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April 26, 2007

Christie Davies understands why the unknown Monet has remained unknown: The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings
Royal Academy, London
17th March - 10th June 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

A visit to the exhibition, The Unknown Monet at the Royal Academy tells you why this aspect of Monet is unknown. As a painter Monet was a genius, but his caricatures, drawings and pastels merely show talent. If they had not been signed Monet or Claude Monet or with his earlier preferred version of his name Oscar Monet, no-one would have bothered to put them on show together.

Nonetheless it is well worth going to the exhibition.

Monet, like most of us a schoolroom doodler and defacer of textbooks, began his career as a caricaturist. Even as a teenager he made considerable sums drawing caricatures of local notables and selling them for 20 francs a time to the small town bourgeoisie of Le Havre, the grubby harbour-town for the Portsmouth ferry that for many of us was our first site of France. Here we can see Léon Manchon, a notaire, a notary public, a small town solicitor or scrivener who would register and authenticate documents relating to property transactions, inheritances and marriages.

Léon Manchon is shown against a background of posters advertising his role in the buying and selling of houses, businesses and wives. His long side-whiskers trail below his chin like the payes of pious peddlers from the shtetlach. "No cutting corners", his caricature declares. "Trust me", proclaims this local worthy and patron of the arts.

So well did his caricatures pay, that in later life Monet believed he could have made a career of it and become a millionaire, as if he wasn't already. He certainly had talent and could have become France's answer to such British Victorian caricaturists as Sir Leslie Ward ("Spy"), Sir Max Beerbohm or Carlo Pellegrini ("Ape"). Indeed Monet's Léon Manchon bears some resemblance to Ape's Thomas Henry Huxley .

My favourite, though, is Monet's caricature Man with a Snuff Box, 1858, that in its furtiveness and hint of surprise and embarrassment anticipates Henry Mayo Bateman's drawings for James Ferguson's (Fergie) The Table in a Roar. All of Monet's caricatures have over-sized noses but the snuff-taker's is bulbous and misshapen from years of snorting an addictive substance to get a high. One is reminded of Fergie's Scotsman on the cadge who asked a fellow Caledonian:

"D'ye tak snuff?"


"Tha's a pity. You've wonderful accommodation."

A large handkerchief protrudes from Monet's snuff-taker's pocket, ready in case the irritation to his nostrils should produce a violent sneeze and cascade the vile powder over his clothes. Monet's snuff-taker looks at us very directly, seeking out the expression in our own eyes, looking for companionship but also anxious lest he receive a glance of disdain directed at his petty dirty habit.

Monet could indeed have become a leading caricaturist but he didn't. Perhaps it is just as well, for we might have lost a very great landscape painter. Indeed, even at this exhibition it is the few "known" Monet's that are the bright planets among the dim stars.

The prizes all go to his finished and famous oil paintings known for their command of light and colour. Towing a Boat, Honfleur, 1864, is the earliest of these on display, already distinctive, done just after sunset ,with the calm, darkening water showing the last reflections of the sky before all goes dark and it is time to leave, unless you want to stay and watch the already lit lighthouse.

It is as well to move on quickly to the Cliffs at Etretat in Normandy where summer hits you from the blue sky and green sea and the grass at the top of the cliff glows. But if you want ecstasy stand well back to view it.

In the Cliffs at Etretat, 1885, we see instead the cliffs, with the famous arch and stack straight out of a geomorphology text-book, in shade with the sun just catching the top of the cliff but holding the distant sea and boats. Here is the well-known Monet who studied the changing light, who could work on six paintings at once, switching from one to another as the angle of the sun changed.

Finally we come to Waterloo Bridge, Morning Fog, 1901, a masterpiece of hazy blues, with shape indicated by a slide from one shade to another. It is worth going to the exhibition just to see these, much as it was worth going to the exhibition La Fôret de Fontainebleau at the Musée d'Orsay just to see the two versions of Monet's Le Pave de Chailly, 1865, particularly the one brought in from the Ordrupgaard Museum in Copenhagen.

The main justification for showing us Monet's sketches, pastels and notebooks is that they point towards and help us understand his main work. But is this a sufficient justification? When we see a superbly dressed woman walking towards us, do we really think we would have liked to see her putting her knickers on as she prepared to dress up and go out? Do not answer that question.

True the pastels and the drawings have merit in their own right and often were composed for their own sake. But they are so much less exciting than the "known" Monet that it is tempting to hurry past them to get to the real thing. Curiously they look far better in the catalogue than hung on the walls. Shrinking was good for them. Buy the catalogue and seek out in particular the pastels View of the Sea at Sunset, 1862-64, Cat Sleeping on a Bed, 1865-70, Etretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d'Aval, 1885, and Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1901. On the wall they are nothing but in the book they captivate.

On leaving I was lucky enough to be able once again to admire the structure Jericho by Anselm Kiefer that stands, or at least stood, in the Annenberg forecourt, towering over the statue of little Sir Joshua Reynolds with his palette.

Jericho consists of two tall towers one 42 feet high, the other sixty. One consists of five, the other of six, World War II rough concrete block houses piled high, one on top of another. Some have two, some three, some no doors. Once they would have formed a horizontal barrier along our coast to repel an invasion by the Hun. Now they are stacked vertically but if you stand on the Piccadilly side and look between them you can see the grand old union flag on top of the Royal Academy flying defiantly against a new blue, global-warming sky. On top of one of the towers sits a boat and a radar scanner, our two other war-time defences. Gad , sir, it makes you proud to be British; the sculpture is an archaeological statement not about the world's oldest town but about its most obdurate island. You can go inside and look through the broken, rubbly floors, crumbling to reveal their gravel or stand outside and look at the protruding metal rods from the reinforced concrete and the lead-grey sheets of grey lead that wedge each cube in place, so they don't come tumbling down. At night they reach up as tall as the towers of San Gimignano, as menacing as the flak towers of Vienna.

It is a pity they can't stay in the courtyard for ever and have to return to Europe. They really need a permanent location, perhaps on the coast of Normandie or Jylland.

Professor Christie Davies, author of The Mirth of Nations, 2002, has just returned from a visit to the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.

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What an interesting way of sharing to us the work of an exceptional painter, in the person of Monet. I like the way you shared information about the quality of his work as well as the "personality" deeply embedded in all of his unique paintings. Thank you so much for sharing and keep em coming! :)

Posted by: notary public at May 17, 2007 10:50 AM
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