History sometimes appears to have a sense of humour. The Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris now houses one of the largest collections of works by the impressionist painter Claude Monet. So it is both amusing and deliciously ironic to find that Paul Marmottan, whose generous bequest gave the institution its start, was once a vociferous critic of the painting style.
“One does not draw, one sketches; one does not paint, one brushes. That is the most prominent tendency of the day,” he wrote in 1886. “This slackening comes above all from extreme ignorance or the indulgence of art lovers, who are happy to look merely for the impression.”
One of the first of Monet’s paintings to enter the collection (after Marmottan’s death in 1932) was Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), 1872, which, when it was shown in 1874, prompted art critic Louis Leroy to coin the phrase ‘impressionniste’. What he intended as a pejorative term instead became the name of an art movement.
Impression, Sunrise rarely leaves France but it is currently visiting the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) as the centrepiece of a show that features several works by Monet as well as paintings by JMW Turner, James McNeill Whistler, Alfred Sisley and Eugène Boudin some 40 works in total.
As Jane Kinsman, head of International Art at the NGA points out, “Monet didn’t just pop up out of nowhere.” She explains that the aim of the show is to put Monet’s work in the context of the artists that inspired him, as well as his contemporaries.
Marmottan might have wanted it consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, but impressionism is now well and truly part of the art historical cannon, and Monet is one of its undisputed masters. Monet: Impression, Sunrise is a chance to reflect on the vagaries of history.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.