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Color them impressed

Monet in Normandy is the N.C. Museum of Art's big O

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"Garden at Sainte-Adresse" 1867, oil on canvas, 38 5/8 x 51 1/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART

The North Carolina Museum of Art's new Monet exhibition can best be described as the museum's "big O." This breathtaking collection of 50 paintings by French impressionist Claude Monet is the exquisite climax of six years of coaxing and persuasion by museum director Larry Wheeler and European Curator David Steel. It promises to be the one, the big show that will push the NCMA—and the Triangle—over the edge, from Mayberry status into the golden realm of internationally acclaimed museums.

The exhibition, which opened last week and runs until Jan. 14, focuses on paintings Monet made in the Normandy region of France, a place that captivated him for most of his life. It includes seascapes and landscapes, a trilogy of Rouen cathedral paintings, a famous haystack and, of course, water lilies. The paintings are a kind of romantic travelogue of Normandy and showcase most of the scenes for which Monet became famous. It includes works on loan from France, New York and Japan--none of which have ever been exhibited together before. And Raleigh is the only city on the East Coast--in fact, only one of three cities worldwide--that will host the show.

It is a monstrously ambitious project, a huge scholarly collection of works that is expected to draw more than 150,000 visitors to the museum during its three-month run. An exhibition of this scope begs the immediate question: Why us? How did the NCMA score such a massive art coup?

Wheeler says it was the curator's tenacity that pulled it all together. Steel also helped bring two previous big-time exhibits to the museum: Matisse, Picasso and the School of Paris in 2004 and Rodin in 2000. Through Steel's "creative energy," Wheeler says, the Triangle was able to convince legendary museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, to loan out the precious Monets. Working with Richard Brettell, one of the top impressionist curators in America, Steel was able to partner with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and The Cleveland Museum of Art to formulate the show. Together they scoured the world to find the best examples of Monet's art in Normandy.

But lest anyone forget, Wheeler reminds us, "It was the North Carolina Museum of Art that drove this project from the beginning."

Monet in Normandy
North Carolina Museum of Art through Jan. 14, 2007

Even those with only a passing interest in art will find a familiar painting or scene in this show. But no matter how many times you've seen a Monet in a book (or on a tote bag), the experience pales in comparison to standing in front of the canvas. To see these paintings in person is to experience the wind, the fog and the golden light of northern France in the late 1800s.

The show opens with a moody painting, "The Pointe de la Heve at Low Tide," from 1865, which depicts a seascape with a cloudy sky. It then progresses through a series of galleries to end with the spectacular "Water Lilies" (1914-17), which was painted at the end of Monet's life. The show gives insight on how Monet must have viewed Normandy, as well as a new understanding of how he traveled around the region to record it. Even in his later years, when he confined his work to his own garden and pond, he was driven to reproduce the region's spectacular and unique light.

The walls of the exhibition hall are painted sky blue. The intended effect, Steels says, is for the viewer to feel as if he is outside, open to the elements. The blue shows off the paintings' wide color palette without competing with it, and the overhead spots allow ample mock "sunlight" to shine down from overhead. This set-up celebrates how Monet painted, out in the open, or en plein air.

Paintings such as "Garden at Sainte-Adresse," which Steel calls "one of the most important paintings" in the impressionist movement, are full of hope and cheer. Monet's popularity as a painter is surely due in part to the optimism in his work. In "The Cliff, Etretat, Sunset," for instance, the choppy sea and ominous silhouette of the rocks at Etretat are subdued by a bright orange ball of sun.

Up close the works are dense with paint and color. The paint is so thick and tactile on "Rouen Cathedral Façade and Tour d'Albane (Morning Effect)" that it takes enormous willpower not to reach out and touch it. From afar, the effect is lovely and dreamy.

The side-by-side exhibition of so many of the artist's major works offers an extraordinary education on Monet's vision. Seeing three versions of Rouen Cathedral, or a customs house, or even the water lilies, allows visitors to watch Monet's evolution as a painter. And, more importantly, it allows them see impressionism as it is unveiled through the years.

"The Cliff, Etretat, Sunset" 1882-83 - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART

To get 50 such paintings together in one exhibit required deep pockets. Corporate sponsors including GlaxoSmithKline, Progress Energy and American Airlines helped pay the insurance, shipping costs and other bills associated with a show of this magnitude.

Museum heads, sponsors and local leaders are hoping that investment will pay off by luring thousands of people to come to Raleigh to see art--and spend money.

As of Oct. 13, the museum had sold nearly 20,000 advance tickets. Administrators expect to ring up more than 150,000 tickets--at $15 apiece (more costly than any other exhibition)--by the time the show closes.

The show has already been to the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, where it drew over 300,000 visitors during the summer; Raleigh is the second city. From here, it will go to Cleveland. Steel says playing second fiddle was a conscious choice. NCMA museum staff hope to capitalize on the holidays to sell extra trinkets (the Fine Arts Museum raked in more than $2 million in merchandise sales during the Monet run), as well as take advantage of school breaks and family members visiting on vacation.

The Triangle can expect nearly $12 million of "visitor spending and economic impact" thanks to the show, according to the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Then there is the less quantifiable investment in the city's reputation. Steel says the NCMA is already well regarded by its peers in the international art world. "Our reputation is solid gold. But the exhibit may get people in the museum that have never been here." Making the numbers work would help convince future sponsors that art does pay for itself. "And maybe it will show some of our peers in the museum world that Raleigh is a destination," Steel says.

After Cleveland, the paintings will return to their respective homes around the world, and Steel will be faced with the onerous task of thinking up another blockbuster for the museum.

"If someone had told me 10 years ago we would be hosting an exhibition of Monet paintings, I wouldn't have believed it," Steel says. "For a museum of our size, this is nothing short of a miracle. This is the fruit of dreaming big."

Monet in Normandy is on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh through Jan. 14, 2007. Tickets cost $15 for general admission; $12 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. For more information, call the museum box office at 715-5923 or visit the North Carolina Museum of Art Web site.

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