In Cincinnati, Monet Exhibit Reflects on What Lurks Beneath (Photos)

What lurks beneath the watery landscapes? Blake Gopnik looks at the Cincinnati Art Museum's new exhibition.

Reflecting on Monet

Monet's biggest liability is how pretty and pleasing his landscapes can be. It takes a bit of work—but just a bit—to grasp the substance beneath. The Cincinnati Art Museum has done that work for a new show called Monet in Giverny: Landscapes of Reflection, consisting of a dozen late paintings brought in from various American collections. (We've gathered three quarters of that total in this slide show.) You might imagine such an exhibition to be yet another pointless crowd-pleaser meant to generate gate—and I guess that's at least part of what it is. But the little catalog for the show is written with such care and sophistication that it counteracts such misgivings. Curator Benedict Leca and several other scholars reflect on Monet's reflections, and insist that both senses of "reflection" be considered when we take in these works. There's even a chapter on Monet and war—not the usual light-and-lively fare.

This 1907 image is from Monet's Water Lily series and belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As a friend of mine has pointed out, there's a touch of the Rorschach blot in all of Monet's watery reflections.

—Blake Gopnik

Trees as Stripes

Monet's Poplars, 1891, from the Chester Dale Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its asymmetries give it heft.

Reflection Without Sparkle

The Waterlily Basin, painted by Monet in 1904 and now in the Denver Art Museum. It gives a strange sense that there are trees below the surface that his flowers float on, as well as above it. Our brain's ability to sort out what is where is defeated in Monet.

Jean Paul Torno

A Pacific Picture

More waterlilies by Monet, painted sometime between 1916 and 1919, and now in a private collection. Could its close concentration on a moment of botany be a deliberate blocking out of the war that raged all around it?

Monet the Monetian

Monet painted these Waterlilies in 1903. The picture is now at the Dayton Art Institute, where it must give great pleasure. It seems more orderly and temperate than many late Monets.

Monet, With Lashings of de Kooning

Nympheas, Japanese Bridge (1918–26) now lives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I love these wild late Monets, because they go against the clichéd image that we have of his art as pretty. (Of course, some say these pictures were mere accidents, the product of an old man's weak eyes.)

Beribonned Nature

Wisteria (Glycines), from around 1919 or 1920, and now in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College. Monet originally planned to put a frieze of wisteria paintings above his great waterlily murals, but a change of venue for the latter deprived him of the room to do it.

Jean Paul Torno

Garlands of Flowers, and of Paint

Monet's two conjoined paintings of wisteria are now in a private collection. There's something wonderfully, wildly calligraphic about the way he paints these fronds. The idea that impressionist technique "just captures light" seems even sillier here than it usually does. Monet's brushstrokes are always more willful than transcriptive.