Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature features 124 paintings in three sizable exhibition galleries on two floors—a veritable marathon for the eyes, mind, and imagination. Taking us from Monet’s roots in coastal Normandy, across the Channel to London, on to the lagoons of Venice, into the snowy depths of Norway, and to the sun-soaked Mediterranean coast (with some time in Paris to boot), it covers a hearty geographical distance. We also traverse nearly seven decades of the artist’s career and every variation of his approach to landscape painting imaginable.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience such a large number of artworks by the Impressionist master in Denver, so how do you make the most of your time in the galleries? Whether you visit one time or have the chance to come back for another stroll through the exhibition, here are a few tips for pacing yourself and soaking up the dazzling details of Monet’s paintings along the way.
1. Survey the space. One thing I love about our staff and exhibition designers’ creativity is the way they transform the galleries from one exhibition to the next. Check out your surroundings as you enter (on level 2), and immerse yourself in the palette, graphics, and spaces that help tell the story of the moods and atmospheres of the places Monet painted.
Note that there are several seating areas within the exhibition (including stations that show videos exploring Monet's work). You also can borrow a gallery stool to carry from gallery to gallery.
2. Fire up your senses and imagination. Part of Monet’s process was his own immersion in the great outdoors. As you linger in front of his paintings, imagine what he must have heard, smelled, felt, or seen as he painted in a particular spot. You might just find yourself transported directly into his tranquil fields, stormy seas, or cold, wintery scenes.
3. Get close, step back. What do you see when you are within arm’s reach of the work versus a few feet back? The surface effects of Impressionist paintings can be beguiling. From afar, colorful brushstrokes merge into distinct forms. Up close, they reveal a vibrating patchwork of individual marks. Make no mistake, though…Monet didn’t just slap-dash his paint on the canvas in an effort to beat the changing light. His mark-making was deliberate and calculated. Notice how he uses his paintbrush to suggest the movement of wind, clouds, or water, and revel in these visible traces of his hand at work.
4. Consider color. For artists of the Impressionist era, relatively new synthetic paints, with their vibrant colors, must have left them feeling like kids in a candy shop. Monet chose his colors carefully to suggest a time of day, season, weather, or atmosphere. He also picked up on the colors that characterized a particular place. How does the palette change as you go from one gallery (or geographical location) to the next? How many colors can you find in a field of snow (hint: it isn’t really white). Notice any black? Probably not much, or any at all. The Impressionists relied on color to translate shadows and darkness onto their canvases.
5. Just breathe. I’m currently enjoying Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, and he mentions contemporary critics who described the restorative, soothing impact of Monet’s paintings of nature. He also cites Monet himself, who suggested that his paintings might offer viewers “an asylum of peaceful meditation.” As you contemplate a painting face-to-face or enjoy it from a distance while taking a break at one of the seating areas in the exhibition, incorporate this spirit of tranquility into your experience by simply breathing. Slow, deep breaths help us to connect with ourselves and our surroundings. I can’t think of a more relaxing way to commune with Monet’s enchanting images of nature.
Image: Gallery view of Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature. Photo © Denver Art Museum