses, surrounded by a fog of light…”

W852, Bordighera, Italy (1884), 60 x 73cm, Oil on canvas, Private Collection

As of today, to puzzlement and dismay, the paintings of this sojourn have never been exhibited together as a whole, even though there’s a homogenous quality to this series in its motifs and colors. Throughout his final years and up until Monet’s death, they were rarely shown together, and at most in groups of two or three at a time.

W877, Palm Trees at Bordighera (1884), 65 x 81 cm, Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Monet’s first journey to the Mediterranean remains an atypical and interesting in his painting, often forgotten or considered as a time of experimentation like his other journeys to London or Norway. But apart from a few months in Venice in 1908, Monet never returned to Italy. In reality, his journey may have been an important step in his career, in which he developed the form of a series or sought to capture fleeting ephemeralities and personal impressions. In the warm pink and blue air of the Mediterranean coast, Monet’s time in Mediterranean and its paintings remain mythic, a real-life “fairytale” as he called it in his letters.

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