By: Paul Langdon
The newest exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) examines the complex relationship between two of the most celebrated landscape painters of their eras: the renowned French Impressionist Claude Monet and the American Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell. While their lives only overlapped by a single year, their artistic endeavors would go on to be compared to one another for decades. Both Monet and Mitchell spent the later parts of their careers painting the northern French countryside. Exploring the same beautiful landscapes, waterways, and plant life through similar free sweeping brushstrokes that captured the serenity of their surroundings.
“Mitchell’s relationship with Monet is one that evolved over the years. The 1950s in America saw a revival of Monet’s work, particularly the late work. Mitchell was part of that. She visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, and had seen recently acquired late work by Monet,” explains Simon Kelly, SLAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “Then of course, when she moved to Vétheuil in 1968, she was painting a landscape where Monet himself had also lived. She lived in a house which actually looked down on a cottage where Monet had lived, so she was painting that same landscape. She was kind of surrounded by the ghost of Monet.”
This exhibit presents Joan Mitchell’s paintings in a way that makes her shared influences with Claude Monet evident. But her work leaned further into abstraction than Monet’s ever did.
“An important part of this exhibition is thinking about Monet and abstraction. I think the more sort of established idea is that Monet is an outdoor painter whose work is grounded in nature, and that’s true. But at the end of his life, I think informed to some extent by his declining eyesight, his paintings do start to become more abstract. He’s using more non-naturalistic color,” Kelly explains. “That’s something I wanted to explore in this show: the kind of tension between naturalism and abstraction.”
Mitchell has been cited as saying she liked Monet’s later work, and initially welcomed comparisons from art critics between her paintings and the landscapes of Monet. But after so many years of these comments, her attitudes began to shift. “Around 1980 she starts to distance herself from Monet. She makes comments, for example, ‘Monet is a poor colorist.’ I think she essentially got fed up with that repeated critical comparison. She wanted to assert her difference and that’s essentially what you see in her late interviews and in the way she discusses Monet,” suggests Kelly.
“Mitchell had this kind of transnational existence growing up in America but living a much of her later life in France,” he continues. “I think that’s part of the interest of her work too, that she does come from that abstract expressionist tradition. She knew somebody like de Kooning very well, for example. But living in France made her feel very connected to a French landscape tradition; to artists like Monet, or Cézanne, or Van Gogh. So, I think that’s what people will see in the exhibition, the sort of merging of an American abstract expressionist tradition with a French landscape tradition.”
While Mitchell was never exhibited beside Monet during her lifetime, and it’s difficult to determine exactly how she’d feel about it happening if she were still alive today, there’s no doubt that both artists’ bodies work complement each other just as brilliantly as they stand on their own.
“Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape” continues as a ticketed exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum through June 25, 2023. More information about this exhibit and related museum programming can be found at www.slam.org.