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Chicago collectors’ love affair with Monet showcased in new Art Institute exhibit

Of the Art Institute’s 33 Monet paintings, just two were purchased by the museum. The rest were donated by local collectors starting in the 1920s.

Claude Monet. On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection.
Claude Monet,  “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt,” 1868. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection.
Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

Few artists in history have attained the enduring, near-universal acclaim of Claude Monet. The French Impressionist’s paintings hold prime spots in top museums worldwide, and exhibitions showcasing him never fail to draw big crowds.

No institution beyond France is more closely associated with Monet than the Art Institute of Chicago. It boasts the largest collection of his works outside of Paris, and, in 1895, it became the first museum in the United States to present an exhibition of the artist’s paintings.

“There are many faces of the Art Institute, but people do associate Monet with us,” said Gloria Groom, the Art Institute’s chair and David and Mary Winton Green Curator of painting and sculpture of Europe.

To pay tribute to this long-standing bond between institution and artist, the Art Institute has organized “Monet and Chicago,” which opens to the public Sept. 5 and runs through Jan. 18, 2021. (Member previews are Sept. 3 and 4.) Featuring 68 paintings and 14 works on paper, it is the museum’s sixth solo exhibition devoted to Monet and the first anywhere to explore in depth the Impressionist’s ties to the Windy City.

The exhibition chronicles 125 years of displays and acquisitions of Monet’s works by the Art Institute, as well as the attention to the artist by notable Chicago collectors such as Bertha and Potter Palmer beginning in the 1880s and 1890s. Some of these enthusiasts made pilgrimages to Paris to see and buy his works, and others purchased his paintings from exhibitions in the United States.

Of the Art Institute’s 33 Monet paintings, just two were purchased by the museum. The rest were donated by local collectors starting in the 1920s. “It’s philanthropy that has made our collection, and that it is what we are celebrating with this exhibition,” said Groom.

That enthusiasm has not diminished, as evidenced by the more than 30 works borrowed from today’s collectors around the Chicago area, many of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. They encompass both descendants of family members who purchased their holdings decades ago and more recent fans of the artist, including some the museum just discovered while organizing this exhibition. Marian Phelps Pawlick, a museum trustee, is bringing the museum’s rich history of Monet philanthropy into the 21st century, making a promised gift of “Boats Lying at Low Tide at Fécamp” (1881).

“Monet and Chicago” was originally scheduled May 10-Sept. 7 but postponed after the Art Institute closed in March because of COVID19 mandates. Even before the delay, organizers had planned for a spacious display in Regenstein Hall, the museum’s main special-exhibition gallery, but safety concerns have compelled them to enlarge the installation for even better spacing and remove some planned free-standing partitions.

In addition, the exhibition shop has been shifted to a different room — formerly a storage space — to avoid a potential pedestrian bottleneck. “We thought we were going to have the museum shop right after the last gallery,” Groom said, “but we realized that wasn’t a good idea because people will get bunched up.”

The exhibition is undergirded by recent conservation research and art historical analysis conducted as part of “Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago” (artic.edu/digitalmonet), one in a series of online catalogs showcasing the Impressionists in the museum’s collection.

These repositories give researchers and Monet fans alike an unprecedented, up-close look below the surface at Monet’s technical process with zoomable and overlaid imagery only possible in such a digital format.

Research conservator Kim Muir, who has worked on these catalogs for nearly all of her 15 years at the Art Institute, is particularly excited about discoveries made during X-ray and infrared examinations of the Art Institute’s earliest Monet painting, “The Beach at Sainte-Adresse” (1867).

Claude Monet. The Beach at Saint-Addresse, 1867. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.
Claude Monet, “The Beach at Saint-Addresse,” 1867. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.
Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

Monet painstakingly reworked this composition, transforming what began as a scene devoted to leisure yachts and tourists into one focused on fishermen and sailboats. “That was incredibly exciting to see these underlying compositional elements for the first time that no one else was aware of,” Muir said.

Aspects of this in-depth research will be showcased in an immersive three-minute video projected onto three large screens in one of the exhibition’s galleries. It will focus on works from Monet’s “Stacks of Wheat,” “London” and “Water Lilies” series.

Here are several other highlights of the exhibition:

Claude Monet. “Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day),” 1890/91. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. 
Claude Monet. “Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day),” 1890/91. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

“Stacks of Wheat” series (1890-91). Six paintings from this famed series will be shown in one gallery, giving visitors a sense of what it would have been like to have seen 15 of them together in 1891 for the first time at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris. “This is the beginning of the serial painting in modern art,” Groom said. “It’s his big innovation. It’s what changes his whole trajectory in 1891 when he does this for the first time.”

Claude Monet, “Apple Trees in Blossom,” 1872. Union League Club of Chicago. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics Inc.
Claude Monet, “Apple Trees in Blossom,” 1872. Union League Club of Chicago. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics Inc.
Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics Inc.

“Apple Trees in Blossom” (1872). Purchased by the Union League Club of Chicago, this canvas was the first Monet painting bought by a Chicago institution from the Art Institute’s 1895 exhibition. “It’s a big deal that we have that here,” Groom said.

Claude Monet, “Landscape with Figures, Giverny,” 1888. Private collection. 
Claude Monet, “Landscape with Figures, Giverny,” 1888. Private collection.
Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

“Landscape with Figures, Giverny” (1888). This 31½-inch-square painting shows five children from the families of Monet and Alice Hoschedé, whom the artist would eventually marry after she was widowed. “You get this blazing sun and these pinks and amazing shadows,” Groom said. “For me, it’s one of the show-stoppers.”

Despite sometimes radical shifts in tastes and trends in the nearly 100 years since Monet’s death, the Impressionist’s work has never lost its allure. Groom cites such reasons as its timeless modernity and innovativeness and the appealing tactility and dynamism of his brushwork.

“Then there’s also the recognizability of it,” she said. “We can recognize a Monet, and if you have traveled in France, you have seen fields like that. At Giverny, you can see what he was painting.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.