Impressions of an Impressionist: Claude Monet at SLAM

Detail from Claude Monet's Agapanthus triptych

Claude Monet (1840-1926) has invaded St. Louis, taking the museum community by storm. For the first time in decades, the three panels of the Agapanthus triptych are together at the St. Louis Art Museum and the exhibition is striking. SLAM owns the center panel, the other two panels are on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City). The piece is about 42 feet wide and about seven feet tall, with the two side panels slightly angled inward. It is presented in a simple bronzed metallic frame, about two inches wide.

Here is an artist toward the end of his life, struggling with health issues and relative blindness, with complete blindness in one eye and only ten percent vision in the other, who painted with great beauty and wonderful color a pond of lilies. The exhibit also includes earlier studies Monet used to practice the techniques used in the main work. One of the studies is of the Agapanthus itself, an early inclusion in the main work, which was eventually painted out of its lower left corner. What meets the eye is a panorama of lilies, pond, grass and flowers.

It is a difficult thing to give an impression of the art of an impressionist, but here goes….

As I enter the room the scale of the artwork becomes clear. It dominates a wall and the left and right panels are displayed in a way reminiscent of an unfolded, panoramic postcard. Lavender is the first prominent color. I moved toward the center of the room, avoiding a few other patrons, and sat down on the bench in the center of the exhibit. Lilies, as orbs floating on air, make a light yellow appearance in several prominent patches across the canvas. Some in the foreground appear smaller than ones apparently in the background, imparting a dream-like state. Other colors, greens and browns, punctuated by occasional and raucous red flowers, appear in broad, aurora bands across the work. The overall feeling evoked is one of peace and calm. I am transported to Monet’s lily garden. I share in his desire for peace.

Monet’s work is especially poignant given the circumstances in Europe at the time of its composition, the period of the rise of more anarchistic forms of existentialism, communism and fascism, that reared their ugly heads in the aftermath of World War I. Europe was both psychologically and physically shattered by the mechanistic and invasive onslaught against its peoples and customs. The horrors of trench warfare, mustard gas, fighting against 20th century weaponry using 19th century tactics, the shattered men, women and families, the scarred countryside all bred a contempt for institutions and God. But here is Monet, attempting to calm troubled hearts and minds with the beauty of a garden. He stands as a counterpoise to the mayhem that was Europe. Begun in 1915, Monet worked on this project until his death eleven years later. He considered this work his grand decoration.

I would recommend that anybody in the St Louis area who has the opportunity, see this incredible art. Fridays are particularly busy, as free admission applies on that day, and advance tickets are required (although on the Friday my wife Nanette and I went, there was a Cardinals game and we got right in). You can easily make a reservation to go, including a specific time of admission, by visiting the museum website, or in person. Here’s a preview of the exhibit.

But if you don’t want to see the work in advance, don’t visit the page. The Monet art on display is simply beautiful, and there is lots of other great art to see at the museum as well. And, as always, everything but the exhibit is free.

Credit for some of the information here goes to SLAM.org.

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