Monet, Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through the Fog, 1904  


The natural world is a kaleidoscope; clouds are infinitely changing shape, and manipulating the light. Wind shakes up the leaves, breaks up the seas and ruffles a petticoat. Every moment is magical, elusive. Monet must possess it, caress it, collect it, relish it, inhale and consume it. The natural world is intoxicating. Like a fine cognac1 it is complex, to savor and gone in a moment. Monet, the connoisseur of light wallows in the glory of color and the desire to paint it. The open air2 is his studio! Monet paints love letters to the sea, his garden and the air that he breathes.

All art is autobiographical. Monet had years of battling with the establishment. He wasn’t keen on formal education. His merchant father3 thought that art was frivolous. Monet’s aunt, Madame Lecadre, was all for Monet’s interest in art, but she pushed academy schooling. Plaster casts and models offered Monet ZERO inspiration. To support himself, Monet drew caricatures; figures with gigantic, distorted heads atop tiny formula bodies. From an exhibition of these caricatures, he met Eugene Boudin, and a new visual world opened! Boudin encouraged Monet to paint, to paint out of doors, and to paint landscapes!

Monet’s begins his travelogue of light. His paintings tell us how people, places and things reflect and absorb light. There are no comments about the psyche. We do not know what these people are thinking or feeling or what Monet thinks or feels about them. The emotional connection is to the color, to the texture, and to the light. The images look rapid; they have the ‘feel’ of un-finish.

A realist, Monet stays true to what he sees. He was once criticized in art school because he drew the squat; ugly model as squat and ugly. He refused to idealize the image! If there are green shadows cast onto a figure he will paint them green! A meal in progress, the Luncheon, a boat struggling in a storm, The Jetty of le Havre in Bad Weather, a patriotic parade, Celebration of June 30 1878, the train station at Saint Lazare, all are a part of Monet’s reality. Yet it is the reality of the voyeur, a secretary looking from a distance. Monet, in fact, shocked himself when he realized that his painting of his first wife, Camille, on her deathbed was a study of light though veils, not a statement of love about the mother of his children!

The History of Art is all about the challenge of describing space and time.: How do visual artists manage to describe their three dimensional world on a flat surface? Early painters developed a formula based on line. Linear perspective4, an invention of the renaissance, seemed a good solution, although it is much closer to the way a camera sees space then the way humans see it. Later painters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Vermeer added to this formula. They used light to represent three-dimensional form. The subjects looked as though they had a powerful electric light bulb above them, two centuries before such a light source was invented! This technique emphasized the solidity of objects. Things closest to the light source appear to come forward towards the viewer.

The Impressionists5 rebelled against this formulaic representation. They recorded what they actually saw. They didn’t try to tease the internal structructure of a form into the painting. They accepted that when the sky is overcast, objects look flat; when the sun is shinning things look three-dimensional. Light also describes time. The length and direction of shadows and the color of light communicate the time of day.6 It was Monet’s lifelong goal to be able to describe the LIFE of light.

Historically, technology influences form! Monet was the beneficiary of significant technological advances.

First was a simple invention, but crucially necessary for painting out of doors: metal squeeze tubes! Prior to the mid nineteenth century, paint was stored in satchels made of pig-skin. Once the pouch was pricked open, the paint was exposed to air, and dried up rapidly.

Secondly was the development of photography. Artists had to come up with something to compete with the new technology. They experimented with styles and subjects that the camera could not duplicate. Since early emulsions did not record in color, opulent use of color was an obvious choice. Monet capitalized on color. It was so much his signature that at Monet’s funeral Georges Clemenceau arrived just in time to yank the black shroud off the body. He replaced it with colorful curtains from Monet’s house and declared “no black for Monet!”

But photography also influenced some painters to copy its “look.” Photographic, emulsions were slow, so the photographer could not freeze action or keep foreground and background in focus!7 Could Monet have been looking at photography when he painted Rue Saint- Denis, Celebration of June 30, 1898 or the Boulevard des Capucines? Both images record blurry motion and the subjects are out of focus.

The camera also woke artists to the importance of the edge of a painting. Several of Monet’s paintings have the subject bleeding off the edges. In his work, Boating on the River Epte, the figure is cropped on the right edge. The women appear to be rowing into the center of the painting, but they are not there yet.

The artists that make the history books have reached signature,8 but achieving signature is a long process. Monet’s early works are often confused with other artists of his time. He paints friends, events, and places. When Monet realizes that his images are not really about those subjects but about light, he seeks subjects that will best describe light!

Water is an endless light show. Monet had hoped to be buried in a buoy at sea! Instead he buried himself in the water lily project; massive paintings of his garden and of the water, with all of its glorious reflections and subtleties. This is the signature Monet, the painter who stimulates our senses, and jars memories. We reflect into his pools. He stays true to realism, yet to some his works may seem abstract. His works are of the known and the unknown. They are of his time and they are of the future.9 They are eastern and western; they are universal!

1. Monet often lived beyond his means. It was feast or famine: when he had money he bought fine cognac, and feasted on expensive meats. But often he cried poverty and begged food from his friends.

2. Painting out of doors was coined plein air painting. Monet claimed that he never had a studio, when in fact he always had access to one. Most of his paintings were started on site and finished in a studio. Monet had a floating studio in Argentueil and his gigantic water lily paintings were painted from memory in a studio designed specifically for the series.

3. At this time, only children of the privileged class could indulge in the arts.

As is often the case with first generation wealth, the parents and the children have different values.

4. Linear perspective is based on the concept that parallel lines appear to converge in space at a fixed vanishing point. The typical example is rail road tracks. We know that they are parallel but in the distance they appear to converge at one point.

5. The term Impressionist was coined as a sneer by Louis Leroy in his commentary after the April 15, 1874 gallery show in Nadar’s photography studio. The article appeared in the magazine Charivari. The exhibitors were: Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Marisot, Boudin and Monet!

6. Asian art does not include a light source. The works are timeless. Monet bought a stack of Japanese Prints from a Grocer in Amsterdam. Although Monet clearly responded to Asian composition he continued to render light!

7. Emulsions were often four minutes or more. This made for a stiff record of people in a studio. Outside photos often appear people-less. A person would have to stand still in nature for a few minutes. People often appear in 19th century photos as blurs. Under low light conditions, a cameras lens would have to be wide open, admitting light through a large hole. The result is that a small amount of the space is actually in focus .We call this phenomena, a small depth of field.

8. Signature: when we can recognize an artist’s work without reading a name!

9. Monet’s work is a precursor to twentieth century abstraction.

— Marjorie Masel
Copyright ©1998