Wednesday, November 14, 2007

First Impressions

There it is, the painting that started it all—Impression: Sunrise (above, from 1873) by Claude Monet. With that title and image, Impressionism was born and a whole new way of seeing began. Born himself on November 14, 1840, Monet sat at the center of the Impressionist movement, taking the spirit of rebellion kindled by Edouard Manet and stoking it into a raging fire that burns still. In this painting, a new sun rises on French art, bringing it out of the cold, dark shadows of the Salon establishment.

As much as Monet and the Impressionists are known for the color, I almost perversely prefer the Monet of the snows, such as his Hoarfrost, Near Vetheuil (above, from 1880). Looking at these landscapes you wonder at Monet’s ability to inject hints of blue and lavender into the snowscape, transforming what appears to be a blanket of white into a symphony of subtle colors. Whenever I look at the amazing white gowns of John Singer Sargent’s society portraits, themselves studies in subtlety, I think back to Monet’s snowscapes. As marvelous as Monet’s flower-filled fields bursting with buoyant color can be, I think these quieter works, just as colorful in their own sense, repay close attention much, much more.

When I think of Monet, I think of patience. Monet painted like a scientist, studying the same subject (haystacks, water lilies, that Japanese bridge in his garden) over and over in all kinds of light, experimenting in paint endlessly to obtain the raw body of data that is his paintings. The Rouen Cathedral at Twilight (above, 1894) belongs to one of these series, coming near the end of the experiment, as can be seen in how the cathedral itself seems to dissolve into a pattern of color and light effects, no longer important in of itself except for how it reacts to the light. Monet’s penchant for these series can lead to a sense of déjà vu when you see these paintings in museums, a “hey, they’ve got a haystacks, too” effect. Monet’s cataracts may have contributed to the dissolution of the subject in these later paintings, but I think of it more as an evolution of seeing than pathology.

Monet may be the greatest gardener in art history. When Renoir needed material to paint in his garden scenes, Monet helpfully provided the bulbs from his own garden. Monet’s garden at Giverny now exists as an Impressionist Eden for the tourists, a living habitat of Monet’s artistry. I remember seeing Monet's Garden, the Irises (above, from 1900) at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and wondering at the power of the colors. Rather than fade into the somberness of so many other painters in their final years, the wages of the weight of years and experience, Monet explodes into color, raging against the dying of the light with his own inner light splashing across the whole spectrum. Van Gogh takes color into a whole new sphere in his art, but it should not be forgotten that it was Monet who helped pave the way for others to shine.

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