Secrets in the paint

Tracing a Monet from a London bridge to the Colorado ghost town of Tolland

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Our story begins on a smoky London morning, just after the turn of the 20th century, when Claude Monet sat in a room at the Hotel Savoy on the banks of the River Thames, his oil paints and a few in-progress canvases within reach. He was working to capture the way the sunlight cut across the coal-loaded smoke from the factories visible beyond the bridge and the shimmering surface of the river, which is marked with yellow and orange as the sun plays across it around the arches of the Waterloo Bridge. “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect,” today, is a fine example of Impressionist painting — loose brushwork capturing changing weather and the effects of light, an investment in representing modern life. But in 1903, when it was painted, the art world was still acclimating to that style. Cutting-edge artists like Monet were just emerging from decades of scandal and impoverishment, having revolutionized the international art scene, as well as the way in which paintings are bought and sold, which opened a floodgate for Impressionist art to come to America.

But behind the broad strokes of these global shifts in the art movement and the art markets were a few key individuals — a shrewd gallery owner; a small, fiercely devoted Russian collector; a prince who would walk away from his entitlements to die unknown in battle; a Colorado woman who would turn her husband’s fortune into a tourist destination that’s now a ghost town; a Denver school teacher with an eye for real estate; even the current director of the Denver Art Museum. And this is their story. It’s the story of where that one Monet painting has traveled in the 110 years since it was created, the waves of change it has ridden, lives touched and how it came to be purchased by the Denver Art Museum, where it now hangs in the Passport to Paris exhibition.

Passport to Paris covers 300 definitive years of French art in three exhibitions, charting the rise of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the French Academy that oversaw the annual art markets, from its founding in 1648 through the height of Impressionism, which ultimately disarmed the Academy that never evolved to embrace the avant-garde movement.

“That really is so interesting because nowadays you think there’s hardly anything that is as embraced by the broad audience and everybody as the Impressionists, but it really, really took a long time,” says Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum.

• • •

So let us begin with understanding the atmosphere surrounding the artist, Monet, master Impressionist.

“Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” was among 200 canvases he started while in London in 1903, painting the Houses of Parliament and the Thames in addition to Waterloo Bridge, all features of the city he could see from his rooms at the Hotel Savoy. Of the 200 started, he finished only 30 or 40. Many of the paintings not purchased at an exhibition of them a year later, as “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” was, were reworked or burned.

“Monet writes to his wife and he’s sitting in the Hotel Savoy on the banks of the River Thames painting this and he loves the winter weather because it’s foggy and it’s smoky and it just brings all this dirt into the air, which actually reflects all these colors … All the stoves are producing these fumes, and the sun then comes up and the river looks like gold, like fluid gold,” Heinrich says. “The Denver Art Museum’s painting is one of the most colorful, one of the most dramatic of the whole Waterloo Bridge series; some of them are more reduced, some of them are greener, some of them are less light-full, and this one is, I would say, it’s pretty radical really, with this purple and orange contrast. It’s quite strong.”

Monet stands out now as a sentinel among his contemporaries partly as a numbers game — in his 86 years, he completed roughly 4,000 paintings.

Born in 1840 in Paris, Monet, as he self-styled his biography, was a rebellious young artist, drawing and selling for 10 or 20 francs brazen caricatures of high-profile residents of the small town on the French coast where he grew up. The established landscape painter Eugène Boudin spotted him at work and taught Monet to paint “en plein air” — outdoors. He carried that influence with him as he shrugged off training in traditional painting as he had shrugged off the family grocery store business. Taken to the Louvre to copy the old masters, he sat by the window and painted what he saw there.

“He’s really one of the clear examples of someone who went to look for his own way to do things and was everything but adapting to the standards of the art establishment,” Heinrich says.

Monet chose instead to work in the company of other nascent Impressionists, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley among them, and they all strove to capture the effects of light in the open air using short, rapid brushstrokes and broken colors. Aided by the 1841 invention of the tube, these rebels, armed with tiny tubes of paint, went out into the world to paint what they saw.

In the mid-1800s, the golden age of French art was in full swing, a center for painting, decorative arts, fashion and culture. Paris was home to the Académie des Beaux Arts and its annual Salon, an art market that mingled artists with the patrons who would pay for their works. There was no way to make a living as an artist than to exhibit at the carefully juried annual Salon.

“Of course the jury, in some of the years, was just this very tight-knit wall against the more revolutionary or the more innovative streams,” Heinrich says.

But the latest generation of painters wasn’t interested in the ancient stories that were approved subjects for paints, or even in using the paint in the traditional, “painterly” method. They wanted to paint what they experienced.

Impressionism was nothing if not a new window onto the world.

And how were those paintings received at the Salon?

“It was a scandal,” says Molly Medakovich, master teacher for Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. “When these paintings came out to the public there was a feeling among critics that these weren’t really finished paintings.”

What followed was a mass rejection of these new artists’ works.

For 10 or 15 years, with a wife and children to support, Monet weathered dire straits financially, borrowing money, occasionally from Impressionist painters who came from more well-to-do families, to stay afloat.

At the same time, a determined art dealer nearly drove himself to financial ruin twice in the steadfast assurance that his commitment to Impressionist artists would pay off.

Paul Durand-Ruel discovered the Impressionists in 1870 and regularly purchased and promoted their works. He would be the first to own “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect,” buying it from the artist in 1904. Durand-Ruel was steadfast in his support of Monet and the other Impressionists, despite their lack of welcome among French audiences. Initial exhibitions created so much public indignation the police were called. His parents had run a paper shop in Paris that became an impromptu gallery. In 1865, when he inherited the space from them, he expanded to London and Brussels, but later had to close those galleries. But Durand-Ruel continued to run the gallery space inherited from his father, guided by a philosophy of, above all else, protecting and defending the art. His patience was profound, sometimes holding paintings for decades before they could be sold. Had he died in his 60s, Durand-Ruel later noted, he would have died in debt and among undiscovered treasures.

It wasn’t until 1887, after the first successful exhibition of Impressionists in the U.S., that he came into real success.

In 1886, at the invitation of the American Art Association and James Sutton (who would go on to have the largest collection of Monet’s paintings), Durand-Ruel organized an exhibition of 264 Impressionist paintings in New York at the National Academy of Design — and the tide began to turn. He was introduced to wealthy American families, and his firm, which had been in financial distress the year before, was able to expand to include a New York gallery, situated on Fifth Avenue in a space given to him by two of his wealthy art patrons.

Over the last 30 years of his life, he purchased close to 12,000 paintings, including, roughly, more than 1,000 by Monet, 1,500 by Renoir, 800 by Camille Pissarro, 200 by Edouard Manet and 400 each by Edgar Degas, Sisley and Mary Cassatt. Monet acknowledged Durand-Ruel as the one person he owed anything to.

Monet and his contemporaries had effectively circumvented the French Academy — which never welcomed the Impressionists into the annual Salons. The Impressionists, with the aid of their independent dealer Durand-Ruel, simply drove the Salons into obscurity.

Durand-Ruel catered to patrons with money to spend — wealthy families, wherever they may come from. France was coming out of a deep recession through the 1880s. But at the turn of the 20th century, the Russian economy was booming.

The buyer who purchased “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” from Durand-Ruel was a frequent visitor to the Paris gallery and, by then, a known collector of Impressionists, the Russian textile merchant Sergei Shchukin.

The Shchukin family was part of a growing class of wealthy merchant patrons that sprang up out of Moscow’s growing industrialization and commercialization, and brought with them diverse artistic interests that weren’t tied to the conservative aesthetics maintained in the Russian aristocracy, according to Beverly Whitney Kean, author of All the Empty Palaces: The Merchant Patrons of Modern Art in Pre- Revolutionary Russia.

Though the third of 11 children, the small, intense Shchukin had risen to become the natural heir for his father’s company, and had grown the textile business into an empire. By the early 1890s, Shchukin, then in his 40s, was able to indulge the “collector’s fever” that had infected much of Moscow and began filling his own palace with Western art. He was introduced to Impressionism at Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery in 1897, where he purchased the first of 13 paintings by Monet, “Lilacs in the Sun.” The collection that followed would include Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Shchukin would spend hours studying a painting before deciding to buy it, analyzing the artist’s methods and their final effect. His advice to his daughter, Yekaterina, on choosing artwork was: “If a picture gives you a psychological shock, buy it. It’s a good one.”

The Russian collector returned “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” to Durand-Ruel the same month he bought it, exchanging it for Monet’s “Houses of Parliament, Seagulls.”

It was his last Monet. In 1905, he turned his attention to the Post-Impressionist painters.

Had “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” stayed in the hands of the Russian collector, it would have been absorbed into the collections of the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg or the Pushkin Museum of Moscow. Lenin decreed all of Shchukin’s collections and his palace the property of the people in 1918 during the Russian Revolution and distributed his paintings between those two museums in the 1930s.

The painting Shchukin took instead, “Houses of Parliament, Seagulls,” is now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and was not exhibited outside Russia between its first show in Paris in 1904 and a 1998 exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

• • •

The next time “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” departed Durand-Ruel’s care, it was to reside in the treasure-box-like chateau of a wealthy young prince whose great-grandfather had been ennobled for his service in the Napoleonic wars. In 1906, the painting was purchased on behalf of Alexandre-Louis-Philippe-Marie Berthier, the fourth prince of Wagram, an Impressionist painting collector whose art holdings would include works by Gustave Courbet, Manet and Renoir.

The 23-year-old French noble was the son of Louis Philippe Marie Alexandre Berthier and Bertha Clara von Rothschild, from the German branch of the famously wealthy Rothschild family. A family, in short, so wealthy and influential that in the original Yiddish song that inspired Tevye to sing, “If I were a rich man,” the language reads “Ven ikh bin a Rotshild”: If I were a Rothschild.

The fourth Prince and Duke of Wagram, described as a free thinker, admirer of Voltaire and financier for one of the French liberal journals, resided in the chateau of Grosbois, built of brick and stone in 1690 near Seine-et-Oise, 40 minutes from Paris (by 1911-era car), surrounded by a park full of trees. Marquise de Fontenoy, biographer of the European royals of the era, described the chateau as “full of the most interesting relics of the first emperor and of the Napoleonic era, including some loot brought back from the Kremlin at Moscow.”

He was said to have replaced the historic portraits in the house with the works of ultra-modern artists — Van Gogh, Renoir, Van Dongen, Sisley.

But like Shchukin, Berthier’s chateau would provide only a brief stop for the painting, which he sold back to Durand-Ruel Paris in 1909.

• • •

Less burdened by institutions like the French Academy advocating for more of the same in Europe, American attitudes toward the experimental styles of art coming out of Europe rapidly shifted around the turn of the 20th century. Auction houses in America were reporting lively sales of Monet’s paintings for prices in the low thousands, and a New York Times story from 1899 observed that “the once despised and much reviled Impressionists are better appreciated, and their works sell better and better all the time.”

Durand-Ruel had secured his location in New York City and fostered relationships with Americans with money to spend — Henry Osborne Havemeyer, founder of the Sugar Trust, and his wife, Louisine, who built a now legendary collection that included thousands of artworks, including paintings by Degas, Manet, Monet, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Cézanne and Gustave Courbet; and Bertha Palmer, wife of Chicago financier Potter Palmer, the dry goods store owner who pioneered innovations like the first “bargain days,” money-back guarantees and the option for women to shop unescorted. She purchased 25 of Monet’s paintings.

Americans at the dawn of the 20th century had money to spend and status to demonstrate, and they used it to infuse European culture and import European art to American shores.

Given that climate in the U.S., it made sense for Durand-Ruel’s New York Gallery to purchase “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” from its Paris gallery in December 1910, and transfer it from France to the U.S., where it was then moved again to sit in the Brooks Reed Gallery in Boston.

Just a few months later, the painting sold to what would be its longest private home, that of Katherine Ellen Wolcott Toll, the widow of Charles H. Toll, at one time the attorney general of Colorado.

After Charles Toll’s unexpected death in December 1901, Katherine Toll was left to manage the fortune and properties owned by the family. She ignored his plan for property they owned in Gilpin County, which was to dam South Boulder Creek to form a reservoir west of Rollinsville near the Moffat Tunnel that would serve their ranches near Broomfield. Instead, in 1904, she and her sons platted the town of Tolland and she built the Mariposa Hotel, later the Toll Inn, creating a bustling tourist stop. The railroad had just been completed over Rollins Pass, and the town of Tolland, formerly Mammoth, became a thriving summer retreat. Many of the lots sold were for seasonal-use cabins and houses, and the railroad ran “picnic trains” and excursion trains in the summer from Moffat

Station in Denver to Tolland and Corona at the top of Rollins Pass. As demand for traffic to Tolland increased, the Moffat Station from 15th and Delgany streets in Denver was taken apart brick by brick and relocated to Tolland.

Her oldest son, Charles Toll, became an assistant professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1909, teaching philosophy and psychology. It may have been that connection that took her to Boston in 1911 where she purchased her Monet.

By that point, the Monet would have been seen not as an avant-garde purchase, but as a status symbol, a sign that she had truly arrived.

Her second son, Roger Wolcott Toll, went on to become superintendent of Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks.

A year before her death, Katherine Toll parted with the Monet that had been with her for more than 20 years.

“Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” was among the first purchases made by the Denver Art Museum after receiving a sizeable bequest from a surprising source.

That bequest came from Helen Dill, a Denver schoolteacher and real estate investor. Dill was born in Vermont in 1848 as Helen Lynch and, against her father’s wishes, pursued an education all the way through the teacher’s college, Normal School, in Vermont. She took a train west, arriving in Denver on a recently completed spur off the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1870s.

“Helen Dill was one of a generation of pioneering female schoolteachers to come west in search of adventure and opportunity (and, usually, husbands),” Nancy Tieken writes in The Helen Dill Bequest: A Schoolteacher’s Legacy. She found a husband in wealthy widower Capt. Robert Gordon Dill, a Union army soldier. The pair married in 1875, then divorced in 1883, Robert Dill claiming in the divorce decree that he’d been deserted by his wife.

Helen Dill continued to teach in Denver area elementary schools, as she had from 1875 until she retired in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, she was buying and selling a number of downtown Denver buildings, including a building on Glenarm Street she purchased for $4,000, rented for $20 a month to a Chinese laundry, then resold for $40,000. She spent the end of her life traveling and studying abroad, before concluding her days as a bookish recluse.

At her death in 1932, her will gave $100,000 to the city for the Civic Center, including for an art museum building.

The Denver Art Museum had floated among various public buildings but was facing little room to grow. It used $40,000 from Helen Dill to finish the fourth floor of a municipal building then under construction and dedicated a gallery to Helen Dill in 1933.

The remainder of the funds purchased works by contemporary painters — the Old Masters being prohibitively expensive and the collection of Native American art already considerably well supported.

With the money given by Helen Dill, the museum purchased two Monet landscapes, “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” and “The Water Lily Pond” from 1904 for less than $15,000, and 27 other pieces by renowned painters like Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Winslow Homer and Max Ernst. Indeed, the bequest from Helen Dill funded many of the museum’s cornerstone pieces, according to Heinrich, several of which are on display in Passport to Paris.

• • •

More than a century after the smoky winter morning Monet was painting, Heinrich reached out to the Denver Art Museum to loan him “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” for an exhibition on series paintings he was doing for a museum in Germany. The conversation that followed led him to join the Denver museum’s curatorial staff, where he has just presided over the largest gift the museum has ever received.

On Jan. 13, the museum announced that Frederic C. Hamilton, the museum’s chairman emeritus and founder of the Hamilton Oil Corporation, is bequeathing to the museum 22 paintings from his collection that are currently on view in Nature As Muse, their first public exhibition. The Denver philanthropist also led the fundraising effort for the building that now bears his name and houses the Passport to Paris exhibition.

Heinrich called the moment a pivotal one in the institution’s history. Among the paintings given are the first Vincent van Gogh painting to join the collection and the first (second, and third) by Monet’s mentor Boudin, as well as paintings by Cézanne, Manet, Berthe Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley — and four by Monet.

The gift brings 22 more Impressionist paintings to the museum’s collection, and with them, 22 more stories.