Monet’s water lilies stimulate pleasure at de Young — as do Gauguin paintings

“The Japanese Bridge,” an 1899 painting in the de Young exhibit “Monet: The Late Years,” highlights water lilies from the artist’s property in Giverny, France.

One of my greatest pleasures ever was to cruise down the Seine several years ago and visit painter Claude Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny.

Seeing the new “Monet: The Late Years” exhibit at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park can’t replicate the experience despite the display instantly and viscerally bringing back memories of that tiny village about 45 miles from Paris.

But it’s damned close.

The exhibit’s composed of nearly 50 paintings that represent a balance between abstraction and representation — including about 20 on loan from Paris’ Musée Marmottan Monet — and cover the last 13 years of the artist’s life (arranged thematically).

Those works had helped him bulldoze through a series of personal tragedies, including the death of his eldest son, Jean, and his second wife, Alice, and difficulties that included the onset of cataracts that almost blinded him.

They, of course, represent the Impressionist period that he’d co-founded.

Water lilies enhance Monet’s land only several years ago. Photo by Woody Weingarten.

Dominant (and virtually guaranteed to stimulate pleasure) are the water lilies, created between 1905 and 1926 (with a two-year moratorium after Alice’s death). Also striking, though, are his multiple depictions of weeping willows, believed by some scholars to represent his mourning and sense of loss about World War I.

In 1918, in fact, he donated more than 300 linear feet of canvases to his country to memorialize the more than a million French casualties. Although the public didn’t get to see them until 1927, shortly after Monet’s death, they’re now permanently housed in Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

Monet, who wasborn in 1840 and died 86 years later, in 1926, and produced more than 2,000 works of art, isquoted as saying, “It took me a while to understand my water lilies…And then, all of a sudden, I had a revelation — there was magic in my pond…Since that moment, I’ve scarcely painted any other subject.”

Strolling into the display, which strongly focuses on the those lilies, my memory glands were triggered first by the painter’s 1899 “Japanese Footbridge,” near his home.

 A caution: The “Late Years” exhibit is drawing throngs every day — of art lovers, Monet lovers and water lily lovers — so if you despise crowds, you might want to wait a few weeks (though there’s no guarantee the hordes will ever let up).

The same day I saw the Monet display, I visited a second, “Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey,” which also stimulated pleasure — albeit in a much more cerebral way.

It’s the first exhibit at the de Young dedicated to the post-Impressionist French painter. It contains more than 50 paintings (including 1880’s “Woman Sewing” or “Nude Study,” his first nude; wood carvings and ceramics on loan from collections in Copenhagen). Plus works from the San Francisco museum’s permanent collections.

Its emphasis is on the relationships and friendships that helped define Gauguin’s spiritual quests — including his family, teenaged lovers and the childrenthat were fathered by those relationships.

But those seeking more than a glimpse of the vibrant colors and exotic settings from the South Pacific environs of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands (after he abandoned a financial career for one in art and left his wife and their five kids) will be disappointed: While there are many paintings most museum-goers will be unfamiliar with — and many, many pieces of rough wood carvings and ceramics — representation of his Polynesian-based art is skimpy.

Moreover, the spiritual component of the exhibit, which leans heavily on explanatory material, isn’t nearly as prevalent as I’d expected. Cited tangentially, however, are the artist’s references to divinity and his “only way to come close to God” — as well as the notion that he failed to find the wealth of indigenous art and religious beings he’d hope to encounter in Tahiti.

But information accompanying the exhibit does pose existential questions Gauguin wrestled with (as indicated by the title of one of his artworks, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”).

Familiar “Reclining Tahiti Women” is part of de Young exhibit titled ““Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey.”

Appended to the exhibit, meanwhile, is a room in which specially commissioned videos, “First Impressions: Paul Gauguin,” explore the artist’s oblique art connections with the Māhū, a small group of “third gender” Samoans — gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and genderqueer individuals. Discussed in it are two ultra-familiar paintings, 1891’s “Tahitian Woman with a Flower” and 1894’s “Reclining Tahiti Women” (or “The Amusement of the Evil Spirit”), which he painted practically, not spiritually, for his landlady in Brittany to pay for his room.

That was par for the course for Gauguin, who had great difficulty selling his work and, therefore, was often broke. Today, his works sell for as much as $300 million.

On a wall at the beginning of the exhibit is a Gauguin quote I absolutely cherish: “I paint and dream at the same time.”

For me, naturally, it’s inverted to “dream and write” — and seeing both exhibits in one day allowed me a definitive splash of wish fulfillment.

“Monet: The Late Years” will be shown through May 27 at the de Young, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive at John F. Kennedy Drive, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. “Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey” will run through April 7. Closed Mondays. Ticketsare free for members and children 5 and under, $13 to $35 non-members. Information: (415) 750-3600 or

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About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at or, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →