So you think of Claude Monet as a successful 19th-century French painter who made a lot of pretty pictures?
Well, check your impressions at the door of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. Because here, in the sweeping, stereotype-shattering show "Monet in the 20th Century," is an unprecedented opportunity to discover Monet as he really was. Yes, he painted beautiful pictures of light-filled landscapes of shimmering haystacks and waterlilies. And yes, he was wildly successful in his time, both commercially and critically.
But what the MFA show reveals is an artist of extraordinary passion and dedication, a man who in his own lifetime fought against the confines of commercial success - refusing to allow his art and his ideals to become trapped by the comforts of money and fame.
Monet in the 20th century, it turns out, was a man who entered his senior years with a stunning vitality and passion for pushing the boundaries of his work, and the meaning of art, right up until his death in 1926. Through those years, he made his most radical statement by remaining true to his roots; Monet's commitment to nature and individualism was not fashionable in the war-torn, tumultuous period that marked the end of his life.
"We think we know him in a certain light," says Paul Tucker, guest curator and one of the world's leading experts on Monet. "But this show is meant to reveal him as a more complicated, complex artist. He didn't want to be boxed in, limited, or seduced by his own powers as a painter."
There are familiar images here: London's Houses of Parliament, the palazzi of Venice, Italy, and of course, Monet's beloved gardens at Giverny. But these 80-plus paintings (some of which have never been exhibited before) are organized in a chronological pattern that shows Monet's relentless evolution toward an epic style of painting that was meant to reveal art as something profoundly more than a picture to hang on a wall.
In one pivotal room, huge paintings that were created after Monet took a two-year hiatus from his work show the artist bursting into an abstract style that was decades ahead of the Abstract Expressionists. Those pictures became the template for what he conceived as the crowning statement of his career - a series of 22 massive panels that he gave to France, which were literally glued to the walls of the Muse de l'Orangerie in Paris, where they remain today.
In the final room of the MFA show, there are six of the canvases he painted as part of this work - beautifully moving and introspective waterlily landscapes.
"With these pictures he elevated painting to being a communicator, to being a conveyor of poetry and a bearer of meaning," says Mr. Tucker.
The Monet of the MFA's show is a man who offers us important insights into the nature of vision and dedication. He remained true to the principles he long cherished - to the value of nature and human expression, and the interplay of beauty between the two.
And while Monet was a master at communicating the truth of what he believed, he was at the same time so much a servant of those principles that he shaped his lifework to try to give these ideals expression that would ring down through the centuries. In this he was heroic; and in this, he offers a lesson badly needed in the final years of the self-oriented 20th century.
* 'Monet in the 20th Century' runs through Dec. 27 before traveling to its only other venue, the Royal Academy of Arts in London (from Jan. 21 to April 18, 1999). Tickets for the MFA show can be obtained at the box office; by calling (617) 542-4MFA; or at www.boston.com/next