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Outside the lines

An exhibit of Monet's drawings offers clues to his breakthroughs as a painter

Clockwise from left: Monet's 'Portrait of a Woman' in red chalk, 'View of Rouen' in black crayon, and the same view in oil. Clockwise from left: Monet's "Portrait of a Woman" in red chalk, "View of Rouen" in black crayon, and the same view in oil. (courtesy of sterling and francine clark art institute)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Claude Monet , conventional wisdom has long had it, was not much of a draftsman. The great Impressionist painter himself cultivated the myth that he rarely made drawings or preparatory studies for his paintings. He wanted to portray himself as a painter of the open air, an anti-academic rebel, an avant-garde pioneer who brought to the act of painting an unprecedented spontaneity and sensuous immediacy.

"The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings," an exhibition at the Clark Art Institute, is out to bust that myth. Said to be the first exhibition to concentrate on Monet's graphic works, it proves that Monet did indeed draw fairly regularly from his teens in the 1850s to almost the end of his life (he died in 1926 ), when he filled sketchbooks with spidery studies for his late water lily paintings.

More than that, the show's organizers, Clark curators James A. Ganz and Richard Kendall , want to revolutionize received opinion by demonstrating that drawing was more important and central to Monet's artistic practice than anyone had previously recognized. Their exhibition does not fully succeed in that ambition.

Simply put, the 20 pastels, three dozen drawings, and four sketchbooks that are the focus of the show are just not impressive enough to warrant a major reevaluation of Monet's work on paper. The show is padded by 14 oil paintings and a series of 20 prints based on Monet paintings by a printmaker named William Thornley , which only help to confirm one's feeling that Monet's drawings are not strong enough to stand on their own. Nevertheless, the show and its accompanying catalog are highly illuminating as they reveal the powerful role that drawing played in Monet's ultimate breakthroughs as a painter.

A large part of the show is devoted to drawings Monet made as a teenager. Picturesque forest and maritime scenes drawn with a deft, vigorous touch in pencil and charcoal evince a moderately promising talent, but there is nothing about any of Monet's landscapes from the 1850s that would attract particular notice if you didn't know who'd made them.

There is a surprise, however, for viewers unfamiliar with Monet's juvenilia. For a few years he was avidly involved in drawing humorous caricatures, and he was good enough at it to be able to sell them to local citizens in his hometown of Le Havre, France.

The most striking works in this vein are examples of a type of caricature popularized by the famous caricaturist Nadar, whose work Monet studied and copied: highly finished charcoal portraits of identifiable men with enormous heads, exaggerated facial features, and tiny bodies. In one, Monet attached a giant head to the body of a butterfly, but none of his caricatures are distinctively stylish or imaginative enough to hold one's attention for extended or repeated viewing.

Anyway, professional cartooning was not Monet's ambition. He wanted to become a landscape painter. In Paris in the early 1860s he briefly attended teaching academies and made many figure drawings -- none of which, alas, has survived. But by 1864 he had decided to leave the academy behind and plunge into painting on his own. He apparently never did learn to draw like a proper academician. Certainly, he was no Degas .

As Ganz and Kendall explain in their lengthy catalog essay, Monet's rejection of the academy and, in particular, of academic drawing, was momentous. In 19th-century France, knowing how to draw was the sine qua non for becoming an artist. Practically, it was the most basic test of an aspirant's aptitude. It was also viewed philosophically as the foundation of all fine art. Drawing, as Ganz and Kendall write, "carried a symbolic and implicitly moral significance within academic ideology." It represented "not only skill but also discipline and mental rigor."

For Monet, then, the drawing problem was twofold. Practically, his drawing skills were not up to academic standards. And he was temperamentally disinclined to submit to the conservative authority of academic rules and regulations.

So even if it is true that Monet continued to draw through his career, what is more importantly true is that to realize himself as an artist, he had to reject the idea of drawing as foundational. To become an artist he had to become an outlaw and break out of the prison that was academic drawing.

This rejection enabled him to make radical breakthroughs in painting. Eliminating drawing as the organizing foundation of painting led to painting directly in response to sensations of light, color, and shadow. It led to a collapsing of clear distinctions between figure and ground (objects and backgrounds) that academic painting would always maintain.

The result was a kind of painting in which represented objects tended to merge into continuous visual fields -- as in the paintings of the Rouen Cathedral and the late water lily paintings -- and in which the surface of the painting would acquire a new physicality as it registered the action of the painter's gestures. A new kind of truth emerged -- not truth to nature or to metaphysical ideals but truth to individual sensory experience.

For all that, after leaving the academy Monet continued to create black-and-white drawings -- landscapes, town views, and harbor scenes -- and the ones on view at the Clark are competently made. But if you think of some of the truly original and innovative draftsmen of the late 19th century such as Cezanne , van Gogh , and Seurat , each of whom reinvented drawing in his own terms, Monet's black-and-white work is almost shockingly nondescript.

In the early 1860s, Monet tried pastels, a medium he would return to intermittently throughout his career. About 100 Monet pastels are known to have survived. With their brilliant, chalky colors and their resistance to fine line-making, you would think that pastel would be the ideal drawing medium for Monet, but the 20 works included in the Clark show give the impression that while he toyed with them from time to time, he never progressed far beyond the beginner stage.

Some of the pastels -- all relatively small landscapes or maritime scenes -- are so smudgy, flat, and dull you may wonder why they're included at all, other than for historic interest. But a few sunset studies made with a relaxed, gestural touch and in sumptuous hues hint at what he could have done had he stayed with it. Misty, almost abstract blue-toned views of a bridge over the Thames that he made in London in 1901 are also beguilingly atmospheric. But none of the pastels have the combination of complex optical intensity and robust physicality that he regularly achieved in his paintings.

In the exhibition's last room, there is a beautiful water lily painting nearly 7 feet wide made in 1918. An almost abstract composition of teal blue ovals floating over deep green depths, it is the product of countless separately brushed lines. It is, you could say, not so much a painting as a large drawing made with paint.

Also on view in the last gallery are sketchy pencil drawings in which Monet worked out very general compositions for lily-pad paintings, but they are not compelling enough to refute what the lily-pad painting suggests: that for Monet, drawing and painting were one. That is why he did not do drawing as a separate activity very much, and why the drawings on paper he did make are unexciting.

There is one curiously anomalous drawing in the exhibition, a portrait of an attractive woman drawn in red chalk sometime between 1890 and 18 95. It is made with the skill and sensitivity of an artist who, it would seem, really did possess considerable academic skill. It's not known who the subject is, it is not associated with any known painting by Monet, and there is not another drawing like it in the Clark exhibition. It is signed Claude Monet, but one has to wonder, is it really?

If it turned out that there were many more drawings like the red chalk portrait known for sure to be from the hand of Monet, then we might have to admit there was a Monet that we didn't know about. For now, that unknown Monet remains unknown.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

'Related'

The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings

At: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, through Sept. 16. 413-458-2303 , clarkart.edu

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