Visual arts review: Claude Monet, 1840-1926


• A man looks at two paintings by Claude Monet, "Cabane de douanier", left, and "Gros temps Etretat", displayed as part of the exhibition "Claude Monet 1840-1926" at the Grand Palais in Paris. Pic: AFP/Getty

MONET is ubiquitous. His pictures hang in schools, hospitals and dentists' waiting rooms throughout the land. The white sails of a yacht reflected in the gentle undulations of the sunlit water of the Seine, or scarlet poppies floating above feathery grass, as he paints them, they are the epitome of Impressionism. But how well do we know Monet?

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At the press view of the major Monet exhibition that opens in Paris today, I walked quite quickly through before going back to take the exhibition in at my leisure. You have to do that anyway in the labyrinthine galleries of the Grand Palais to get a sense of the scale of the exhibition, but this rapid overview also raised questions in my mind: what drove him? What was his quest, his ambition as he moved from those pictures of such luminous simplicity to images that shimmer, dance and dissolve in the mysterious surface of his lily ponds?

Monet painted reflections; almost three quarters of the paintings here include light reflected on water, but he was also an artist who himself reflected deeply on what he was doing. He was never going to be satisfied by a simple art of description, however brilliantly he achieved that in those miraculous paintings of the first half of his career.

This is the first major Monet exhibition in Paris for 30 years. Edinburgh University professor, Richard Thomson, one of the five curators, explained to me how they did not want to present a simple retrospective, but rather to illuminate his ambitions through less familiar narratives, above all to bring out that deeper reflective side. A little short of 200 paintings have been assembled.

Many of them are unfamiliar, although as the exhibition has been organised from the Muse d'Orsay – and a sign at the Muse apologises for the absence of 53 paintings – all the familiar works are here, Women in the Garden, for instance, and the enormous fragments from his first really grand essay in Impressionism, the Dejeuner sur l'Herbe of 1865, as well as classics such as Poppies at Argenteuil, Regatta at Argenteuil, Le Gare Saint Lazare and the enchanting picture of girls in a boat, In the Norvgienne. Among them Regatta at Argenteuil is one of his most perfect essays in simple impressionism; pure intuition, hand and eye in seamless harmony, untroubled by self-consciousness with all its burden of fretful doubt. It is this simplicity, the record of the almost animal pleasure in the physical facts of existence, that gives these pictures their universal appeal, even as it scandalised his contemporaries. There are rooms of these Impressionist marvels from the 1870s and 1880s, but if Monet had left it at that, he would have remained like Alfred Sisley, for instance, a very good painter, but not one of that small handful of the very great like Turner or Czanne who have somehow shaped the way we see.

The earlier pictures suggest that we see the world through a shimmering veil of light, but that, beyond it, lies a tangible, objective reality. In the later 1870s and 80s, this changes. In the smoky railway hall of the Gare Saint Lazare, it is as though that shimmering veil is all there is. Things literally start to break up, too. Le Debacle is one of several paintings of floods and crashing ice floes as the Seine thawed after the hard winter of 1880. In 1886, Monet travelled to the rocky coast of Brittany to paint the sea breaking on the jagged rocks of Belle Isle. He went to the south of France, too, and wrote to say that he needed a palette of diamonds and precious stones to render the dazzling brilliance of the light. In these paintings, his brushwork itself gets more broken, too. The colour separates and seems detached from the surface. Nothing is solid.

In 1890 he was 50. He was beginning to have real success, but this seems only to have spurred him to greater ambition. And so the exhibition changes pace. The landscapes of the first decades are mostly small. They had to fit on an easel out-of-doors, but then a section on his figurative paintings takes us back to early works like his Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe or Women in the Garden. These are big pictures as at the beginning of his career he set out his ambition for Impressionism: it should match the great art of the past, but on its own terms. Most striking presented this way is his full-length portrait of his wife Camille in a green dress. He takes on Van Dyck and Thomas Lawrence and yields them nothing.

By 1890, however, it was no longer enough for him just to describe the world. Indeed, as Hume had pointed out long before, the conundrum is can we ever describe that of which we are part? So Monet dug deeper to investigate the complexities of the simple act of seeing. It was then that he started to paint pictures in series. The first is of grainstacks. (We wrongly call them haystacks.) There are five here, ranging in season from the end of summer to winter snow. They shimmer in pink and blue light, perfectly insubstantial, yet, images of the richness of the earth and our dependence on it, it is as though he painted them to reassure himself of the earth's solidity beneath the evanescent light. Then there are poplars waving against the sky and five astonishing paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral dissolving in the light. Time passes and even in the instant, what he sees changes before his eyes. As he paints the ancient church, it is glorious, but the only continuity, the only fixed point is the subjective fact that he is seeing, recording and remembering it. What is solid, if anything is solid at all, is not out there. It is within.

And so a new dimension opens in his painting. That troublesome self-consciousness, absent from his early work, is present now, but is effortlessly accommodated as his art embraces the inescapable subjectivity of time and memory. He travels to Venice for the first time aged 68 and paints pictures that are a pure celebration of light on water. He takes on Turner here and also in the paintings he did in London of the Thames; the sun burning red through a pall of fog to set the sluggish river on fire in a blaze of scarlet and gold. These are pictures charged with feeling; but simple delight is now wondering awe.

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And then in the last section, we look at Monet as a decorator. It seems surprising, but he always had ideas about his painting as decoration and it puts a very different slant on his Waterlilies. There is a selection of them here, but really the last part of the exhibition is down the road in the Orangerie where they now hang in all their glory.

Or perhaps hang is the wrong word. They are not discrete, isolated by frames, but decoration and so part of the fabric of the building. That changes our relationship to them. This would have been even more marked had they been installed in a circular Panorama as Monet had planned it.

Even in these oval rooms, however, we are located by the architecture in a kind of magical, fluid triangulation. The lily pads float on the horizontal of the water. Trees give us a vertical, but these things remind us of the structures of perspective only to deny them and it all dissolves in the mysterious depths where sky and water are confounded.

What he has seen and what we see through him is that subject and object are not separate. Hume's conundrum is triumphantly resolved; observer and observed are as one.

• Until 24 January 2011