A Rare Look at Claude Monet's Glorious Gardens of Giverny

Shimmering oils of well-kept lily ponds are among the Impressionist's paintings on exhibit in New Orleans

The first exhibition in the United States to focus on Impressionist master Claude Monet's final quarter-century has come to New Orleans in a flourish of water lilies and fine food.

Scores of foot-wide pink plywood lilies bedeck three city streetcars. Restaurants are offering special menus based on recipes from Monet's handwritten cooking journals. And dancers, fireworks, and a fire breather were combined in a performance to celebrate the opening of ``Monet: Late Paintings of Giverny From the Musee Marmottan.''

About 7,000 members of the New Orleans Museum of Art came for a private showing Jan. 6, and opening weekend brought another 6,000 to the first special exhibit ever of Monet's works in the South.

Museum director John Bullard says he thinks the exhibit is likely to bring 200,000 viewers over nine weeks, a period during which 30,000 ordinarily might be expected. The public attendance of 3,000 a day on the opening Saturday and Sunday was about three times the average, spokesman Michael Strecker says.

The exhibit is the first since 1978 to bring to the US paintings from the Marmottan Museum in Paris, which has the world's most important collection of Monet's works - 87 oil paintings and many pastels, early drawings, and notebooks.

Eight of the 22 paintings have never been shown in this country. These include shimmering oils of Monet's well-kept lily ponds, from the early 1900s, and later, darker paintings with heavy swirling brush strokes.

All 22 works show the gardens Monet designed and supervised at Giverny, in France, where he lived from 1883 until his death in 1926, at the age of 86.

The paintings are complemented by archival photographs of Monet and his family, and by photomurals by Elizabeth Murray, whose catalog article tells how Monet composed his gardens and describes his meticulous eye for their daily grooming.

Monet's gardens were virtually his only subject from 1898 until he died. As a young artist, he had painted the French countryside and urban Paris. In the 1870s, he joined in shows with his friends, Pierre-August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pisarro, and other independent artists.

It was one of Monet's oil sketches, ``Impression: Sunrise,'' shown in the group's first exhibition in 1874, that gave the Impressionist movement its name.

He was the last member of the movement, outliving Renoir by seven years. The paintings for which Monet is best known were the series he created in the 1890s, depicting such subjects as haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, poplars, and mornings on the Seine in all kinds of light.

One reason these paintings were wildly popular in their day, Paul Hays Tucker notes in the catalog, is that they illuminated well-known French sites or evoked traditions in paintings.

Mr. Tucker sees the Dreyfus Affair, in which the French Army used forged papers to convict Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason, as a major reason for Monet's change of subject from national sites to his garden. The controversy almost started a civil war and eventually led to separation of church and state in France. Monet, who wrote several letters to encourage novelist Emile Zola's championing of Dreyfus, was deeply disillusioned by the scandal, according to Tucker.

``From 1898 until his death in 1926, he painted over 500 pictures; only a dozen depict a recognizable French site,'' Tucker writes. ``The sordidness of the affair caused Monet to give up his lifelong project of immortalizing his native land and to retreat into a world of his own making.'' The paintings were also Monet's consolation and escape during World War I.

In fact, the artist wrote to a friend in 1914, speaking of his work: ``It's still the best way of not thinking about present sorrows, although I'm rather ashamed of thinking about little researches into forms and colors while so many suffer and die for us.''

* ``Monet: Late Paintings of Giverny From the Musee Marmottan'' remains at the New Orleans Museum of Art through March 12. Its only other stop will be at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, March 25-May 28.

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