Monet the Collector

Marianne Mathieu and Dominique Lobstein. Musée Marmottan Monet. Distributed by Yale University Press, 2017. 284 pages. $50.00.

By Svetlana Alpers      

Monet’s collection made for a disappointing exhibition at the Marmottan Museum in fall, 2017. Not enough of the works could be obtained on loan for the exhibition and almost nothing about the history of the collection could be explained on the walls. But this catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition is marvelous. Many works Monet collected, and some it has been proved he didn’t, are reassembled, beautifully reproduced, and the complex history of the making and sad dispersal of the collection are clearly set forth. It is the result of what the authors describe as having been like a police investigation.

The substance of the book is an account of how and why Monet came to acquire what he did and of how he kept his cherished collection, largely hung for his private delectation, in the huge bedroom over his studio. When buying, he often acted as secretly as when he looked at them. Monet preferred not to bid openly at auctions but to buy a work, even if it cost more, from the buyer. 

Other artists had collections—most famously Degas. Degas’ was larger and more public. At one time it filled the walls of his huge three story apartment. Having no heirs, Degas had to decide between creating a museum (like Moreau’s mausoleum as Degas thought of it) or having a posthumous sale. He opted for a sale. The works were dispersed leaving clear records. Monet died in 1927 leaving everything to Michael, his son. Two minor disasters followed: the inventory of the collection made after his death disappeared, most likely destroyed in WWII (all that remains are a few reports of visitors to the space while he was alive); then, over the years, the son proceeded to dispose of much of the collection in order to finance a life with his wife, which was often lived far away on African safaris. Between his father’s death in 1927 and his own death in 1966, Michel had sold off  65% of the collection (some 328 items) and 292 of the 389 paintings by his father that he inherited. Without a proper inventory of a collection which was subsequently sold off, the problems facing the researchers were huge. This book presents their findings in detail.

Cézanne, who knew and, displaying his characteristic awkwardness and discomfort, had visited Monet at Giverny, famously remarked that Monet is only an eye but what an eye. Here we see the truth of that not in what Monet painted, but as it is revealed in what he wanted to look at on his bedroom walls. Page after page of the book gives an account not only of what, but of how Monet came into possession of his collection. The detective work offers a fascinating account of the world of gallerists/dealers and artists in later 19th and early 20th century Paris. We are used to seeing paintings hanging in museums with, if we are lucky, the name of a donor on the wall label. Here you discover a particular back story to that—often the story of friendships with other artists. The illustrations include not only the works themselves, but reproductions of pages of catalogues of the artists’ estate sales and galleries that bring us materially into that world in an unaccustomed way.

The book begins with a general introduction drawing us in with the young Cézanne’s astonishing Picnic on a River Bank now at Yale University (it is noted that Monet admired the blues). The authors have been able to date its acquisition to the 1860s,  soon after it was painted, before Cézanne was known and when Monet himself was still poor. The chapters that follow are arranged by the artists Monet collected—among other things Japanese prints, Renoir, Manet, Corot, Cézanne, Caillebotte, and some interesting works by Berthe Morisot. (It is interesting that he did not collect older art—though he certainly knew it well. Look at Boucher in the Louvre, and you discover the basis for the distinctive loose, short, curving brush strokes of Monet.)

Monet owned 14 or 15 paintings by Cézanne acquired over fifty years. From Vollard on one day in 1895 he bought the so-called Negro Scipio of 1867—the daring and unexpected almost life-size study of a black artist’s model posing, now in San Paulo—and The Boy in a Red Vest of 1888-90 now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The day is put before our eyes in their stunning reproduction in one opening in the book—Scipio left, Boy right.   

Other stunning juxtapositions are made between works that Monet exchanged with another artist. Monet’s dark oil painting of Belle-Ile, full page left, coupled with Rodin’s small Young Mother in bronze to the right and, a page apart, Monet’s stunning snowy Village of Giverny exchanged with Pissarro (whose house Monet had helped him to buy) whose gift to Monet, the authors think, was his The Poultry Market. 

The most expensive purchase he ever made was Renoir’s The Mosque: Arab Festival. It is a reminder, if that is still needed, of the high esteem in which every painter of the time held Renoir who is often underestimated if not actually disliked in our time.

This review can only suggest the interest of this book which in all its details of sales and ownership is not an easy read. It takes us into a world of art and artists from an unusual angle. 

One final note: the Marmottan Museum that, after a number years, received what remained after the son’s disposal sales, remains a must destination for seeing Monet.  Aside from the famous Water Lilies visible at museums such as MoMA, New York or the Orangerie in Paris, a substantial number of more difficult, more roughly painted late works that did not appeal to the market are visible there today. Whatever exhibition is installed upstairs, go downstairs and look. 

Svetlana Alpers, an artist, critic, and renowned art historian, is professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting scholar in the Department of Fine Arts at New York University.