To look at Monet's paintings is to learn how to see.
Take the two versions of "Old Fort at Antibes" (1888) that hang side by side in the Baltimore Museum of Art's "Monet" show.
Both pictures show exactly the same things -- a band of water at the bottom, a band of sky at the top and, in between, the old fort on a promontory in front of a mountain range.
You can glance at them and walk on if you like. Or you can stay and see them. For these two pictures record the scene at slightly different times of day. The sun in one is almost full on the fort, while in the other it is a little more behind it, and lower in the sky. And that slight change makes every part of the two paintings different.
Among the distinctions: In the second, the water has less white ** and more green in it. The line where the water touches the land is a darker blue. The details of the fort's buildings, more shadowed, stand out more clearly, especially the reddish roofs. The mountains are more clearly divided into two horizontal ridges. The sky is lighter and more varied in color. Virtually every inch of the two paintings records the same thing, but in none is it recorded the same way. The longer you look the more differences you see.
And that need to stop and look carefully makes "Claude Monet: Impressionist Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" in some ways just the right kind of Monet show to have, if in other ways it's less than perfect.
At 32 paintings it is small, not the sort of exhaustive and exhausting presentation of an artist's work that we associate with the word "blockbuster." It comes from just one museum, in exchange for 50 works from the BMA's Cone collection concurrently on view in Boston. While Boston's is the largest Monet collection in the Western Hemisphere, seven of its 39 works were not allowed to travel because of fragile "condition," according to BMA curator Sona Johnston; the missing include one of Boston's two "Grainstack" (or "Haystack") paintings and one of its two "Water Lilies" paintings.
And Boston's collection includes no paintings from the last 18 years of Monet's life, 1909-1926, when his art became increasingly abstract.
So we cannot be said to have the most complete of Monet shows. But what we have is a group of works not only individually exceptional but collectively representative both of more than 40 years of Monet's career, 1864-1908, and of the essence of this quintessential impressionist. At 32 paintings, it isn't daunting -- it doesn't make you feel compelled to move right along, as a show of 100 or 150 works always does. Instead, it's of a size to encourage museumgoers to linger over individual works, to notice details and to soak up the atmosphere that is so much a part of Monet's essence.
It begins in the early years with "Rue de la Bavolle, Honfleur" (1864) -- a painting that, as the catalog of the Boston collection points out, reveals Monet's interest in light and shadow but little else of what was to come.
The next work, however, "Ships in a Harbor" (about 1873), is all liquid grays and blues; and with "Poplars" (about 1875), "Camille Monet and a Child in a Garden" (1875) and other works of the period we enter impressionism's dazzling world of light, air and color rendered with dabs of active brush stroke, its dissolution of form, its effect of catching a fleeting, momentary impression of -- the subject.
A group of three snow scenes from the 1870s is not strictly a series in Monet's later sense, but in them he explores the effects of cloudy days on the objects and colors he records.
From a group of works of the 1880s, especially "Road in a Hollow, Pourville" (1882) and "Field of Poppies in a Hollow near Giverny" (1885), we experience the artist organizing his compositions more abstractly. In terms of the illusionism of the scene, the road in the "Pourville" painting goes away from the viewer and down a hill. But it equally can be seen as a triangle that rises from the bottom edge of the painting.
It's a pity that both "Grainstack" paintings could not come to Baltimore, but the one we have, "Grainstack at Sunset" (1891), is also somewhat abstract in that it explores light and color for their own sakes, and even to some extent the emotional properties of color. As Johnston's Acoustiguide text points out, some of these colors can be seen as angry, especially the red on the lower part of the grainstack and the yellow outlining its upper edges.
The young Kandinsky, seeing an exhibit of the "Grainstack" paintings, recognized their qualities even if they were at first "distressing" to him: "What was absolutely clear to me was the unsuspected power, previously hidden from me, of the palette. . . . And at the same time, unconsciously, the object was discredited as an indispensable element of the picture."