What is the Musée Marmottan’s Impression, Sunrise truly the name of? Nothing, or almost! We need to reinterpret Monet.
Is Impression, Sunrise, painted by Monet on the quays of Le Havre in 1872 and now shown at the Musée Marmottan, really the work that gave its name to the movement the painter initiated?
To ask ourselves the question would be almost indecent, but is it the preserve of great paintings? In taking a closer look, things are not so clear, and there is reason to doubt.
Let us be clear, the point isn’t to know whether we are faced with a sunrise or a sunset – although one wonders – or to question the attribution of one of the most famous paintings in the world to Monet. No, the question is about its eponymous value.
Whatever the artistic discipline – literature, painting, music, sculpture, even cinema –, every author who approaches the impressionist movement has quoted the “one” painting presented for the first time on boulevard des Capucines in Paris in April 1874.
Like anyone, he refers to Louis Leroy’s article published in Le Charivari on April 25th 1874: “The School of Impressionists.” The title hit home and, as a mockery, the journalist imagined a dialogue with a landscapist who had come with him to the exhibition:
“Ah! There it is! What does this painting represent? Look at the booklet.”
“Impression – I knew it. It made sense that if I was impressed there must have been some sort of impression in it…”
Leroy could not imagine the significance of these few words, and neither could Monet for that matter. Apart from the title, no one dwelled on the description of the seascape.
There was still a long way to go before the “Intransigents,” a handful of artists who broke with academic art and governing bodies.
On April 11th 1894, eight years after the last impressionist show, Gustave Geffroy looked back at the event and for the first time introduced a determining element in his History of Impressionism: the idea that it was Monet who, without knowing it, gave the movement its name by exhibiting a draft of a sunrise on water (which now belongs to the de Bellio collection) under the name Impression. Someone took the name and threw it at the newcomers who accepted it, just as the peasant insurgents of the Jacques and Gueux had in former times accepted the designations of their enemies.
This reference to the second owner – the first being Ernest Hoschedé, whose wife would become Monet’s mistress then wife – could clear up the mystery that surrounds the eponymous work. The picture in question was catalogued on the occasion of the fourth impressionist exhibition in 1879: No. 146, Misty effect, impression, owned by Mr de Bellio.
Neither Geffroy nor his followers were very concerned about the title. Could this No. 146 really be the No. 98 – Impression, Sunrise – presented in 1874?
Two titles for the same piece; two presentations to the public in the space of four years. How was it that no one reacted? This is understandable: who was truly responsible for estimating the impact of this view of Le Havre on art history?
The painter himself was not actually fully responsible for the title: “They asked me [Edmond Renoir, Auguste’s brother] for a title for the catalog, so I answered: ‘Just write Impression’.”
It remains unclear who found the title too short (E. Renoir?) and added the “Sunrise.”
As for Durand-Ruel, through whom the art market would become a lucrative, and sometimes risky, business, the first financial support of the struggling young artists, along with the State, remembers a Sunset in his memoirs. Ernest Chesneau, a journalist, no matter what he says, pauses in front of an Impression (Sunrise on the Thames).
Apparently the visitors of the show did not see the same thing, so should we trust those who weren’t there, like Geffroy?
Although one might understand why the contemporaries of the dawning Third Republic attached no great importance to this founding piece, the blindness and deafness of our contemporaries is harder to understand.
No one caught on when Monet himself described No. 98 in 1898: “I sent something I had done in Le Havre, from my window, misty sunlight with a few ship masts pointing through in the foreground.”
A few ship masts pointing through in the foreground… Not a small scull boat. This foreground turned everything upside down, if one gives credit to the words of its author.
One might argue, of course, that the painter and the journalist, Maurice Guillemot, shared false evidence or an inaccurate memory, but this reasoning also applies to Geffroy.
In 1890, he attributed this part of Monet’s correspondence to the Water Lilies: “I have resumed working on impossible things: water with grasses rippling around it.”
However, Monet was working on another motif, on other effects at the time, as his stepson J-P. Hoschedé, a member of the “Giverny crowd,” confirms: “At the time, Monet was working on the clear and vivid waters of the river Epte, on a motif of my sisters in a boat and, in this water, he painted perpetually rippling strands of aquatic grasses.”
Of course Geffroy was a close friend, if not one of the first admirers, but he was not the only one, and any admirer’s critical mind can sometimes be caught off guard. In 1920 the master of Giverny would again underline a few mistakes in an essay written for L’Art et les Artistes.
So what did this famous painting No. 98 really look like, with its ship masts pointing through in the foreground…?
The picture speaks for itself:
And where is this painting now?
After belonging to the Rouart family, as many impressionist works did, it ended up on the walls of an American museum, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
You may not be convinced, and after all, who am I? Just a hypermedia art guide writer. A humble author looking for recognition, I must admit. But I am not the last to cast doubt on the eponymy of No. 146.
The first to do so before me was John Rewald, in his masterful work The History of Impressionism (4th edition, 1973). He noted the incoherence between Monet’s description and the painting considered as the source of the movement he initiated. He added another argument: Monet never showed a painting twice during the so-called impressionist exhibitions he took part in.
If I am not the first, neither am I the only one. A lot is being done in the USA, where Impressionism is much more popular than in France, to establish a reasonable doubt on the picture shown at the Musée Marmottan.
So how important must we consider the “mystery of the eponymous work”? Clearly Monet doesn’t make a big fuss out of it. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was probably hard to measure the scope and importance of an artistic movement that went beyond the framework of painting, threw auctions into a panic and drew millions of people to the emblematic sites where this new way of painting was born… in Ville-d’Avray in 1867. Why Ville-d’Avray rather than Le Havre? Why Le Havre rather than Argenteuil or the boulevard des Capucines?