Exhibition review: Impression soleil levant at Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Huon Mallalieu relishes an opportunity to visit the Paris house-museum filled with works by Monet, one of which is the focus of an exhibition dedicated to the origins of Impressionism.

The Musée Marmottan, in the 16th arrondisement between the Jardins du Ranelagh and the Bois de Boulogne, is one of the lesser-known pleasures of Paris. Originally the hôtel of Jules Marmottan and his son Paul, who left the house and their First Empire collections to the Académie Française, over the past 60 years, it has been enriched by several magnificent donations, principally from the Monet family. There are now about 100 canvases by Claude Monet in the permanent collection, including several of the most famous, and the museum is linked to the painter’s house at Giverny.

The current show, ‘Impression, soleil levant’, could not be in a better setting. It focuses on the painting of Le Harvre that provoked the critics to use the term ‘Impressionists’ as an insult. Although Louis Leroy, with his mocking piece in Le Charivari for April 25, 1874, is usually discredited with coining the term, more accurately, it was the only slightly less sneery Jules Antoine Castagnary who first used it four days later in Le Siècle: ‘If one wants to characterise them with a single word that explains their efforts, one would have to create the new term of “Impressionists.” They are Impressionists in the sense that they render not a landscape but the sensation produced by a landscape. This very word has entered their language: not landscape but impression, in the title given in the catalogue for M. Monet’s Sunrise. From this point of view, they have left reality behind for a realm of pure idealism.’

The show is organised in four sections, each one of which has enough material for an exhibition of its own. The first is devoted to a matter so seemingly obvious that it should not need restatement that Impressionism did not appear from nowhere, like frogs after a storm.  However, given the Tate’s current fancy that it must ‘challenge the assumption’ that Turner influenced the Impressionists, it does still need to be said that he did and, among the precursors, Delacroix, Courbet, Boudin and Jongkind, the curators give us a superb late Turner, Rockets and Blue Lights, and two watercolours. Alas, no Bonington, however. They note the significance of Monet’s 1870–1 stay in London in introducing him to Turner and Claude Lorrain.

The section devoted to Imp-ression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) itself includes impressive detective work using documentary, topographical, meteorological and astronomical evidence to establish exactly when and from where it was painted, confirming it to be a sunrise rather than a sunset, as is sometimes claimed. Then, we come to that 1874 first Impressionist Exhibition (as it was later termed), evoked by two other notable Monets shown in it, Le Déjeuner and Le Boulevard des Capucines, along with 19 paintings from the collections of Impression’s first owners, Ernest Hoschedé and of Georges de Bellio. These show that, far from occupying a central place in those collections, Impression was underrated and virtually forgotten.

In 1931, Les Tuileries, Le Train dans la neige and especially La Gare Saint-Lazare were the real jewels of the collection and their insurance values were twice that of Impression (200,000 francs against 110,000 francs). When lending them for exhib-ition, the owners had to insist that Impression went too. The final section results from more original research and chronicles the painting’s wartime adventures.

Having been gifted to the Musée Marmottan Monet at the beginning of the German occupation, it was evacuated with the Louvre collections to Chambord, where it was stored without anyone’s knowledge for six years. I would strongly advise anyone in Paris before January 18 with time for just one exhibition to head for the Marmottan.

‘Impression, soleil levant’ is at Musée Marmottan Monet, 2, rue Louis Boilly, 75016 Paris until January 18, 2015 (00 33 144 96 50 33; www.marmottan.fr)