Misunderstood Genius

Why I love the worst painting in Britain

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

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.

Image for post
Image for post
Along the River, Marseille (c. 1883–1885).
Image for post
Image for post
Cutting-edge landscape painting: Monet’s Cliffs at Étretat (1885).
Image for post
Image for post
Detail of Along the River, Marseille.
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
A hundred years apart: Monticelli’s Along the River, Marseille (c. 1883–1885) and Ying Li’s Thick Summer (2010–11).
Image for post
Image for post
The Dead Hare (date unknown).
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
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?

Image for post
A Garden Fete(c. 1870–72), National Galleries of Scotland.
Image for post
Image for post
Light worthy of Whistler (detail of “A Garden Fete”).
Image for post
Image for post
Golden rustle (detail of “A Garden Fete”).
Image for post
Image for post
Golden music (detail of “A Garden Fete”).
Image for post
Image for post
Antoine Watteau, Party in the Open Air, 1717–1718.
Image for post
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.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
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).
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
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).
Image for post
Image for post
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.

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

Written by

Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store