Artists, we are so often told, help us see the world differently. In the case of Claude Monet (1840–1926), this is literally true. Famously, 100 years ago, the French painter underwent surgery to “correct” the cataracts that had been increasingly blurring his vision for a decade or two. After the surgery, though his vision sharpened, colors continued to appear dull and cool.
You can see this in the canvases he made as he neared that surgery and post-op. Viewing a painting like The Japanese Bridge (Pont japonais), ca. 1918–24,one assumes that the vibrant chartreuse and heavy dabs of crimson must have looked slightly more naturalistic to the artist—they are so unusual, so different from his earlier, iridescent pastel palettes. In Weeping Willow (Saule pleureur), ca. 1921–22, gestural lines blur the image until it veers into abstraction. Without the title as a guide, the arboreal referents of his arching brushstrokes would hardly be recognizable.
In “Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape,” on view at the St. Louis Art Museum through June 25, the enduring impact of Monet’s vision hits hard. I mean both his literal and artistic vision—these were inextricable for the plein air painter. The show highlights the rhymes between his work and that of the American Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), focusing specifically on works both artists made in the gardens of Vétheuil, in northern France.
In the catalogue, curator Simon Kelly notes that Monet’s late work had a profound impact on Abstract Expressionism more broadly, prompting painter and critic Elaine de Kooning to coin the term “Abstract Impressionism.” The AbEx movement took off across the pond a couple decades after Monet’s death, and it’s clear that Monet charted some kind of path for the movement.
The connection is so strong, in fact, that in this show, guessing which paintings were made by whom is not as easy as you’d think. “Monet/Mitchell” ought to be in the curatorial handbook of how to make an argument with objects: their shared sensibility is wholly irrefutable the minute you enter the galleries, and its significance deepens the closer you look, the more you read. This is an elegantly pared-down version of an exhibition that premiered at the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris last fall, where some 60 canvases portrayed their shared immersive and intuitive approaches to landscape.
Early on, Mitchell claimed a debt to Monet. Mitchell was born in Chicago and active in the New York AbEx movement in the 1950s, but after that, she worked as an expatriate in France for more than 30 years, arguably following in Monet’s footsteps, joining him posthumously in his garden. But eventually and understandably, she grew tired of being bombarded with lazy comparisons to a canonical male artist. In 1957 she stated with characteristic directness that she “liked late Monet but not early.” By this, she meant—whether she realized it or not—that she liked the paintings by the Monet whose vision had grown dull and blurry.
Both artists painted on big canvases, often polyptychs, using vibrant colors and gestural lines. For Monet, but never Mitchell, this sometimes meant muddying up the hues in a tumbleweed-like haze. By 1986, she was disavowing his influence, and declared him “not a good colorist.” The muddy blobs help her case. She was sure to heighten her colors: lemon yellow where he might have opted for gold, for example. And certainly, she was more comfortable with raw canvas than he (the Impressionists were always dodging claims that their works looked “unfinished”). To distance herself from him even further, she began to mispronounce his name intentionally, calling him “Monnet,” to rhyme with “bonnet.” Monet who?
Both painters nevertheless drew imagery from the same garden and deliberately abandoned horizon lines, that hallmark of landscape painting. They both created all-over effects, though with Monet, you might glimpse a fuzzy arch that’s supposed to be a bridge, or a hazy tree that orients you ever so slightly in space. It seems undeniable that Monet’s vision helped free him from some of painting’s conventions, the ones instilled in him during his time at the French academy, and that this freedom prompted Mitchell and her peers to forsake them more emphatically.
History rarely proceeds in a linear fashion that allows the tracing of cause and effect. Still, the question of whether a few visually impaired painters changed the history of art forever—remember Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas too!—remains a tempting one. The paintings here seem to make such a trajectory plain as day, and it matters because it has implications about disability I consider political.
Too often, the vital contributions of disabled people to history and society are overlooked, or considered exceptional rather than foundational. Too often, the history of innovations born of impairment—the telephone, the curb cut—gets forgotten, and ableism carries on, despite all evidence of its illogic. Too often, blurred vision like Monet’s is described as “bad” or in need of correction; it gets labeled a deficit rather than a valuable alternative perspective. And too often, we look for annals of disability in the margins, when time and again, they are right there, in the canon, altering art history’s course.