IT is difficult, upon entering the Art Institute of Chicago's ambitious retrospective, ''Claude Monet: 1840-1926,'' not to be swept up by the sheer freshness and intensity of the paintings.
In the first gallery, sunlight filters through a lush forest and brilliantly illuminates outspread linen, ripe fruit, and a woman's flounced dress in ''Luncheon on the Grass'' (1865-66). Begun when Monet was only 24, this life-sized masterpiece - on display for the first time outside Europe - is a stunning start to the Art Institute's exclusive show.
The exhibition - the largest of Monet paintings ever held - brings together 159 oil paintings and works on paper from more than a dozen countries, including many pieces from private collections rarely seen by the public. The show opened July 23 and runs through Nov. 26.
That Chicago should host such an unprecedented retrospective of Monet is fitting. In 1895, the Art Institute was the first museum in the world to stage a solo exhibition of Monet's works. Monet at the time was ''already very much in favor among the lords and ladies of Chicago art,'' explains Art Institute spokesman John Foley Hindman.
One hundred years later, the Institute is looking back over Monet's entire 65-year career with the aim of presenting the artist ''whole.''
Paintings are grouped to represent every major period of the artist's life. They include early seascapes and landscapes, as well as the later parliament, wheat-stack, and waterlilies series. While many are brilliant, some of the works are drab and less appealing. Nevertheless, in their ensemble, they vividly demonstrate the relationship between Monet's art and his incessant, pioneering experimentation as a leading Impressionist.
The paintings chronicle how Monet, using a variety of settings and techniques, captured fleeting ''impressions,'' or glances, on canvas with a few flickering brushstrokes. Monet, who loved painting out-of-doors, once explained his basic philosophy this way:
''When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field .... Merely think here is a little square of blue, here is an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naive impression of the scene before you.''
Monet's genius in depicting the ephemeral is apparent in ''The Stroll'' (1875), a painting of his wife, Camille, and her son Jean as they stand on the crest of a grassy hill against a sunny wind-swept sky. His wife's soft shadowy glance as she looks down the hill is hauntingly immediate.
Later, in the semiabstract ''Rain at Etretat'' (1886), Monet's blurred strokes expertly convey a downpour sweeping across a turbulent misty sea along the Normandy coast.
The exhibit richly details the artist's struggles with the elements as he painted outdoors. For example, Monet was once thrown by a large wave against a cliff at Etretat after miscalculating the tide, a museum guide relates. His easel, paints, and brushes were swept into the sea. In Argenteuil, France, Monet painted his famous scenes of snow as he sat swathed in three overcoats with ice forming on his beard.
The show also reveals the frustrations Monet faced as he attempted to paint a single moment in nature's ever-changing tableau. Once, when the sprouting of spring leaves interrupted a winter landscape he was painting, Monet offered the owner of a tree 50 francs for permission to cut the leaves off.
Boon for the Institute
Exhibit guides are amply sprinkled throughout the exhibition, ready to share interesting and amusing anecdotes. They note, for example, that Monet painted his magnificent series of the Rouen Cathedral from the window of a lingerie store. Pressed close to his easel by a screen that gave privacy to shop customers, Monet had a nightmare that the cathedral was falling on him.
With its striking combination of Monet masterpieces and historic context, it is not surprising that the exhibition is drawing record crowds. During ''members' week'' last week, capacity crowds of 800 patrons an hour crowded the galleries.
Organizers expect a total of more than 600,000 people to see the show, making it possibly the Institute's most popular event since the 1933 World's Fair.
Patience is required when waiting for a turn to see a favorite painting. It is difficult to linger without feeling pressure to move on from people on audio tours. Having one's view constantly blocked when trying to stand back for a better perspective can be disappointing. Still, the power of the works often transcends the crowds.
In 1893, Monet reflected that ''anyone who claims to have finished a painting is a terrible braggart: 'to finish' meaning complete, perfect.'' Visitors to this retrospective will profit greatly from Monet's lifelong quest to create an exquisite canvas from the glimmering of light on a water-lily pond or a sunset on the Seine. And despite the artist's own reservations, many won't hesitate to use the word ''perfect.''