“Don’t talk to me about Monet!”
That command, from the American artist Joan Mitchell, indicated how much she hated being compared to Claude Monet, as the art historian Suzanne Pagé discovered when she visited her in Vétheuil, near Paris, in 1982.
“She was a very strong personality” and “could be very direct,” said Ms. Pagé, who, that same year, staged a major solo show of Ms. Mitchell’s work at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. She described the painter’s residence as “a very pretty house” with a terrace and garden, where she hosted and mentored many young artists, with music always playing in the background.
“It was as if she was painting the musical notes,” Ms. Pagé said.
Thirty years after her death, Ms. Mitchell is now being officially paired with Monet. Two exhibitions — collectively titled “Monet-Mitchell” — at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, illustrate the parallels. Ms. Pagé, the foundation’s artistic director, has curated one of these shows, “Claude Monet-Joan Mitchell, Dialogue,” which puts the artists’ works together.
The Fondation Vuitton, which has a dozen works by Ms. Mitchell in its collection, has co-produced the “Dialogue” exhibition with the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which possesses the world’s largest collection of Monet works — including several monumental paintings of water lilies — donated by his son Michel.
However much Ms. Mitchell disliked the Monet comparison, it is not unreasonable. Her terrace overlooked a house that Monet occupied from 1878 to 1881, as well as a landscape that he painted. Vétheuil is near Giverny, Monet’s final abode, where he produced large-scale works, including the celebrated water lilies series, which were inspirational to Abstract Expressionists, including Ms. Mitchell. And some of her own late works unmistakably hark back to the paintings that Monet produced in his twilight years at Giverny.
“It’s thrilling for Joan Mitchell to be paired in dialogue with probably the most popular artist in the Western world,” said Katy Siegel, who curated the second “Monet-Mitchell” show, “Joan Mitchell, Retrospective,” with Sarah Roberts. The retrospective has opened at the Fondation Vuitton after being presented at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Why was Ms. Mitchell so irritated by the parallels drawn to Monet?
“Artists can be very prickly when it’s implied that they’re influenced by someone,” said Ms. Siegel, a professor of art history at Stony Brook University in New York. Always hearing the name Monet, and being associated with him by critics, was a source of annoyance, Ms. Siegel explained, because Ms. Mitchell “wanted to be her own person.”
The Fondation Vuitton — a contemporary-art space built and funded by LVMH, the French luxury-goods conglomerate — and the Marmottan started discussions about a show linking Monet and Ms. Mitchell a few years ago. The “Dialogue” exhibition is part of a series of off-site projects that the Marmottan has engaged in to avoid programming too many Monet-themed shows on its own premises in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, said Marianne Mathieu, the Marmottan’s curatorial director.
The exhibition consists of some 60 works spread across five levels in the vast building, Ms. Mathieu said. She described it as “an experience that has never been undertaken,” in which “monumental works” by both artists have been placed side by side, allowing visitors, as well as scholars, to “compare” them — “see where they mysteriously converge, and see what sets them apart,” she said. Because of the space required, such juxtaposition wasn’t possible before, she added.
Ms. Mitchell has quite a history: She was born in Chicago in 1925. Soon after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she moved to New York, where she became part of a group of painters and poets known as the New York School.
Her talent was quickly recognized: She was one of the artists in the influential show known as the “Ninth Street” exhibition, viewed as marking the birth of Abstract Expressionism in the United States. Her work was collected in the 1950s by major American institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1959, she moved permanently to France — starting a whole new chapter in her life and career — with her partner, the artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, whom she had met four years earlier. Initially, she lived in Paris. In 1968, she moved to the house in Vétheuil and lived there until her death in 1992.
The two “Monet-Mitchell” exhibitions at the Fondation Vuitton in Paris coincide with the 30th anniversary of her death. They are milestones in other ways, too: She is being presented with Monet — the artist she so resented being associated with — and she is finally being recognized as a painter of great importance who was long undervalued because of her gender, both in her lifetime and after her death.
Ms. Siegel said Ms. Mitchell was “one of the very greatest artists of her generation,” on par with Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, but added that “being a woman kept her from being assessed accurately and fairly.”
Peers acknowledged her “as being a really good painter,” and “dealers showed her work,” Ms. Siegel added. And yet her work “was never seen as quite as high on the ranking list as it should have been.”
Because Ms. Mitchell moved to France in 1959, American institutions and collectors knew her earlier work, while their French counterparts were much more familiar with her paintings from the 1960s and later. “What we want to do with a retrospective is to put the two halves of Mitchell together: to show her as a fully dimensional person,” Ms. Siegel said.
Ms. Pagé noted that despite Ms. Mitchell’s repeated denials of having anything to do with Monet, there was evidence that she looked at him closely, and that she felt a kinship with the Impressionist master, who died a year after she was born.
For instance, in her early correspondence with Mr. Riopelle, she mentioned that she had gone to see Monet’s “Water Lilies” at MoMA, “thinking of you,” Ms. Pagé pointed out.
Ms. Mitchell kept a postcard of a Monet painting of his garden at Vétheuil and, as Monet had, described the early-morning views of the sky at Vétheuil as violet. She also visited Giverny when it was an abandoned house and not yet a destination swarming with tourists.
How would she have greeted the Fondation Vuitton’s double tribute?
“She wanted to be part of history,” Ms. Siegel said, adding that she liked to think that Ms. Mitchell would have been “thrilled to see these two exhibitions.”