Friday, 31 October 2014

“Impression, Sunrise”: The true story of the masterpiece by Claude Monet

Fig.1, Claude Monet, Impression, Soleil Levant, 1872,
oil on canvas, 50 × 65 cm, Paris,
Musée Marmottan Monet, Gift of Victorine
and Eugène Donop de Monchy,
1940 © Christian Baraja
It is well known that the term “Impressionist” dates back to Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (fig. 1) that was shown in the First Impressionist Exhibition. The fame of this monumental Impressionist work until now discouraged any deep investigation of its background. Yet the painting still remains shrouded in many mysteries. Does it depict a sunrise or sunset? When was it painted? It is signed “72,” but was it not in reality “73”? And so on. The ambitious exhibition “Impression, Sunrise: The true story of the masterpiece by Claude Monet,” currently underway at the Musèe Marmottan Monet, seeks to uncover many of these secrets by examining the history of the painting, its 1874 inaugural exhibit and how the piece came to the Marmottan museum in 1940 after changing hands among various collectors.

Fig. 2, Raoul Lefaix, L’Hôtel de l’Amirauté,
1928, Photograph on paper blued in the
album "Le Havre en 1928", 20 x 14.5 cm,
Le Havre, Bibliothèque Municipale
© Bibliothèque municipale du Havre
‘I had something I painted from my window in Le Havre: the sun in the midst and in the foreground some masts sticking up. They wanted to know its title for the catalogue (because) it couldn’t really pass for a view of Le Havre. I replied, “Use Impression.”’

The first person to get unravel the secret of the accurate “when” and “where” of “Impression, Sunrise” was Donald W. Olson, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Texas State University. Based on existing evidence that the painting was a view from a window of a hotel in the northwestern French port town Le Havre by the Atlantic Ocean, Olson determined the hotel by examining maps from that era and more than four hundred photos and postcards. It turned out to be the Grand Hôtel de l’Amirauté et de Paris (fig. 2). Because cranes and masts can be seen below, Olson concluded that Monet painted from the fourth or fifth floor.

It was further revealed that since the window of the room faced east, the sun must have been rising, and that the sun would have been in the position in the painting in either mid-November or late January. In addition, the rise and fall of the tide, the weather and wind direction were studied, based on the depiction of the large ship. This narrowed the time to either November 13, 1872 at 7:35 a.m. or January 25, 1873 at 8:05 a.m. Olson and the exhibit curators concluded that since Monet had signed “72” next to his name, the most likely date of its execution was November 13, 1872 at 7:35 a.m.

In addition to 26 works by Monet including “Impression, Sunrise,” the exhibit is also displaying 35 pieces by artists such as Eugène Boudin, who instructed Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro both of whom took part with Monet in the First Impressionist Exhibition as well as 61 historic items. On this 140th anniversary year of the First Impressionist Exhibition, the exhibit casts another light on the history of impressionism.

“Impression, Sunrise”: The true story of the masterpiece by Claude Monet
Until January 18, 2015

Musée Marmottan Monet
2 rue Louis Boilly
75016 Paris
Opening times:
Tuesday 10:00-21:00
Wednesday—Sunday 10:00-18:00

Closed on Mondays, 1 Jan, 1 May, 25 Dec