CLAUDE Monet has done more for gardening than all of the seed companies and green thumb newspaper columns combined. This Impressionist master depicted French flower gardens with so much summery affection that one need never worry about drought, insects or frost in the artist's back yard.
Monet has in a sense come to our back yard with the exhibit opening Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It is no ordinary event, involving as it does a temporary swap between the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Fifty works from the BMA's Cone Collection were sent up there and 32 Monet paintings from the Boston museum's permanent collection came down here. As a survey of Monet's career, the show has enough paintings to give a sense of his evolution as an artist through such major subjects as gardens, Rouen Cathedral, grain stacks and waterlilies.
If you're anxious to see these paintings for yourself, be prepared for a very long walk through the museum before you get to them. Perhaps crowd control measures dictated the circuitous route past some permanent galleries unfortunately (and needlessly?) closed for the duration of the Monet exhibit, but this visitor felt like he was in training for the Tour de France. Walking by a biographical time line posted along one lengthy corridor wall, for instance, I had the feeling I was ambling through Monet's life in the real time it took him to live it from 1840 until 1926.
Be patient with the directional arrows and garden trellis designs that keep you walking ever onward, because -- voila! -- you will get to see Monet at last. And what splendid paintings you will see.
In the first gallery, you'll notice how the young Monet paints with assurance. "Rue de la Bavolle, Honfleur" (ca. 1864) is a solid rendering of modest buildings on a small street. The shadows cast upon the street suggest his developing interest in monochromatic washes, but at this point he is still giving us his realistic impression of a town rather than Impressionism.
The shift in sensibility can be detected in "Snow at Argenteuil" (ca. 1874), with its white dabs of falling snow, outline of trees and gray monochromatic rendering of sky and village. One also can detect it in a landscape such as "Meadow with Poplars" (ca. 1875), in which the single human figure melds into a meadow of purple and green hues. There are even purple-tinted grain stacks in the middle distance that in a manner of speaking are waiting for their fully staged appearance later in his career.
A truly striking picture in the first gallery is "Camille Monet and a Child in the Artist's Garden in Argenteuil" (1875). Notice how the blue-and-white bands comprising Camille Monet's dress, as well as the piece of white cloth she is sewing, are exercises in painting as much as attempts to depict a particular sitter. That her child's face is shown to be as pink as the bow on its head likewise shows how the interest in color harmonies supersedes conventional psychological portraiture. Behind the mother and child are red and pink blossoms that function as thickly painted color accents, and yet through all the brightness the scene remains serene.
Another early highlight in the exhibit is a portrait of Monet's wife dressed in the quasi-Oriental French taste of the day, "La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume)" (1876). Although she turns toward us with a happy expression, is she the true subject of this portrait? Isn't it rather the boldly decorated red gown she wears? Monet has fun with this notion, because one of the images on her costume -- a samurai-type fellow about to draw his sword -- seems as real as she is. Also by way of treating his own wife as a decorative studio prop, Camille holds up a fan similar to other fans hanging on the wall and sitting on the floor.
Monet's increasing sense of liberty with his brush strokes and compositions may be seen in the rooms ahead. In "Cap Martin, near Menton" (1884), look at the vigor in every painted line of this rugged seaside view, especially the trees whose forms have been presumably twisted a bit by the ocean breezes. Or look at the two views of "Old Fort at Antibes" (both 1888) in which Monet's real interest doesn't seem to be in the old fort in the background so much as the sea in the foreground: it is a meshing of greens, purples, blues and pinks, as if each wave had a different color signal and yet somehow harmoniously came together in the aggregate.