10 Tips to Make your Kids Fall in Love with Monet at the de Young (you probably will too)
The tickets are pricey, and the galleries are crowded. But the de Young’s current Monet exhibit should not be missed, and you have until May 27thbefore it closes. Read the tips and stories below to help you and your family get the most out of your trip!
-Hours: T-Sn 9:30-5:15. Adults: $35, Youth 6-17: $20, Children 5 and under: free.
-Ticket price includes general admission to the rest of the museum and same-day entry to the Legion of Honor. General admission is free to SF residents on Saturdays, but does not include Monet admission. Saturday Children's art activities based on the exhibit are held in the tower.
-Members get free tickets to the Monet exhibit (number depends on level of membership)
-Strollers are allowed inside the exhibit at the discretion of the guards and the level of crowd (I saw strollers allowed in on two separate weekdays).
-Front carriers are always allowed, and a limited number are available for free loan at the coat check.
-Back carriers and backpacks are prohibited but can be checked around the corner.
-Parking garage below the museum is convenient but expensive. Enter on Fulton.
-Street parking is doable but can be tough on crowded days and usually requires a walk. I like parking around Stowe Lake and taking the stairs down towards the Japanese Tea Garden.
Now, enjoy the show!
1. Buy your tickets online and get there right as the museum opens at 9:30. You’ll have a solid 30 before the galleries clog up. And those with online tickets get a beautiful sticker on the way in.
2. In the first gallery, tell your kids to imagine they’re traveling back in time to the beginning of the 20thCentury to visit Monet at Giverny, his house and garden just a short train ride outside of Paris. Ask your kids to find the painting of his house, and ask them if they can tell what color it is. It appears slightly ambiguous in the painting, but see if they can determine the famous colors (pink with green shutters, which would later come to be called “Monet Green”). In this gallery, you’ll notice the paintings of his garden, but you can’t go roaming yet! “But First, Lunch,” Monet would say to his guests, before treating them to a feast in his famous yellow dining room.
Your meal would have included some of his favorites, like a bouillabaisse (fish stew recipe given to him by fellow artist and dear friend, Paul Cezanne), and chicken in a crayfish sauce (ask your kids which they would prefer). Bananna pudding was also a favorite and served on holidays and special occasions. Monet loved his food (especially seafood) and was a true “gourmand.” A friend once said he “ate for four,” literally taking four portions of meat during the main course. By the time he was living at Giverny, he was a wealthy and famous man, and could afford to wine and dine his guests. He seemed to really take pleasure in it, after having spent his younger life living in debt and subsisting on potatoes.
Once you retired to the salon to have coffee and view some paintings, you’d then be treated to a tour of the grounds, maybe along with some of his family members. During his time at Giverny, Monet was happily married to his second wife, Alice. By all accounts they were a loving couple, but their origin was complicated. Alice’s first husband was a businessman who purchased many of Monet’s early paintings, including the famous Impression, Sunrise. But he fell on hard times, and was forced to sell the paintings for a loss. For a while, he and Alice, and their six kids, moved in with Monet and his first wife Camille. Camille grew ill (possibly ovarian cancer), and Alice was her primary caretaker. After Camille’s death in 1879, and Alice’s final separation with her husband, Monet and Alice found love, settled in Giverny in 1883, and finally married in 1892.
Despite the complicated beginnings, their entire blended family was extremely close. So close, in fact, that Monet considered Alice’s kids his own. His son Jean even married Alice’s daughter Blanche (also an artist) in 1897, just five years after their parents married (stressed grimace emoji).
2. Now that you’ve been introduced, and the crowd has yet to descend, take some time and sketch! The paintings are complex and luminous, but they are also simple enough for a preschool-aged child to copy without feeling intimidated. Bring a small notebook and a pink, green, and blue colored pencil for your child (and you!) No markers or crayons in the galleries. Make it to the second and third rooms to enjoy a bench to sit and draw.
3. For younger kids and those with no interest in holding pencils (ahem, my preschooler), give them a mission! Tally the number of bridges they see in the exhibit (hint: some of the “bridges” get a little wacky, and may be hard to recognize). Explain to your kids that Monet’s bridge was modeled after those depicted in the Japanese wood prints, which he collected and hung in his dining room. He became obsessed with them when a grocer in Holland wrapped his coffee and pepper in a crumpled print that had been used as packaging for shipping crates. On the next trip to GG park, take them to the Japanese Tea gardens and see similar bridges in action (Tea Garden is free to all if you enter before 10am on M, W, and F).
4. Keep a record (with your phone camera) of the different colors of water lilies depicted in the paintings (this may cause some debate, as Monet used many colors to portray light, shadow, reflection, and nuance in color). If one of your kids wonders what color the flowers “really are,” you can explain that Monet tried to capture all the variation exactly as they were at a certain moment. It was so important for him to get an accurate view, he had his gardeners dunk the water lilies each morning, cleaning the dust kicked up from the nearby road. And he later paid for the public dirt road near his house to be paved to minimize the dust! The colored water lilies at Giverny were an exciting new development, the work of a botanist who crossed varieties from warmer climates with the plain white flowers native to France, and exhibited them at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Monet saw them in the shadow of the brand new Eifel tower, and later procured them for his new pond. Thus two of the most iconic Frenchy things spawned from the very same fair.
5. Ask your kids to identify what they see in the reflection of the water. You will probably get some predictable answers, like clouds and trees, but don’t be alarmed if your kids come up with some more surprising images. Throughout the years, some art critics and art historians have claimed that they see the faces or bodies of women, writhing in the reflection and muddy bottoms, and have argued that the water lilies where a stand-in for women in Monet’s mind. One in particular claimed (unfairly, imho) that the flowers were a substitute for female models which Alice forbade.
6. The audio guides ($8, $6 members) can be tough for young kids and not worth the money (though lovely if you’re by yourself). Instead, download some Debussy on your phone and bring a set of headphones for your kid to zone out in front of the HUGE water lily canvas in the third gallery, listening to the music that was popular at the time.
7. Talk with your kids about how the paintings make you all feel. Monet is known for beautiful flowers, and he did want to create an asylum for peaceful meditation. But just as beautiful water lilies rise from the muck under stagnant water, these images are born out of some tough times, and your kids might just pick up on this! After all, Monet referred to them as his ‘war work’.
He painted some water lilies before the beginning of WWI. But they became his obsession once the war broke out in 1914. Though not on the front, Giverny was thoroughly submerged in the concerns of war. Monet’s son Michel joined the French army and fought in the trenches at the deadliest battle, Verdon. Monet’s gardeners left for the war. A hospital in the village cared for soldiers terribly injured in the trenches, where they ate vegetables sent over from Monet’s garden. And Monet’s lifelong and dear friend—arguably his best friend—George Clemenceau, found refuge in long lunches and walks through Monet’s garden in the early years of the conflict. In 1917, Clemenceau was voted Prime Minister for the second time, and was widely regarded as a hero of the war, visiting soldiers on the front lines and astounding the country with his energy and resolve. Clemenceau saw Monet’s work as a national treasure, believing that the art could demonstrate the national character of beauty and perseverance. And when Monet was in his worst moods— when family worried he would slash canvases or create bonfires with his paintings—Clemenceau was one of the only people who could lift him out of depression to keep working.
A more obvious nod to the war comes in Monet’s later paintings, in the last gallery of the exhibit. The weeping willows, with their anthropomorphic bumps and knobs, were a mournful monument to the more than 90,000 French soldiers who died.
Beyond the war, Monet suffered a great many personal tragedies in the period covered by the exhibition. His wife Alice passed away in 1911 after a short battle with leukemia. He wrote to his friend Rodin, “I am annihilated. I ought to be able to work, to conquer my grief, but I cannot.” Indeed, you won’t find many canvases finished in 1911 in these galleries.
In 1914, his son Jean died at the house. Jean’s wife, Blanche (Monet’s stepdaughter) stayed on at Giverny to help run the household and encourage Monet. With her own painterly sensibility, she was instrumental in helping Monet get back to his work despite his grief and worry. Clemenceau called her the “blue angel.” When Monet did finally get back to work in the fall of 1914, it was all water lilies. These lilies were painted amidst terrible grief and despair, I think adding to their beauty.
Around the same time, Monet's eyesight began to fail. By 1922 he could barely see, and finally agreed to a cataract surgery in 1923. Though somewhat successful, the surgery required an intensely restrictive and slow recovery period that was excruciating for Monet. He was just hoping to see better so he could get back to his painting and finish the grand canvases he planned to donate to the French government. He did finish these eventually, and upon his death, they were finally brought to Musée de l’Orangerie, where they still remain. The large canvases in the third gallery were part of that effort, though didn't make the final cut for the l'Orangerie installation.
8. Keep the following dates in mind as you view the years on the labels. See if you and your (older) kids can make any guesses about why the painting might feel a certain way, or why Monet might have painted in a certain style based on what was happening in his life
1911: His wife, Alice, died.
1914: Jean, his eldest son, died
1914: Beginning of WWI and beginning of problems with eyesight
1918: End of WWI
1923: Eye surgery
You can also look at the labels and pay attention to how long it took for Monet to finish many of these paintings. He was famous for painting outside, next to his subjects, but he rarely did it all in one sitting. He would work on as many as 40 canvases at a time, switching to a new one as soon as he felt that the light had changed and he could no longer capture the very specific moment. He would come back to it whenever that particular time and light returned on another day. And he did retouch many of the canvases inside his studio, especially later in his career when working with the giant water lily canvases. His friends often worried about him returning to work he had done years before, especially with his declining eyesight, wondering if he would grow frustrated and slash or burn a work that had been so near completion.
9. After your time in the galleries, get some energy out and run around by the water lilies (currently blooming!) in the pond outside the east entrance of the museum. See the complexity of the reflection, the plants, and the bottom of the pond. Make it a point to come back sometime when the weather and time of day are different. See if you can notice the subtleties that Monet would have wanted to capture!
10. Want to read more? Check out Linnea in Monet’s Gardenfor your kids (you can find at SFPL). Disregard the fact that Linnea’s parents are completely absent from the story and she travels by herself with an elderly neighbor.
And for yourself, Ross King’s Mad Enchantments is wonderful reading! (digital copy available at SFPL and lengthy free sample available on google books).
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