Coats of Color

Color upon color. Color, upon color, upon color. Form, formless. Layers, coats. Warmth. It was Monet. Monet going blind. Monet seeing again. Monet nearing the end of his physical impression on Earth. And we are here to see it.

Claude Monet was a pioneering impressionist, painting the world as he saw it, rather than how it was. But to him, what he saw, what he painted, was how things were. And for us, the viewers of the masterpieces, it is how the world actually was too. The blurred lily pads, the geometric Japanese footbridge, the blooming rose archway, the soft-yet-heavy reflections, the transformative light, the weeping trees, and the hidden skies. At the deYoung's temporary and highly popular exhibition, Monet: the Late Years, the viewer is invited into the world of Monet's final 13 orbits around the sun.

In the exhibition, we step into another realm: 45 miles outside of Paris, in Giverny, where Monet saw his last stage of artistic creation flourish. We're eased pleasantly into a garden, crafted meticulously by Monet himself. He even forged the treasured lilypad pond by diverting the nearby river to his home, as the gallery description told. Monet created a space that fulfilled his aesthetic vision, godly not only to his canvases, but to his surrounding reality too. His garden was charged with light, direct and reflected. Flourishing symbiotically each day, such light and the garden mingled; from daybreak to evening dusk, a unique visual experience bloomed. Or at least this is how it was for Monet. And of course, how it was for us in the galleries of the deYoung too.

The exhibit was short and succinct, rounding out at five rooms sporting 50 canvases. It seemed the (successful) curators didn't have to do much in order to contrive an impressive experience: the brush strokes seemed to speak for themselves. The content of each depiction, the visual cornucopia of Giverny, remained largely the same, but with each gallery came a particular new energy. As we walked through each room, we moved through each stage of Monet's late years. We walked with him as his cataracts became excessively severe, as he begrudgingly allowed surgery to see well again, and we even walked with him as his eyes, along with ours, landed on finality, nearing his death in 1926.

The first room brought cool comfort, as Monet was beginning to settle in to the vibrant Giverny. The second room offered a sentiment of settlement, as his mastery of capturing form in his own landscape peaked. At the end of room two, I was already fully enamored with the power of each canvas I had seen. Each painting had brought many worlds, uniquely layered upon one another. Up close, far away, upwards, inwards, downwards -- take your pick, or take it all. When I reached the third room, however, a whole other universe appeared before my eyes. Water Lilies Agapanthus, 1914-1917, floated on the far wall, hovering with palpable energy. It was enormous. It made me feel small, dwarfed by something much, much bigger. Not only the canvas loomed in front of me, but an oscillating convergence of chromatic worlds did too. Monet's genius pulsated. Gentle colors rested softly upon more gentle colors, capturing what Monet perhaps saw as a reflection of some seemingly supernatural light on the peaceful pond in his garden. The light's creation seemed to embrace the sweet, sweet lily pads. He had painted this canvas in his studio, allowing his memories of such a sight to flow with fruits of his creative mind. I was entranced. I stood in awe, unable to look anywhere else. Color upon color. World upon world. This was a force, an almost inescapable force no one could have captured except the master himself. And of course, considering the path carved out before this moment, the curators of the de Young too.

Finally broken away from the pinnacle masterpiece, we moved into the final two rooms. Almost immediately, I thought of Abstract Expressionism (though it was still decades before such a concept was conceived). Monet, the forebearer of high modern art, certainly let his creativity run wild towards the very end of his hued life. In this last room, we encountered colors as form, creating swirls of layered absorbance one could have only imagined. We see buoyant reds and heavy greens. We see lines and strokes and concepts and constructs. We see something we can't find anywhere else in the world. In this nebula of vibrance, we had fully experienced the exquisite ultimate stages of the life of Claude Monet. And there it all stood, hanging on the walls of the jam-packed rooms of the deYoung in San Francisco, CA. Layers upon layers. Colors upon color. World upon world. Warm, completely.