Before the end of the year, plan to give yourself a Claude Monet day.
Five significant paintings by the legendary French impressionist are on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art and the neighboring Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
That both museums are featuring the same 19th-century artist at the same time was not planned. Curators worked independently for more than a year to obtain the works on loan from other institutions. But the coincidence is a happy one; visitors can see more of the color, texture and depth of Monet’s art than one museum would offer.
Start your Monet day at the Timken, where “Monet’s Étretat: Destination and Motif” is now open. Étretat was a very old fishing village framed by white cliffs on the coast of Normandy. By the middle of the 19th century, the town was transforming into a weekend getaway place, and that is when Monet, then a young artist in Paris, discovered it, said Derrick Cartwright, an art history professor at the University of San Diego and the Timken’s director of curatorial affairs.
“Monet went there numerous times throughout his life,” Cartwright said. “People think of Monet for lily ponds and cathedrals, but all of that work is predicated on the studies and motifs he found at Étretat.
“It has three incredible rock formations with massive arches, where the sea has worn holes through the rocks,” he said. “For most visitors, they are natural wonders. For Monet, they were ideal motifs for his art.”
One of those formations, the Manneporte, is the subject of both Monet paintings in the exhibit. The prolific artist tended to paint the same landscapes at different times of the day through various seasons to capture how changes in the light affect the scene. The two Manneporte works are striking examples.
“The subject is the same, but the paintings could not be more different,” Cartwright said.
The first, painted in 1883, shows angry waves of the roiling sea, and the second, done in 1886, has bright sunshine and a calm ocean. The differences are startling.
“I hope people appreciate how inventive an artist Monet was,” he added.
Also on view is a lithograph of a drawing of boats on the same beach that Monet did as a young man, in 1860, and a portrait of Monet done by one of his American artist fans, Theodore Robinson. Two more views of the beach at Étretat done in 1890 and 1892 by other artists fill out the exhibit. Photographs as well as guidebooks from the 19th century are displayed to show how Étretat looked when Monet was there.
The Timken show also includes a soundscape to add to the atmosphere, Cartwright said. Visitors hear classical music written about water by 19th-century composers, recorded by the San Diego Symphony.
The highlight of the exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art is more familiar. Featured in “Reflections on Monet” is a large-scale painting of the lily pond in Monet’s backyard in Giverny. “Waterlilies,” painted in 1904, captures the reflections of the surrounding grass and trees on the water, said Ariel Plotek, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
For the last 20 years of his life, Monet painted hundreds of studies of the pond. Some views include a Japanese style bridge, koi and willow trees, all with subtle changes in light, Plotek said.
“Most people have seen the lily ponds reproduced on posters, in calendars, and even on neckties, but to be in the presence of the actual painting is exciting,” he said. “Monet has a legendary status, and visitors are struck by the aura of the original painting.”
Two other paintings by Monet also are part of the installation. One, painted in 1882, is of a church at the top of soaring cliffs in Varengeville, a village on the Normandy coast. The museum borrowed it from a local private collector. “Haystacks at Chailly,” painted in 1865, is part of the museum’s permanent collection. In addition, paintings by three other artists of the era echo Monet’s style.
“Reflections” is a relatively small exhibit; it opened in June and is staged in an upstairs gallery.
“We do limit the number of people allowed in the gallery to 15 at the most,” Plotek said. “On certain admission-free Tuesdays, I have seen long lines of people around the rotunda, waiting to see the pictures.”
“Monet’s Etretat: Destination and Motif”
When: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Through Dec. 31.
Where: Timken Museum of Art, 1500 El Prado, in Balboa Park
Phone: (619) 239-5548
“Reflections on Monet”
When: 10 am. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Tuesday, and Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Through Jan. 21.
Where: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, in Balboa Park
Admission: $15; $10 seniors and military; $8 college students. Free for those 17 and younger. $5 after 5 p.m. on Fridays; Free admission for San Diego County residents on Sept. 20 and other third Tuesdays of each month.
Gaugh is a freelance writer.