Monet's 'secret' collection on show

A painting entitled Madame Monet Et Son Fils Jean Dans Le Jardin A Argenteuil (Camille Monet And Her Son Jean In The Garden At Argenteuil), by French artist Pierre Auguste Renoir, on show at the exhibition, Monet Collector: Masterpieces From His Coll
A painting entitled Madame Monet Et Son Fils Jean Dans Le Jardin A Argenteuil (Camille Monet And Her Son Jean In The Garden At Argenteuil), by French artist Pierre Auguste Renoir, on show at the exhibition, Monet Collector: Masterpieces From His Collection, at the Marmottan Monet Museum. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

A showcase in Paris of 120 paintings that were bought and kept by French artist Claude Monet gives a glimpse of his tastes in art

PARIS • The "secret" art collection amassed by Claude Monet, the father of Impressionism, went on display for the first time in Paris on Thursday, 90 years after his death.

French art historians spent four years tracking down the startling collection of work by contemporaries, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro and Eugene Delacroix, that Monet secretly bought.

"I am selfish. My collection is for myself only... and for a few friends," Monet once told journalists who called in on him at his country home at Giverny in Normandy, whose remarkable gardens draw half a million visitors a year.

"We knew really very little about the collection," said Ms Marianne Mathieu, one of the curators of the show at the Marmottan Monet Museum, which has brought together the bulk of the collection.

"Monet didn't speak about his private life and kept his art collection just as private."

He kept the paintings upstairs in his private apartments at Giverny, far from prying eyes, she said, and he did not keep records of what he bought.

While the great and good came to visit him as he painted his famous water lilies, only a privileged few were allowed a peek at the canvases he kept for himself.

An inventory was taken by experts when he died in 1926, but it was destroyed during World War II.

So Ms Mathieu and her colleague Dominique Lobstein had to hunt down the 120 works, which included several by Edouard Manet and Eugene Boudin and more than 20 albums of prints by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Monet began building his collection when he was still on the breadline with gifts from painter friends such as Renoir and Manet.

Even then, his mania for privacy was evident.

He was reluctant to sit for Manet with his wife and model Camille, and in the unfinished The Painter Monet In His Studio that Manet later gave him, his face is only sketched.

His beloved Camille died of tuberculosis in 1879 with her husband immortalising her on her deathbed. Poignantly, he kept a Renoir picture of her and their son to his own dying day.

Ms Mathieu said the artist was a "determined and secretive" collector.

When he lent Pissarro 15,000 francs to buy a house, he demanded his acclaimed 1891 painting Peasant Women Planting Stakes in return.

But Pissarro's wife Julie - to whom the painting had been gifted - would not let it go. A stand-off ensued that Monet eventually won.

The struggle was all the more surprising, given that the painting was more in the Neo-Impressionist style of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, whom Monet had pointedly refused to exhibit alongside, Ms Mathieu said.

"This shows there was a dichotomy between what he said publicly and what he collected," she said.

In fact, Monet kept four watercolours by Signac until his death.

Clearly, however, he was not overly fond of Edgar Degas, acquiring only one small pastel by the aristocratic artist who had cold-shouldered him while gathering his own enormous collection.

As soon as he had the cash, Monet began collecting works by his "masters" - Delacroix, Boudin and Jean- Baptiste-Camille Corot - although he did not acknowledge their influence on his work until late in his life.

From the 1890s onwards, as he became rich and famous, Monet concentrated on buying Renoir and Cezanne.

And tellingly, he bought a series of nudes from Renoir, a subject he never dared tackle himself.

He also splashed out on Orientalist works, paying 10,000 francs - a small fortune in 1881 - for Renoir's The Mosque (Arab Festival).

Most of the works in the show, which runs until January next year, come from the Marmottan Monet Museum's own vaults, which hold more Monets than any other gallery in the world.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline 'Monet's 'secret' collection on show'. Print Edition | Subscribe