Monet’s great war effort

Claude Monet wanted to be buried in a buoy. ‘This idea seemed to please him,’ his friend Gustave Geffroy wrote. ‘He laughed under his breath at the thought of being locked forever in this kind of invulnerable cork, dancing among the waves, braving storms, resting gently in the harmonious movements of calm weather, in the light of the sun.’ Tethered below the water, but bobbing on the surface like a necropolitan bud, this bizarre image would have the great Impressionist finally metamorphosing into the thing that had so dominated his later years: the water lily. For an author who has taken on those titans of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo,

First impressions | 21 July 2016

The last boat I saw in the galleries on the Mound was a canoe that the Scottish painter Jock McFadyen had been using to explore viewpoints around the waterways of London. Now another vessel has sailed in, a full-scale recreation of the studio boat built in 1857 by the French painter Charles-François Daubigny, from the bow of which he ushered in the movement that would come to be known as impressionism. Daubigny, a now sorely neglected artist, established an entirely novel approach to landscape painting that was to influence Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne and also, quite explicitly, Van Gogh. Inspiring Impressionism has an admirably clear narrative and it places Daubigny

Show me the Monet

Philip Larkin once remarked that Art Tatum, a jazz musician given to ornate, multi-noted flourishes on the keyboard, reminded him of ‘a dressmaker, who having seen how pretty one frill looks, makes a dress bearing ninety-nine’. If you substitute paintings of flower-beds and dappled sunlight for chromatic keyboard runs, something similar is true of the new blockbuster at the Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden. That, however, is only half the verdict on this curious affair. It is a show that feels a bit overblown — like a visit to an enormous Victorian conservatory — but contained inside it is another, triumphantly successful exhibition that is inspiring, exalting and almost

Wild at heart | 21 January 2016

At the Louvre the other day there was a small crowd permanently gathered in front of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. They constantly took photographs of the picture itself, and sometimes of themselves standing in front of it. No such attention was given to the other masterpieces of French painting hanging nearby, including many by Delacroix. This painting from 1830 — with its glamorous, bare-breasted personification of liberté, Tricolore in hand, followed by heroic representatives of the working and middle classes — has become an international shorthand for France itself. Whether or not this is a valid symbol of the country, it is a misleading guide to Delacroix’s own feelings

Eastern reflections

In his introductory remarks to the Afro–Eurasian Eclipse, one of his later suites for jazz orchestra, Duke Ellington remarked — this was in 1971 — that east and west were blending into one another, and everyone was in danger of losing his or her identity. Nowhere is it easier to observe that phenomenon than on the little island of Naoshima, in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, which I visited last month. Naoshima possesses sandy beaches and tranquil blue waters dotted with further islets stretching towards the horizon. But this is an especially heavenly spot for a relatively small and specialised, even eccentric, group of travellers. For more than two

Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery reviewed: a mixed bag of sometimes magnificent paintings

When it was suggested that a huge exhibition of Impressionist paintings should be held in London, Claude Monet had his doubts. Staging such an exhibition, he wrote to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, would be ‘unwise’ and only likely to baffle a London public that ‘knows very little about us’. That was in 1904. What, one wonders, would Monet make of Inventing Impressionism, which has just opened at the National Gallery 111 years later? It can hardly be said now that the British know little of the Impressionists. On the contrary, you could argue we’ve seen quite enough of them in recent decades. The challenge for a gallery planning to put

2015 in exhibitions – painting still rules

The New Year is a time for reflections as well as resolutions. So here is one of mine. In the art world, media and fashions come and go, but often what truly lasts — even in the 21st century — is painting. Over the past 12 months, there has been a series of triumphs for pigment on canvas, including the glorious Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery, and a demonstration by Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy that we still have painters of towering stature among us. What will 2015 hold? Well, as far as painting is concerned — both old master and contemporary — there are some extremely promising