For all the ample miseries of the pandemic, opportunities have emerged for those willing to see them. For art institutions, they’ve ranged in scale from the transformative — the now unignorable calls for real commitments to equity and social justice in everything from staffing to programming — to the details of how better to serve audiences just starting to flow through doors at pre-pandemic levels.
The epic task of addressing equity has barely begun, leaving the results firmly in the realm of wait-and-see. The business of better serving audiences, though, is happening everywhere, and nowhere more clearly than at the Museum of Fine Arts’s redux of its collection of Claude Monet works, which opened this spring.
Planned as part of the museum’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2020, “Monet and Boston: Lasting Impression” was a straightforward blockbuster, presenting all 35 of the MFA’s paintings by the Impressionist giant together in a single exhibition for the very first time.
It was just that simple. The pandemic had other plans. When the museum reopened with social distancing last fall, it decided to double the exhibition’s footprint to give visitors more space while severely limiting attendance to ensure space would be there. The result was expansive, giving each of the works ample room to breathe (if you’ll pardon the expression) and reductive, with attendance caps meaning only a sliver of those who wanted to see the show actually could.
If only for that reason, I’m sure the MFA could have extended the exhibition to daily sellouts through to the end of the year. But with a significant number of its Monets booked at other exhibitions all over the planet — in normal times, Monet paintings log as many frequent flyer miles as touring rock stars — that wasn’t an option. So out of necessity, the museum did something far more interesting.
Its Monet rejig, called “Legacy Illuminated,” is lighter in Monet offerings by a good dozen paintings, but no smaller in size. That left a giant hole to fill, which, in a moment of inspiration, the MFA put right at the exhibition’s heart. It’s filled by a mini-survey of works by Jean-François Millet, one of Monet’s immediate forebears.
“I admire him so much; I must speak to him,” a young Monet once said of the older, hermetic artist, who spent much of his time holed up in his Barbizon studio. No such meeting ever took place, and maybe it’s just as well. With his stoic figures and muted palette, Millet, dean of the Barbizon school that preceded the Impressionist explosion, was less an influence than something to react against — simple stone against Monet’s radically combustible flint. French academic convention held that young painters would pay tribute to their forebears by closely following their techniques and priorities. Monet’s furiously dynamic landscapes were enlivened by loose, energetic brushwork and colors so vibrant they approached affront.
Whether that was his version of homage is up for debate. Monet grew famously unconcerned with what the academy thought of him, at least until they came groveling to his studio at Giverny. He was far too engrossed in a quixotic life’s pursuit of color and light — ever changing, always just beyond his grasp — to spend much energy on the chattering class. He shared that much with Millet, if not an artistic sensibility. Famously taciturn and introverted, Millet, in solitude, pursued pictorial perfection in his own subdued terms.
Frequent visitors to the MFA in recent years would have passed his “Potato Planters,” 1861, in the corridor of the European galleries, where it’s been a mainstay. It’s the opposite of a Monet; instead of a burst, it’s a long, slow burn. Walking past it as often as I did, I found myself stopping to look longer each time. It’s captivating in its absolute refusal to be showy. With its bent-back laborers committed to dull duty in a golden summer haze, it’s a study in self-effacing restraint. In spite of Millet’s role as the fulcrum of a reimagined Monet show, “Potato Planters” stayed put downstairs — largely, I suspect, because moving it would feel to many visitors (myself included) like amputating a limb.
Millet’s works are like that. They start slowly, but sink in. They get under your skin and stay there, until they’re just a part of how you see painting, period. They are frank, undecorated, even humble. They disarm with their utter lack of artifice and sincerity of intent.
Millet saw rural laborers in the French countryside less with sympathy than with deep admiration. One stirring piece here, “Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz),” from 1850, arrays a crew of workers alongside haystacks in golden light with a mannered, choreographed style that evokes the heroic history painting of an artist like Jacques-Louis David.
This, no doubt, was a painterly gesture toward equivalency, Millet positioning peasant labor with the heroes of French history. It had a contemporary message, too. Nineteenth-century France, racing toward industrialization, was urbanizing, putting the traditional rural lifestyle in peril. Industrial ideas had come to the countryside, too; “Harvesters Resting” would have been a clear depiction of economic disparity between landowners consolidating huge swaths of farmland and the gleaners who eked out basic subsistence on their leavings. Millet’s figures live at the margins of a changing world, cast aside and left behind. His mission was to capture in them the noble pursuit of honest work, and preserve their dignity for all time.
His world is one of perpetual gloaming, a day’s work bookended by dusk and dawn. “Three Men Shearing Sheep in a Barn,” 1852, is a tiny universe of radiant dust, a struggling animal held down on the barn floor in a rising golden haze. The subtle intensity of “The Sower,” 1850, with its straight-backed worker cast in shadow by a distant sun, always leaves me in bleak awe. There are things I can say about it, but when I have Walt Whitman to lean on, why would I? “There is something in this that could hardly be caught again — a subtle murkiness and original pent fury,” Whitman wrote in his journal in 1881, after seeing it at the home of Bostonians Pauline and Quincy Adams Shaw.
“Pent,” really, is the word, with “fury” a close second. Millet’s pictures capture the futile endurance of a rural working class slipping further down the social ladder as modernity takes hold. His view is ennobling melancholy, as in the plainspoken majesty of “Washerwomen,” 1855, in a silhouetted clutch on the riverbank as the day either starts or ends. Or the plainly beatific “Shearing Sheep,” 1852-53, a simple act of quotidian labor framed as a tender act, cast in light that seems all but holy.
“The unexpected and always surprising way in which the [working] figure strikes you,” Millet once said, “instantly reminds you of the common and melancholy lot of humanity.” This was his humble pursuit, made memorable by his close looking and admiring eye. It is nothing like the bright fireworks of the superstar-in-waiting that followed. To each his own. Fireworks can flash and fade, while smoldering embers linger long.
MONET AND BOSTON: LEGACY ILLUMINATED
At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 17. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.