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‘The most astonishing Monticelli’

Mark Stocker on a long underrated early modern artist


<P data-associrn="1454807"></P> <P>This title quotation comes from no less an admirer than Vincent van Gogh. Of the French painter Adolphe Monticelli (1824&#8211;86), Vincent would also declare: ‘Sometimes I really believe I’m continuing that man’s work.’<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> At a decisive point in his career, between the years 1878 and 1884, the still little-known Paul Cézanne befriended Monticelli and painted beside him in the Provence countryside. If Monticelli had lived just a little longer, Van Gogh would surely have wished to join him too. Indeed, his move from Paris to Provence, in 1888, was partly triggered by his passionate admiration of Monticelli. The rest is art history. All three men took their art pretty seriously, far more so than mastering the niceties of 19th-century bourgeois social skills. Monticelli would speak for all of them when he warned uncomprehending critics: ‘Never make fun of what seems strange to you: there perhaps lies genius, there is always effort.’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> </P> <P data-associrn="1439474"></P> <P><STRONG>Wilde about Monticelli</STRONG></P> <P>Let two further admirers have their say before we go on to consider Monticelli and his painting <EM>A fête in the Tuileries</EM>, a recent Te Papa acquisition. The disgraced, incarcerated, and bankrupt Oscar Wilde mourned the seizure by bailiffs of ‘all my charming things … my Whistler drawings, my Monticelli … my china, my library’.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> Not long after, we find the German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke writing of an exhibition of modern paintings in Prague that ‘the best and most remarkable’ were by ‘Monticelli and Monet’.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Camille Pissarro and Cézanne are mentioned in the same breath. Monticelli had been dead for over 20 years when Rilke wrote this, and such praise testifies to the artist’s continued power and relevance. </P> <P data-associrn="1450710"></P> <P><STRONG>A fête worse than death?</STRONG></P> <P>Despite this massive endorsement from the highest quarters, the 20th century was unkind to Monticelli. He was, quite simply, art historically inconvenient. In a classic instance of putting the cart before the horse, his experimental stylistic innovations were long credited to Van Gogh. The only problem is that the latter’s greatest works were produced over the four short years, from 1886 to 1890, that immediately followed Monticelli’s death! To some critics, Monticelli’s thick textures, bright colours, and almost expressionistic abstraction, look frankly ugly. In 2005, the then director of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Timothy Clifford, quipped of the artist: ‘We have been bequested eight paintings by Monticelli, each one more hideous than the last … I call this one a Fête Worse than Death.’ To which my obvious reply, as an enthusiastic art blogger, would be ‘LOL’. But I would add as a caveat that Monticelli (like Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Colin McCahon, and many other great artists besides) did not see his prime purpose as producing paintings that look nice, though paradoxically, our painting is a highly attractive one.</P> <P><STRONG>Adolphe and Petrus</STRONG></P> <P>If we are looking for a personality similar to Monticelli, a good example is his near-contemporary Petrus van der Velden (1837&#8211;1913), who went on to make a major impact in New Zealand. Both men came from humble backgrounds; both were intuitive rather than intellectual; both were compulsively prolific; both were victims of their political and economic times; both died in poverty (Van der Velden’s extreme); and both were ‘painterly painters’ and ‘artists’ artists’, admired more by their fellows (notably Van Gogh) than by the wider public. Monticelli reportedly ‘lived in a single room, the only furniture of which consisted of a bed, an easel and two chairs, a large red curtain hung over the window flooding the room with his favourite colour’.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> There are dabs of ‘Monticelli red’ in <EM>A fête in the Tuileries</EM>, though these would intensify in the years to come.</P> <P data-associrn="1450906"></P> <P><STRONG>A formative moment</STRONG></P> <P><EM>A fête in the Tuileries</EM> is dated 1856, a still early and formative moment in Monticelli’s career. He oscillated between his native Marseilles and Paris, and this painting coincides with his second stint in the capital. He could paint in a crystal-clear neo-classical manner and copy the Old Masters &#8211; actually far more acceptably than Van Gogh and Cézanne &#8211; but he wanted to do more than that. He was particularly attracted to the freely executed, highly coloured oil sketches of the major Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix. In our painting, we do not yet see the ‘full Monti’ that ravished Van Gogh: the signature style of coloured, dappled, scintillating brushstrokes, whereby figures, forms, and landscape are subordinated to overall, painterly impact. The surface is still canvas rather than the recycled tongue-and-groove furniture panels that Monticelli later deployed for his paintings, because these provided a better support for the sheer weight of his paint. Yet he provides us with a vivid and appealing indication of what was to come in his alternation of impasto &#8211; the thickly applied brushwork which stands out from the surface and is particularly evident in the crinolines &#8211; and the areas of canvas deliberately left unpainted. Monticelli is more concerned with conveying atmosphere than with the exactitude that the Victorians across the Channel liked to see in their art. Paintings in the latter category &#8211; by the likes of WP Frith and GE Hicks &#8211; are packed with characters, plots, and sub-plots, and delightfully so. In contrast, Monticelli’s pictures consistently refuse to tell stories, and are all the more radical and modern for it.</P> <P data-associrn="1450930"></P> <P><STRONG>Painters of modern life</STRONG></P> <P>In Monticelli’s painting, we behold a bevy of attractive-looking women of the Second Empire (well, we imagine so, although their faces and figures are barely defined). All are multi-tasking with their crinolines, fans, and chatter, evidently in the Tuileries public garden. Gustave Flaubert’s shocking new novel, actress Mademoiselle Rachel’s declining health, and Jacques Offenbach’s latest comic opera are doubtless all the talk. But precisely who or what the ‘fête’ of the title honours we have no idea. As a painting of nobody in particular, doing nothing in particular, as a piece of painting for painting’s sake, and being painted the way that it is,<EM> A fête in the Tuileries</EM> is one of the most advanced art works of its period. Monticelli anticipates by six years many of the effects explored by Édouard Manet in his far more celebrated <EM>Concert in the Tuileries</EM> (1862; National Gallery, London), if on a smaller scale. Both artists are suitable candidates for ‘the painter of modern life’ called for by critic and poet Charles Baudelaire.</P> <P data-associrn="1450711"></P> <P data-associrn="1450713"></P> <P data-associrn="1450703"></P> <P><STRONG>France has got talent … </STRONG></P> <P>Let’s think of Baudelaire, however improbably, as an intellectual Simon Cowell. What might he tell the contestants? That art should be there to convey ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ modern world of shopping, consumerism, and above all fashion, the last ‘a symptom of the taste for the ideal’.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> And what better subject than the crinolined women of Paris, triumphant in their artificiality and delicious affectation? ‘Herr Winterhalter,’ Baudelaire might say, ‘what a lovely costume painting of the Empress Eugénie and her ladies-in-waiting! The problem is you are stuck in your international court-painting comfort zone. Monsieur Courbet, you have the opposite problem. You are brilliant and innovative but too confrontational, and your socialism will see all these lovely stores closed. Monsieur Guys &#8211; I like your vignettes of modern life very much, you are unspoilt by the academic system, and your work may be small in scale, but by virtue of this, it is a charming and candid slice of modern life. Très bien! Monsieur Monticelli, you are a new star on the scene, and <EM>A fête in the Tuileries</EM> matches a modern subject matter with an excitingly modern, free technique. Your work is not conventionally finished, yet it’s complete. The title of “The Painter of Modern Life” is a close call between you and Monsieur Manet!’</P> <P><STRONG>Reconsidering reputations</STRONG></P> <P>The reputations of many figures in art history rise and fall. When I began studying art history in the 1970s, Andy Warhol was perceived as a declining talent, whose 15 minutes of fame had occurred in the 1960s but who was well past his Campbell’s soup use-by date. Not so, of course, today. Sir Timothy Clifford’s scathing comments on Monticelli are still pretty recent, not even 10 years old. There is, moreover, no mention of Monticelli in the otherwise excellent textbooks on 19-century art by Robert Rosenblum and Petra ten-Doesschate Chu.<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> In the grand narrative of art, he will always, I believe, occupy something of a secondary role in relation to Van Gogh, in much the same way as Émile Bernard vis-à-vis Paul Gauguin, or perhaps RN Field compared with Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon. But this should not minimise the power of Monticelli’s art works, either individually or collectively. His art should be seen on its own terms rather than by what it ‘begat’. </P> <P data-associrn="1450908"></P> <P><STRONG>Un électrochoc!</STRONG></P> <P>Signs of a Monticelli revival are increasingly evident, however. In 2008, Adrian Goetz, art critic of <EM>Le Figaro</EM>, France’s best-selling ‘quality’ newspaper, was quite prepared to scoff at the pretensions of the exhibition <EM>Van Gogh&#8211;Monticelli</EM>, at the Centre de la Vieille Charité, Marseilles. In the event, Goetz wrote: ‘Today, instead of having a faded reputation [Monticelli] astonishes … his portrait of Madame Pascale in an immense white dress you would have said was painted by Jackson Pollock, while the hands of the portrait of Félix look as if they are done by Soutine.’ Indeed, Goetz likened Monticelli’s impact to an ‘électrochoc’.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP> Two years later, Te Papa included Monticelli’s small, seemingly slight, but nonetheless powerful <EM>Man painting the wall</EM> of a house (1875) in its <EM>European Masters</EM> loan exhibition sourced from the Städel Collection, Frankfurt. The work prompted a blogger to comment on how ‘one [painting] I didn’t like at all on first look stuck in my mind and I had to keep returning to look at it several times’.<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP> Finally, we must reckon with market forces. A very late, and very Van Gogh-like (to be momentarily anachronistic) <EM>Monticelli, Au bord da la rivière, Marseilles</EM> (Beside the river, Marseilles) (about 1883-85) fetched $US413,000, some six times its estimate, at a Sotheby’s New York sale in May 2013. Monticelli once defiantly stated: ‘I paint for 30 years from now’.<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP> In turn, I wonder how <EM>A fête in the Tuileries</EM> will appear to Te Papa’s visitors in 30 years’ time.</P> <P><BR><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in Kate Stonor and Rachel Morrison, ‘Adolphe Monticelli: The materials and techniques of an unfashionable artist’, <EM>National Gallery Technical Bulletin</EM>, vol. 33, 2012, p. 52.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in Stonor and Morrison, p. 50.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (eds.), <EM>The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde</EM>, Henry Holt, New York, 2000, p. 713.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Rainer Maria Rilke, <EM>Letters on Cézanne</EM>, trans. Joel Agee, Macmillan, London, 2002, p. 82.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in ‘Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli’, in <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolphe_Joseph_Thomas_Monticelli">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolphe_Joseph_Thomas_Monticelli</A> (accessed 24 July 2014).</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>James Paton, Catalogue, Descriptive and Historical, of the Pictures, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, Robert Anderson, Glasgow, 1908, p. 139.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in Jeanne Willette, ‘Baudelaire and “The Painter of Modern Life”’, <A href="http://www.arthistoryunstuffed.com/baudelaire-the-painter-of-modern-life/">http://www.arthistoryunstuffed.com/baudelaire-the-painter-of-modern-life/</A> (accessed 24 July 2014). See also Robert Rosenblum and HW Janson, <EM>Art of the Nineteenth Century: Painting and Sculpture</EM>, Thames &amp; Hudson, London, 1984, pp. 278-79.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Rosenblum and Janson; Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, <EM>Nineteenth Century European Art</EM>, Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2011.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Adrian Goetz, ‘Quand Van Gogh voulait être Monticelli’ (‘When Van Gogh wanted to be Monticelli’), <EM>Le Figaro</EM>, 22 September 2008, <A href="http://www.lefigaro.fr/culture/2008/09/22/03004-20080922ARTFIG00427-quand-van-gogh-voulait-etre-monticelli-.php">http://www.lefigaro.fr/culture/2008/09/22/03004-20080922ARTFIG00427-quand-van-gogh-voulait-etre-monticelli-.php</A>, accessed 24 July 2014 (author’s translation).</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2><A href="http://dailykitten.com/chat/topic/sunday-ns-21-nov-10/">http://dailykitten.com/chat/topic/sunday-ns-21-nov-10/</A> (accessed 24 July 2014).</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>See Felix Krämer (ed), <EM>European Masters: Städel Museum, 19th-20th Century</EM>, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 2010, p. 84.</FONT></OL> <P><BR/><STRONG>Dr Mark Stocker</STRONG> joined Te Papa as Curator, Historical and International Art, in March 2014. Prior to this, he taught at the Department of History and Art History at the University of Otago. Mark has published prolifically over the years, especially articles and encyclopedia entries on diverse aspects of 19th and early 20th century art, with sculpture and numismatics (coins and medals) as a major focus. His interests straddle Britain, France (as here) and New Zealand. He is currently working on an article on the Te Pahi medal, a remarkable taonga acquired by Te Papa and Auckland Museum, for the leading periodical in this area, <EM>The Medal</EM>.</P>
Adolphe Monticelli, &lt;EM&gt;Self-portrait with felt hat&lt;/EM&gt;, about 1860–62, Mus&#233;e des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.

Adolphe Monticelli, Self-portrait with felt hat, about 1860–62, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. ,
©Lyon MBA - Photo Alain Basset

image

Adolphe Monticelli, A Fete at the Tuileries, 1856, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2014.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Adolphe Monticelli, &lt;EM&gt;Bouquet of flowers&lt;/EM&gt;, about 1875-80, private collection

Adolphe Monticelli, Bouquet of flowers, about 1875-80, private collection ,
Courtesy of The Anthenaeum

Edouard Manet, &lt;EM&gt;Concert in the Tuileries gardens&lt;/EM&gt;, 1862. National Gallery, London

Edouard Manet, Concert in the Tuileries gardens, 1862. National Gallery, London ,
©The National Gallery, London

Edouard Manet, &lt;EM&gt;Charles Baudelaire de profil en chapeau&lt;/EM&gt;, 1862, etching, Purchased 1973. &lt;A href=&quot;http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/44747&quot;&gt;Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz&lt;/A&gt;

Edouard Manet, Charles Baudelaire de profil en chapeau, 1862, etching, Purchased 1973. Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, &lt;EM&gt;The Empress Eug&#233;nie surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting&lt;/EM&gt;, 1855. Palais de Compi&#232;gne.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Empress Eugénie surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, 1855. Palais de Compiègne.

Constantin Guys, &lt;EM&gt;Vanity fair&lt;/EM&gt;. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

Constantin Guys, Vanity fair. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC. ,
Guys, Contantin, Vanity Fair,ca. 1875- ca. 1885, Ink and washes on paper, 15 1/2 x 18 3/4 in. : 39.37 x 47.625 cm, Acquired 1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C

Adolphe Monticelli, &lt;EM&gt;Homme peignant le mur d’une maison&lt;/EM&gt; (A painter at work on a house wall), 1875. St&#228;del Museum, Frankfurt am Main Photo:  &#169; U. Edelmann / St&#228;del Museum / ARTOTHEK. Image ID:  21027.

Adolphe Monticelli, Homme peignant le mur d’une maison (A painter at work on a house wall), 1875. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main Photo: © U. Edelmann / Städel Museum / ARTOTHEK. Image ID: 21027. ,
© U. Edelmann - Städel Museum - ARTOTHEK

Adolphe Monticelli, &lt;EM&gt;Au bord de la rivi&#232;re, Marseilles&lt;/EM&gt; (Beside the river, Marseilles), about 1883–85

Adolphe Monticelli, Au bord de la rivière, Marseilles (Beside the river, Marseilles), about 1883–85 ,
Courtesy Sotheby’s