While the public at large may have fallen in love with any iteration of Claude Monet's sensual depictions of water lilies, art connoisseurs know a dirty little secret about the Impressionist master.
A new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston paints a different picture of the influential 19th century Frenchman who's thought of as the father of the aesthetic movement. Monet's oeuvre includes many more images of the Seine River than that of water lilies, the body of water having a significant influence in his life and artistic development.
Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River, on view from Oct. 26 through Feb. 1, 2015, redefines the artist's identity in the public's eye.
In this audio photo essay, listen to curator of European art Helga Aurisch as she offers thought-provoking commentary on some of her favorite selections on view as part of this impressive collection of 52 paintings.
Aurisch reminds us that Monet once said, "I have painted the Seine throughout my life, at every hour, at every season. I have never tired of it: For me the Seine is always new."
Claude Monet, The Highway Bridge viewed from the Port (Le Pont d'Argenteuil), 1873, oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, gift of Anna L. and Fleetwood Garner.
Monet grew up near the mouth of the Seine, where the river meets the English Channel. This exact location is where a marine painter first introduced Monet to the concept of painting outdoors.
Monet fell in love with expressing himself en plein air. And so Monet writes to a friend about this new discovery, claiming to be painting outdoors all the time — which scholars know it's not quite true.
Still, this setting is where Monet starts experimenting with different ways to portray light, through colors, textures and brushstrokes.
This unusual painting of a sunset, the earliest in the collection, was created when Monet was 24 years old, still very young in his development as an artist.
Claude Monet, Towing a Boat, Honfleur, 1864, oil on canvas, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, gift of Marie C. and Joseph C. Wilson.
On the western outskirts of Paris is Bougival, a village where the creme de la creme of Impressionist artists painted landscapes of the Seine, among them Berthe Morisot and Auguste Renoir. Today, six placards that identify key locations where they painted comprise what is known as the Impressionists Walk.
Across the bridge in this painting is a pond where Parisians used to bathe during the summertime, also where Monet and Renoir painted side by side as they worked on their own versions of the same motif.
Aurisch points out that the palette of colors has lightened significantly in this work from 1870. This sunny image of everyday life looks more like the Monet with which we identify.
But what's really special is how Monet handles the natural light.
Claude Monet, The Seine at Bougival, 1870, oil on canvas, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H., museum purchase: Currier Funds.
Two opposing elements are found in this masterpiece: A somewhat nervous movement in the portrayal of the water combined with a strong and stable sense of geometrical composition.
Aurisch notes that this painting is a breakthrough for Monet. It's the first time we see the undulating treatment in the water that's associated with Impressionism.
Interestingly, two other paintings that hang nearby in the exhibition reveal that Monet was still experimenting with his artistic aesthetic.
Claude Monet, The Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.
For three years, Monet lived in the charming village of Vétheuil, where scholars say that he painted about 150 works. But more importantly, Vétheuil is where Monet turned into a landscape purist.
People disappear from his landscapes.
Monet concentrates on capturing an image and its reflection, sometimes the main motif dissolving into geometric symmetry awash with vibrant hues.
Aurisch suggests that viewers pay attention to the delicacy of the brushstrokes in the subject, and how they become even more intricate in the reflection.
Claude Monet, Vétheuil in Summer, 1879, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, purchase, 1929.
Around 1880, Monet begins painting in series, this work having been executed during a period in which this approach comes to a fore.
This large scale image of the Seine was submitted to, and accepted by, the infamous Parisian Salon, from which Monet turns his back in subsequent years.
The sun-filled landscape, which was painted from his studio boat, reveals Monet's fascination with the topography of this particular environment — the small peninsula that protrudes into the water.
Again and again, Monet approaches this scene from different angles with different artistic techniques.
Claude Monet, The Seine at Lavacourt, 1880, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund.
This eerie painting, however, was rejected from the Salon. Monet may have expected this, though, as he described the previous work as more bourgeois and this one as more radical in composition and color.
And indeed the jade greenish hues offer a strange, creepy overlay that turns this image of ice floes into somewhat of a swamp.
The absence of people also adds to the composition's abstraction.
Art scholars believe that the treatment of the ice floes predicts the treatment of Monet's water lilies nearly 20 years later.
Claude Monet, The Ice Floes (Les Glaçons), 1880, oil on canvas, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt.
Monet had settled in his home in Giverny for two years before painting this work.
Cruising up and down the Seine on his studio boat, Monet found a place where the vegetation, on both sides of the canvas, swept down into the water, creating a milieu in which he could explore his fascination with the symmetry of reflection.
Monet captures this still, sensual landscape with a reduced color palette — mostly blues, greens, whites and purples.
"It's almost hard to tell where reality meets reflection again," Aurisch says. "It's a precursor of things to come that he'll paint 10 years later, when he's exploring mornings on the Seine."
Claude Monet, The Seine at Giverny, 1885, oil on canvas, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Museum Appropriation Fund, by exchange.
The culmination of the exhibition is a series of paintings titled Mornings on the Seine.
Monet would venture out on his studio boat with a handful of numbered canvasses. As the sun rose, he captured the same subject over and over again at different times, starting at 3:30 a.m., each image offering a completely different interpretation of reality.
In this painting, he captures the fog in a mystical, ethereal scene as the sun begins to break through the landscape.
Claude Monet, Morning on the Seine, Giverny, 1897, oil on canvas, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Bequest of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss.
In this darker version in the series Mornings on the Seine, the landscape is more defined, the vegetation appears in stronger contrast against the sky and water, yet his attention to geometry is still present.
Perhaps Sigmund Freud would have a field day with the symbolism?
Claude Monet, Morning on the Seine, near Giverny, 1897, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz.
This exquisite painting served as the catalyst for the entire show.
The idea of putting together the series Mornings on the Seine for the first time was too alluring for curators not to follow through.
While the larger paintings are of one side of the Seine, this image is of the other, giving viewers a 360-degree panorama of Monet's world.
"This painting is very similar to Seine at Giverny, which he painted in 1885 — 13 years earlier," Aurisch says. "Monet has a wonderful visual memory of motifs he's tried before.
"He goes back and he develops them even further."
Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from Oct. 26 through Feb. 1, 2015.
Claude Monet, The Seine at Giverny (L’Île aux Orties, Giverny), 1897, oil on canvas, Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, S.C., gift of Mary T. Chambers.