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Misunderstood Genius

Why I love the worst painting in Britain

“A Fete Worse Than Death:” A Garden Fete (Adolphe Monticelli, c. 1870–72), National Galleries of Scotland.

If you’ve heard anything about Adolphe Monticelli — and I bet you haven’t — it probably wasn’t very nice. Art critics love to hate Monticelli. Timothy Clifford, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, goes so far as to choose Monticelli’s A Garden Fete as the worst painting in Britain:

We have been bequested eight paintings by Monticelli, each one more hideous than the last. In my 21 years here, none has been hung because I think Monticelli produces screamingly awful art. I call this one a Fete Worse Than Death.

These days Monticelli’s works languish in museum basements, pulled out only to be ridiculed. But during his lifetime this “hideous” painter was admired by his friend Paul Cézanne and idolized by his follower… Vincent van Gogh, who wrote:

I think of Monticelli terribly often here. He was a strong man — a little cracked or rather very much so — dreaming of the sun and of love and gaiety, but always harassed by poverty — of an extremely refined taste as a colourist, a thoroughbred man of a rare race, continuing the best traditions of the past. He died at Marseilles in rather sad circumstances, and probably after passing through a regular Gethsemane. Now listen, for myself I am sure that I am continuing his work here, as if I were his son or his brother.

How could a painter so reviled have been so loved — by someone as universally adored as van Gogh? What did van Gogh see in Monticelli that Timothy Clifford doesn’t?

Since most of Monticelli’s paintings are hidden away in storage, I’ve only experienced one of them in person. I had been skimming “The Circus Sideshow,” an exhibition (at the Met) of nineteenth century paintings centered around Seurat, when I was stopped in my tracks by an apparition. It was the sort of painting I love — impasto so thick you could eat it, a near abstraction focusing into representation if you tilted your head just right. Except this one never did quite focus. It caused me to rapidly oscillate between revulsion and adoration, awe and confusion.

Whatever else that experience might have been, it was definitely intense. This was something completely different; the nineteenth century didn’t have another painter like this one. Maybe I didn’t like the painting. But it made the world feel more spacious, pulsing with possibilities — dreams to be dreamed, art to be made. There were, it turned out, paintings unlike any other paintings.

When I got home, I found from Wikipedia that Monticelli was “a French painter of the generation preceding the Impressionists,” working in a “Romantic” style. Thought mad by his contemporaries, he was certain of the value of his own work, proclaiming

I am painting for fifty years in the future. It will take that long for people to see my paintings.¹

Briefly, his words seemed prophetic: the prices of his paintings skyrocketed after his death, and he was soon famous enough to have forgers.² And then — poof! — the art world forgot all about him.³

A Roaring Painting

Looking at Along the River, Marseille, it’s easy to understand why Monticelli’s contemporaries thought him mad. It’s only a swirl of paint; it looks like nothing at all. Some greens and blues and a few treelike verticals faintly suggest a landscape — but for an audience which has barely gotten used to Claude Monet, it can be nothing more than that: an absurd suggestion.

Along the River, Marseille (c. 1883–1885).

This “landscape” was roughly contemporaneous with Monet’s Cliffs at Étretat. If Monet’s work was on the cutting-edge of landscape painting, then surely Monticelli’s had fallen right off that edge into incomprehensibility.

Cutting-edge landscape painting: Monet’s Cliffs at Étretat (1885).

More than 140 years after its creation, the painting still resists judgment. It is, somehow, simultaneously too abstract and too literal. From close up, everything dissolves, into a style that can only be termed abstract expressionism, 60 years before Jackson Pollock’s first drip paintings. The swirling brushstrokes take on an ugly brown tint. It’s a mess; you have to be a painter to love it. From far away, on the other hand, it’s something a child could have done. The greens and blues are boring, obvious spring colors. The trees are naive. And why is the river broadening at the top, turning into sky against all laws of perspective?

Detail of Along the River, Marseille.

Have you ever stood on a bridge over a roaring stream, overflown to a river by the recent thaw? Maybe you were overflowing too. Maybe you suddenly knew that you had let too much freeze over, and now you could feel yourself melting — the seasons irrevocably changed, the world one great rushing roar.

In the moments when I love Along the River, Marseille, that roar is what I see in it. Everything is flowing: the water, the snow, the grass, the paint. It’s early spring. The ground has just recently thawed and now our feet are sinking in the liquid slush, staining everything a raw, ugly, glorious brown.

A hundred years apart: Monticelli’s Along the River, Marseille (c. 1883–1885) and Ying Li’s Thick Summer (2010–11).

The contemporary painter Ying Li creates landscapes on the verge of abstraction. She always paints outdoors and responds to something in the motif — but her responses are so personal that the result is more mindscape than landscape. I imagine Monticelli following exactly the same process: standing in front of the flowing river, painting his own overflowing, his emotional response to the landscape and to his paint — truly a painter ahead of his time.

The Dead Hare (date unknown).

Monticelli’s paintings do things nineteenth century art just isn’t supposed to do. The Dead Hare is made of disintegration: of grey to rainbow, rabbit to matter, representation to abstraction, fur to paint. In A Painter at Work on a House Wall, a yellow strip of paint is simultaneously a patch of light and a painting of a strip of paint. The colors in La Reverence are there for their sheer joy — realism be damned. Van Gogh, a fellow visionary, recognized that Monticelli was a greater pioneer of what we now call abstraction than van Gogh himself:

Aurier’s article [praising van Gogh] would encourage me, if I dared let myself go, to risk emerging from reality more and making a kind of tonal music with colour, as some Monticellis are.
A Painter at Work on a House Wall (1885) and La Reverence (date unknown).

That Fete Worse than Death

Monticelli’s paintings are more revolutionary than even he dared to dream. They anticipated expressionism, even abstract expressionism. He painted not for fifty years in the future, but for one hundred — sometimes 150. And yet, those 150 years later, his masterpieces remain by turns forgotten and derided. Why?

A Garden Fete(c. 1870–72), National Galleries of Scotland.

A Garden Fete holds part of the answer. In this painting, a slaloming procession of vague silhouettes heads towards an absurdly tall woman with a giant halo, a princess-saint seemingly suspended in mid-air. Some drums appear to be transparent; a white figure (two figures?) in the left-middle is either a man or a horse. The whole thing is flecked and smeared with brushstrokes whose main purpose seems to be to turn the canvas into a plate of scrambled eggs.

Light worthy of Whistler (detail of “A Garden Fete”).

That’s one way of seeing this painting. Let me show you another. (To help you follow along, I’ve illustrated the text with details of the paintings. You can zoom in further on the website of the National Galleries of Scotland.)

Imagine walking through a forest on a brilliant summer day. Shadows become the bottom of some mysterious ocean. Light peels off of leaves in strips of golden wallpaper. Pieces of light hitch rides on pollen; others clump together, clamoring for your attention.

Golden rustle (detail of “A Garden Fete”).

This is the effect Monticelli achieves in his painting. The light is blinding; it covers rather than illuminating, changing people into horses and gaps between trees into halos.

The golden paint, which is shimmering sunlight, is also movement: the artist’s hand pushing the crowd along, making the dresses rustle, melting them into each other. It’s almost sound: you can see the musicians hovering on the edge of the beat, drumsticks raised, feet stepping into stomping.

Golden music (detail of “A Garden Fete”).

Why can’t Timothy Clifford see any of that? What prevents him, and many other viewers, from giving A Garden Fete the benefit of the doubt, from staying with it long enough to allow the scrambled eggs to turn to dazzling sunlight?

Two things: the painting’s age and its subject-matter. Contemporary viewers don’t expect a 150-year-old brushstroke to stand for so many things: for light and movement and sound and paint all at once. So we assume that it stands for nothing at all — a mere failure of representation.

Antoine Watteau, Party in the Open Air, 1717–1718.

If A Garden Fete were a landscape painting, Clifford just might be able to appreciate it. But it’s not: it’s a so-called “fete galante,” a depiction of an elegant garden party. This near-extinct genre is associated with the Rococo, an era antedating Monticelli by a hundred fifty years. In fact, A Garden Fete is a close cousin — almost a copy — of a particular Rococo painting: Antoine Watteau’s Party in the Open Air (1717–1718). This makes it doubly hard for us to glimpse anything modern in it. How can it be 150 years ahead of its time if it’s also 150 years behind?

El Greco, The Opening of the Fifth Seal, 1608–1614.

The New El Greco?

A great wind is blowing. Grey bodies writhe in front of bright, shuddering draperies. The brushstrokes are shaking, and so am I.

This is what El Greco is like. You don’t have to know what his paintings are about (in this case, the opening of the apocalyptic Fifth Seal, during which the souls of martyrs cry for vengeance for their torturers) to be moved. He’s the “easy” Old Master, the one I turn to when I crave appreciation without background research. My eyes, raised on impressionism, find his colors perfect, his elongated, expressive figures deeply, immediately affecting.

But El Greco’s paintings didn’t always look like this. While his exotic, byzantine-inspired works were appreciated by his Toledo patrons during his lifetime, they became “strange,” “sunk in eccentricity,” and even “mad” soon after his death. El Greco wasn’t appreciated until the beginning of Romanticism, two hundred years after his death — and it wasn’t until another hundred years had passed that he gained admiration in the eyes of the general public.

El Greco isn’t the only Old Master to languish in obscurity for centuries. Vermeer’s masterpieces lay forgotten for two hundred years after his death. Caravaggio, who deeply influenced his contemporaries and the generation following his own, was subsequently set aside for a whopping three hundred years. One hundred and thirty years after Monticelli’s death, it’s still not too late for his “strange daubs” to become masterpieces.

A long period of neglect isn’t the only thing El Greco’s story shares with Monticelli’s. Take a look at these three paintings.

The old-fashioned El Greco: Parmigianino’s “Madonna with the Long Neck” (1535–1540), El Greco’s “The Opening of the Fifth Seal“(1608–1614), and Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ” (c. 1602).

El Greco’s signature elongated figures can be traced back to Mannerist works like the Madonna with the Long Neck (left). But in El Greco’s day, Mannerism was already on its way out, while the perceived future of painting lay with Caravaggio’s highly realistic, psychologically compelling works (right). This context explains El Greco’s success during his lifetime (his viewers hadn’t caught up with the latest fashion yet) as well as the fact that he was soon derided (his artistic project couldn’t be more different from Caravaggio’s).

Soon after his death, El Greco would come to be seen as just a confusing Parmigianino: the same elongated figures, minus the realism. And when Caravaggio is king, how can a lack of realism not be an artistic failure?

Take a look at these three paintings.

The old-fashioned Monticelli: Watteau’s “Party in the Open Air” (1717–1718), Monticelli’s “A Garden Fete” (c. 1870–72), Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872).

Monticelli worked during the Rococo Revival, and borrowed the subject-matter and composition of many of his paintings from Watteau (left). But the avant-garde of his day was impressionism (right). Monticelli’s fete galantes were relatively popular during his life, but fell from grace when impressionism became widely accepted.

Soon after his death, Monticelli would become a disturbingly distorted Watteau. While the impressionists weren’t “realistic” in the same way as Caravaggio, they still aimed at capturing things as they appear, not as they feel. And Monticelli’s paintings — the fetes gallantes as well as the later landscapes, portraits, and still lifes — were always about feelings rather than appearances. When impressionism is king, expressive distortion is an artistic failure.

What follows from these parallels? We know that the story of El Greco’s reception didn’t end here. Eventually, his status turned from that of reactionary (or even madman) to visionary. Enough time passed that his art was allowed a category of its own, rather than being judged against its contemporaries. We now understand that despite superficial differences, El Greco and Caravaggio have something in common: the power of supreme emotional expression.

It’s high time for the same to happen to Monticelli. It’s time for us to see that in their different ways, he and Monet were both capturing the same shimmering glory of light.

It’s time to recognize that Monticelli was a Post-Impressionist disguised as a Pre-Impressionist by his date of birth.

Another light-filled garden fete.

Beyond Visionaries

I could stop here. I could tell you that Monticelli was a visionary who saw 150 years into the future, and leave it at that. But there’s a problem: I think calling Monticelli a “visionary” actually obscures his greatness.

To think of being “visionary” as a real value and “reactionary” as a fault, we must believe that there is a “forwards” and a “backwards” direction in art — and that a step not taken forwards is a step back. We must believe that there is progress in art, that it’s somehow better (or even possible) to have anticipated Pollock than to have retreated to Rococo — and that these are the only options.

Monticelli didn’t push art forwards — he pushed it… sideways.

At any given time, unimaginable numbers of artists are moving in scores of different directions.⁴ There are multiple currents, strands of influence, enmities and kinships. Art history is the order we impose on this chaos.

Some of that order is cyclical. Color, or intellect, or realism prevail for a while — then line, or emotion, or imagination gain the upper hand. Eventually, the opposite value makes a comeback again. Within each period, there are artists whose temperament is at odds with that of the age: the madmen, the reactionaries, and the visionaries. Which ones are which?

These labels have less to do with their art than with contingencies of time and place — and not just of their own time and place, but of ours as well. Perhaps, soon after their death, outsiders to waxing styles become reactionaries — while outsiders to waning styles turn to visionaries. At any rate, this makes sense of the reception of El Greco as well as Monticelli. Both embraced aspects of a waning style — Mannerism and Rococo (revival), respectively. Both bet on the losing values of their age: emotion, expression, distortion, imagination. To an extent, both were appreciated during their lifetime, and a little past it — only to be ridiculed or forgotten.

Eventually, when the unpopular values make a comeback, the “reactionary” might be assimilated to a later style and hailed as a “visionary.” This is also a mistake.

The visionary El Greco: Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), El Greco’s “The Opening of the Fifth Seal“(1608–1614), and Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ” (c. 1602).

The Opening of the Fifth Seal was cut down to half its size by its nineteenth-century owner. The daring, cropped composition which inspired Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, isn’t even due to El Greco.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art manages to see something “conceptual” in El Greco’s art.

No other great Western artist moved mentally — as El Greco did — from the flat symbolic world of Byzantine icons to the world-embracing, humanistic vision of Renaissance painting, and then on to a predominantly conceptual kind of art.

To praise a painter for being a visionary is to judge them against standards which couldn’t have possibly been their own.

The visionary Monticelli: Pollock’s “Convergence (1952), Monticelli’s “A Garden Fete” (c. 1870–72), Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872).

But then how are we to look at art? If we want to be “objective,” we should adopt, as closely as possible, a perspective that was at least available to a painter’s contemporaries. But to look at a painting that way, with eyes other than our own, is to look at it as a historical object — not as an artwork, but as a dead thing. As something unloveable.

We’re always cutting off halves of paintings — even of the ones that, on the surface, appear to have floated down to us through the centuries relatively undamaged. We’re always focusing on the brushstrokes while ignoring the fete galante — or vice versa. That’s not to say we’re making stuff up. Monticelli really did care about painterly texture and emotional expression. It’s just that those notions meant something different to him than to those of us who were born after van Gogh.

Was Monticelli a genius? Yes and no.

There is no no single set of geniuses or masterpieces, and no single right way of looking at a given painting. You might find this depressing; I find it exhilarating.

When I imagine all the paintings stowed away around the world, I see thousands of potential masterpieces: artworks standing on the threshold of rooms no one has fully entered yet. It is up to us to discover these spaces, collectively and individually — and decorate them as we see fit. And when this happens — when, 150 years after its birth, a painting opens up to a stranger and leads her to a space that neither she nor the work’s creator had ever inhabited before — well, that is a feat better than immortality.

[1] As quoted by Aaron Sheon in “Monticelli: His Contemporaries, His Influence.” Wikipedia misquotes this as “thirty years from now.”

[2] In fact, there seem to have been some forgeries of his “fete galante” paintings made during his lifetime. It was primarily his late landscapes and still lifes which were thought mad by his contemporaries.

[3] Except for a brief revival during a retrospective show organized by Aaron Sheon in 1979.

[4] In what follows, I restrict myself to the history of art, and in particular painting, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. But some of these points extend to cultural history more broadly, and some even to the history of science.