Magazine article The Spectator

Rural Retreat

Magazine article The Spectator

Rural Retreat

Article excerpt

Exhibitions

Rural retreat

Laura Gascoigne

Three Painters of the Sea: Monet, Schueler and Nicholson

Edinburgh Festival

The skreel of the pipes may be just the thing to fire the blood for battle, but when the temperature hits the nineties you don't need it. Yet for some reason the heat at this year's Edinburgh Festival has brought more pipers than ever out on to Princes Street. One assaulted my ears every 20 yards between Waverley Station and the Royal Scottish Academy, so that by the time I reached the National Gallery of Scotland's busy Monet show in the RSA building, it seemed a haven of peace.

By any reckoning 80 Monets equals a blockbuster, but Monet: The Seine and the Sea 1878-1883 is a surprisingly civilised, low-key affair, avoiding the unseemly crush of the Royal Academy's 1999 exhibition. One reason may be its focus on a brief and relatively unglamorous period in the artist's 60-year career, when he buried himself in the country at Vetheuil, a small village on the Seine 70km downstream of Paris, and set about making an independent reputation away from the modern life of the metropolis, which Baudelaire had declared the only true concern of the contemporary artist.

It's a curious paradox of the career of an artist born on the rue Lafitte, the Bond Street of Paris, that the further he moved away from it geographically the higher his standing rose on it professionally. But Monet's progressive moves down the Seine in his thirties, first to Argenteuil in 1871 and then to Vetheuil, before settling at Giverny in 1883, did not signal a rise in prosperity; rather the reverse. As the trickle of begging letters from Vetheuil betrays, Monet moved there in 1878 because he was broke, with the bloom of his youthful reputation fading fast and an ailing wife (who died in 1879) and two children to support. In commercial terms, Vetheuil was not just cheap but cheerful, a fertile source of heart-warming rural subjects designed to soothe a French national pride badly bruised by the Franco-Prussian War and in need of a dose of what Constable called 'eye-salve'.

As luck would have it, the late 1870s saw the removal from the scene of all the great 'paysagistes' of the previous generation, with the deaths of Corot and Millet in 1875, Courbet in 1877 and Daubigny in 1878. Baudelaire may have mocked such landscape painters as 'herbivores', but they still commanded higher prices than the Impressionists, and a diet of herbs can be a feast to a hungry man. Stuck in the country 12km from the nearest station on a river dotted with what one visiting journalist called 'dull little islands', in a village whose skyline was distinguished only by a modest mediaeval church and the twin turrets of a nouveau-riche villa, Monet had no option but to join the herbivores. He did it with a will, producing some 350 paintings, 200 in Vetheuil and a further 150 during six painting trips to the Normandy coast.

In such an output there are bound to be flops. Not everything in this show is a masterpiece, but this only adds to its historical interest, especially where the curators have included comparable works by Corot, Courbet, Daubigny et al. 'Truth to nature' was an axiom the Impressionists shared with the older generation, but art can only tolerate so much truth, and both departed from it in different ways. Where his predecessors had discreetly remodelled nature to knock some narrative sense into their landscapes, Monet flagrantly enhanced his landscapes' colours to set the dullness of those little islands alight. …

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