By the standards of even the most feverish of Monet fans, the standing display of the Impressionist master at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is pretty damn good. On any given visit, you’re likely to see 10 or 12 at a time — luminous grainstacks, shimmering waterlilies, a mountain glade, and more often than not, that gleefully bizarre portrait of Camille, the painter’s wife, swathed in a demonic kimono.
So how would you feel about seeing, say, 35 Monet paintings all at once? That’s the full complement of the museums’ holdings. Out they’ll come in April, reunited for the first time in a quarter century.
The occasion is “Monet and Boston: Lasting Impression,” announced Sunday as a new addition to the museum’s roster of 150th anniversary spectacles. It’s the most classic of things: Great work by an unassailably great artist — a game changer, one for whom seeing became a lifelong pursuit and, ultimately, the true subject of his work.
Given the times, though, the exhibition feels alien and strange, like a wormhole opened to a simpler time. The MFA has been so busy lately apologizing — to women, to ancient civilizations, to the artists it collected then mostly ignored — that airing several dozen Impressionist masterpieces feels almost quaint. A painting exhibition, predicated only on the love of extravagantly beautiful, monumentally important things? What’s that?
Throwback or not, “Monet and Boston” promises to be an outsize display of both the artist and the museum’s long relationship with him. The MFA — and the city — takes plenty of lumps for its infamous miss on American art’s golden moment, when abstraction and then conceptualism ruled the world with homegrown talent leading the charge (on a recent tour of the MFA’s “Five Propositions,” curator Reto Thüring lamented the museum’s lack of a single major work by Robert Rauschenberg).
With Monet, the museum was right in step, collecting his works early and often. By the time of his death in 1926, the MFA already had more than 20 of the artist’s works. The show, then, serves as a Monet mini-retrospective and an almost diaristic tale of the city’s long affection for him.
The collection tracks Monet’s early absorption of the Barbizon school, from 1863′s “Woodgatherers on the Edge of the Forest," all the way up to his full-blown, fully-formed Impressionist self with 1908′s “Grand Canal, Venice.” (A missing piece would be Monet’s final years when, with failing eyesight, he composed his vast, amorphous waterlilies, which hang permanently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in Musée de l’Orangerie in France.)
You can’t have it all, but the MFA’s Monet collection comes close. A few additions will flesh things out for the “Monet and Boston” exhibition — two from a local collector, four on long-term loan from private collections that have been in the MFA’s hands so long they feel like part of the family. Together, that makes for 41 Monet paintings, though you’ll have to wait for June to see the full group. That’s when the MFA’s lone latecomer, 1897′s “Morning on the Seine, near Giverny” wings in from a loan to an exhibition in Potsdam.
Jet-setting, for the museum’s Monets, is to be expected. “That’s what the collection does,” said Katie Hanson, the MFA’s associate curator of European paintings, who organized the show. “It represents us, and the artist, around the world.”
What the collection also does is represent the city’s link to one of the cornerstones of Modernism. Monet was unfailing in his painterly vision; he didn’t create scenes so much as moments, infatuated with subtle shifts in light and weather, working in series (half a dozen or more deep) to capture tonal atmospheric shifts across steadfast mountain and field, bridge and abbey (the MFA has several pairs, but none so much as three). Artists here were entranced by his vision. Lilla Cabot Perry visited Monet at Giverny and took photos of him at work. John Singer Sargent, a favorite artistic son, corresponded with him (Sargent wrote of Monet’s painting of the Creuse valley: “you’ve managed to capture unfathomable things”). Sargent even captured Monet at work on “Meadow With Haystacks near Giverny,” a painting that eventually landed in the MFA collection. (Sargent’s painting, however, is in London; his letter will be part of the MFA show.)
Every painting tells a story, for the artist and the museum. On an outsize cart, Hanson wheeled in a teaser during a recent interview about the exhibition: two pairs of paintings with tales of their own. On one side were a couple of Monets given by the local collector Denman Waldo Ross in 1906, the first the museum came to own (in total, he gave three). On the other side were the first Monets the museum ever showed, in 1891, loaned by another collector named Anna Perkins Rogers, who gifted the works to the MFA 30 years later. Collectors, like artists, have their quirks: Ross loaned his Monets broadly for some 15 years before giving them to the museum on the condition they never leave the building. As for Rogers, she seemed eager for the museum to have her paintings — she loaned them for a show just a year after acquiring them in 1890 — but held on to them for three more decades all the same.
But that’s just the mechanics, the nuts and bolts of how and where and why. What Monet offers, across his glorious canvases, is something that can’t be tied up neatly with a bow. “We don’t have all the answers yet,” Hanson said. “That’s why continued looking repays us, over and over again.” A quarter century after these paintings were last seen together, Boston gets to continue the story, in full, again.
MONET AND BOSTON: LASTING IMPRESSION
April 18-Aug. 23, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.