Most of the popular art movements are associated with a mythology concerning their creation. The history of Impressionism is connected with a small early painting by Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant, (Impression, sunrise) 1872, now in the collection of the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.
This painting was exhibited at an independent show mounted by the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers) in 1874. The printmaker, painter and successful playwright, Louis Leroy, wrote a review of the show for the French satirical newspaper Le Charivari, which was published on April 25, 1874 with the title 'L'Exposition des impressionnistes' (Exhibition of the Impressionists).
Here, referring to Monet's Impression, sunrise, Leroy wrote, "Impression - I thought as much. I was just saying to myself that, since I was impressed, there must be impression in it ... and what freedom, what ease of handling! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape!" The term Impressionism was born, which was picked up by the art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary and subsequently was adopted by many of the artists themselves.
The painting itself had to wait about a century before it entered the history books with confusion concerning exactly which painting Leroy was referring to, its date, and the location from which it was painted. Forensic investigations by Marianne Mathieu (the scientific director at the Musée Marmottan Monet and the guest curator of this exhibition), plus her colleagues at the museum, have joined up the dots and proven beyond reasonable doubt that Leroy was indeed referring to this painting in their collection. In all likelihood, it was painted by the artist from a window at the Grand Hotel de l'Amirauté, probably on November 13, 1872.
Monet mentions the painting in an interview, late in life in 1898, "... something painted from my window in Le Havre: the sun in the mist and in the foreground some masts sticking up. They wanted to know its title for the catalogue [because] it couldn't really pass for a view of Le Havre, I replied: 'Use Impression.'" The painting, measuring 50 by 65 centimeters, is fairly typical of Monet's early work with short, choppy brushstrokes and a rather messy sketchiness. It is not surprising that the Parisian art public confused the work with a sketch that painters of the time frequently executed from the object and from which in the studio they would complete the finished work.
In Impression, sunrise, Monet had neither fully developed his theories of colour, nor the divisionist method of paint application that became a hallmark for his subsequent art. It is a charming early painting, more interesting for its anecdotal notoriety than as some key work in art history, and it would be a case of willful misrepresentation to view it as the painting that launched Impressionism. That it did not. Monet did not hold it in high esteem, nor did the other artists, collectors or, for that matter, art history. It is of course lovely to see it in Canberra but, in terms of art, the more interesting works are those that accompany it - some from the Musée Marmottan Monet, a handful of Turners from the Tate and an unusual selection from more than a dozen other collections.
Conceptually the structure of this exhibition is similar to that of most Monet shows - the precursors, a survey of the artist's development, and a late focus on the Waterlilies paintings. Of the precursors, the 10 Turners steal the show. Monet loved JMW Turner and the great Englishman did exert a profound influence on the French colourist. Turner's Stormy sea with dolphins (c1835-40) and Whalers (boiling blubber) entangled in flaw ice, endeavouring to extricate themselves (c.1846) both from the Tate, and Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: morning (c1845) from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven are amongst the highlights in the Turner selection and in the show.
There is also a strong selection of the work of Eugène Boudin, who played an instrumental role in the development of the young Monet as friend and mentor, but in his own work never embraced the radical path. In his well-crafted seascapes there is a lyrical charm tinged with nostalgia, but possibly not quite of the order of the Dutch painter Johan Jongkind, who is also represented in this exhibition.
Monet is the focus of the exhibition and his 20 paintings and three drawings form the core of this exhibition of about 60 works. The two Monets from the Canberra collection, Meules, milieu du jour (1890), best translated as grain stacks, rather than (Haystacks, midday) and the wonderful glowing Nymphéas (c1914-17) (Waterlilies) stand up well in this exhibition. The inaugural director of the gallery, James Mollison, bought well for the national collection.
Other outstanding paintings by Monet include Le Pont de l'Europe. Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) (The Pont de l'Europe. Sain-Lazare Station), Les Tuileries (1876) and the brilliant, late glowing Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917-19) (The waterlily pond), all from the Musée Marmottan Monet. More than any of his colleagues, Monet in his mature and later paintings consistently moved his palette to the violet end of the colour spectrum and broke up the paint application into smaller, vibrant brushstrokes. Although quite analytical in his methods of painting, Monet shared an infectious sense of excitement in his perception of light and colour, an excitement shared by most of his audience today.
This is a cameo exhibition with much of the work of high calibre and most of it unfamiliar to Australian audiences. The catalogue, mainly written by the exhibition's curator Marianne Mathieu with contributions by gallery staff, is of a high scholarly order. In short, it is more than a piece of exhibition merchandising and is worth owning and reading.
There is common wisdom that blockbuster exhibitions of Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso can never fail with the public and, with a few notable exceptions, this is a truism. This is the first major exhibition in Canberra that bears the stamp of director Nick Mitzevich and is another triumph for Carol Henry, who has guided so many major exhibitions as the chief executive of Art Exhibitions Australia. While it may not rewrite the history books on our understanding of Impressionism, it does bring a ray of glowing warmth and colour into a bleak Canberra winter and with it, it will bring many thousands of visitors to the nation's capital.
The exhibition, Monet: Impression Sunrise is an unforgettable celebration of the beauty of painting that reiterates the artist's famous pronouncement, "Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love."
Monet: Impression Sunrise is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until September 1.