About the exhibition

In the summer of 1952, Ellsworth Kelly entered the garden studio in Giverny, France, where Claude Monet (1840–1926) had worked during his final decades. The sight astonished him. Among the leaves and broken glass were paintings by Monet of his gardens and lily ponds. Intensely colorful and grand in scale, the paintings were not at that point as well-known and respected as they were later to become.

After serving in the United States Army during World War II, Kelly spent several years in France where his distinct approach to abstraction would take shape. Monet’s later paintings resonated with Kelly’s passion for intense, curious looking at natural forms. During his years in France and on multiple return trips, Kelly traveled to Belle-Île, a windswept island off the Atlantic coast where Monet had painted the peculiar rock formations along the shore. On some occasions, Kelly deliberately retraced Monet’s steps, making drawings at the same locations where Monet had painted. The study of Monet’s paintings, processes, and the places he worked has continued to enrich Kelly’s varied, abstract vocabulary.

Monet | Kelly is organized by the Clark Art Institute and will be on view exclusively at the Clark. The exhibition is made possible by the generous contribution of Denise Littlefield Sobel. Additional support is provided by Agnes Gund, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, and Emily Rauh Pulitzer.

Images above:
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926), Port-Goulphar, Belle-Île (detail), 1887. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923), Pyramids, Port-Coton, Belle- Île (detail), 2005. Pencil on paper, 62.2 x 49.5 cm. Collection of the artist © Ellsworth Kelly

Monet in Belle-Île

In the fall of 1886, Monet traveled to the rocky island of Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany. The artist encountered a barren shoreline pounded by crashing waves and shifting weather patterns. Rather than staying on the sheltered side of Belle-Île, Monet ventured to the sparsely populated coast that faced the open Atlantic. Bracing himself against the elements, he captured the contours of the prominent rock formations and the shifting patterns of the rough sea with bold strokes of paint. By revisiting selected views in a number of paintings, he explored the visual transformations brought about through the interplay of land, sea, and light. Many decades later, Ellsworth Kelly focused on the same topography, tracing the contours of the cliffs with utmost clarity and subtle visual nuance.

Monet in Giverny

In 1883, Monet and his family settled in Giverny, a small village in Normandy. There, the artist cultivated and reshaped the grounds surrounding his new home, adding lush plantings, enlarging ponds, and building a Japanese-style footbridge. Over ensuing decades, Monet painted his garden paradise in compositions that edged toward abstraction while remaining tethered to the natural world. Visiting the older artist’s abandoned studio in 1952, Kelly was struck by the paintings that Monet had left there. The following day, Kelly returned to Paris, where he painted Tableau Vert.

Kelly in Belle-Île

Kelly visited Belle-Île, where Monet lived and worked for a period in 1886, on several occasions. He first stayed on the island in the summer of 1949. He visited again in 1965 and, most recently, in 2005, deliberately retracing Monet’s steps and seeking out the vantage points from which Monet painted the island’s distinctive rock formations. The relationships among the island’s unique natural forms—from the sloping mounds at Port-Goulphar to the rock “needles” at Port-Coton—lent themselves to Kelly’s interest in contour and positive and negative space.

Kelly in Provence

In 2000, Kelly traveled through Provence in the south of France. There, he drew several views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, one of the area’s prominent peaks. Representations of this mountain are particularly associated with the Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne, who painted multiple canvases prominently featuring Mont Sainte-Victoire from the 1880s through the beginning of the twentieth century. While Kelly’s drawings of Mont Sainte-Victoire do not relate directly to the work of Claude Monet, they show his broad interest in revisiting the places and subjects that fascinated innovative artists who came before him.