An exhibit of Claude Monet's legendary “Waterlilies” at the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris draws a straight line between the Impressionist's room-size murals of his flower garden to the freestyle panoramas of American abstract artists like Jackson Pollock. The tie that binds begins with the sheer size of their work and the all-over patterns that, for lack of emphasis, envelop the viewer. Pointing up the very scale of the “Waterlilies,” the museum quotes art critic Andre Masson, who called Monet's work “The Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” Since Peggy Guggenheim was Pollock's major collector, you might call it the Guggenheim of Abstract Expressionism.

The French connection

The link between French Impressionism and American Abstract Expressionism shows in other ways when you compare the iridescent “Waterlilies” to Pollock's pulsing color field of squiggles and splashes. There's also the continuous rhythm that marks both artist's work. It looks like the museum is on to something. Abstract painting may well owe its very liberation from recognizable form to French Impressionists like Monet. But wait, someone else also needs to be credited here. A concurrent show at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid points to a debt that Monet owes to his mentor, Eugene Boudin, who taught him to capture bright daylight and to pay attention to the changing effects of light.

It's no wonder that Monet told his biographer Gustave Geffroy: “I have said it and I say it again: I owe everything to Boudin.” And if Monet owes Boudin everything for what he paints, then it follows that Pollock does, too. Logic aside, Boudin's pictures of misty weather on beaches conjure up Pollock's “Lavender Mist” with its delicately laced drips that look like mist.

Seeing the light

But the connection between Monet and Pollock stands out. Consider the Impressionist's “Women in the Garden,” which shows females in flowing dresses that take on the look of the surrounding blossoms. If you focus on how the sunlight filters through the foliage and how it breaks the color on figures and flowers for that fleeting air, you get any number of paintings by Pollock.

The abstract painter also comes to mind reading what Monet wrote to his biographer Geffroy. He said his goal was to “produce the illusion of an endless whole, a wave without horizon and without shore.” Doesn't that also describe Pollock's work? Both museum shows suggest that all great art ends up both the fruit of the past and the seed of the future.