• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Monet’s Way

Monet in the ‘90s: The Series Paintings 29; The Art Institute of Chicago, May 19–August 12, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, September 7–December 9

An exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 7–April

Monet in the ‘90s: The Series Paintings

catalog of the exhibition by Paul Hayes Tucker
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts in association with Yale University Press, 307 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Monet by Himself: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, Letters

edited by Richard Kendall
Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 328 pp., $55.00

Impressions of Giverny: Monet’s World

by Charles Weckler
Abrams, 84 pp., $24.95

Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet

by Claire Joyes
Simon and Schuster, 191 pp., $29.95

1.

In an essay on Impressionism written in 1883, the poet Jules Laforgue described the Impressionist as “a modernist painter endowed with an uncommon sensibility of the eye,” who,

forgetting the pictures amassed through the centuries in museums, forgetting his optical art school training…by dint of living and seeing frankly and primitively in the bright open air…has succeeded in remaking for himself a natural eye, and in seeing naturally and painting as simply as he sees1

Laforgue thought the method and goals of the new painting were especially evident in the art of Claude Monet, and he set them in direct opposition to the traditional use of line, perspective, and studio lighting, and to what he called “two artistic illusions, the two criteria on which aestheticians have foolishly insisted—Absolute Beauty and Absolute Human Taste.” Laforgue’s remarks about absolute values are, I think, central to understanding why Impressionist painting, which to our eyes seems so inoffensive, was considered to be so revolutionary in its own time.

Almost by definition, starting with their refusal to acknowledge the traditional hierarchies that distinguished a finished work from a sketch, the Impressionist painters set themselves on a collision course with the very notion of absolute values. Monet’s practice, right from the beginning of his career, of painting multiple views of the same subjects, often from the same or similar viewpoints, implicitly suggested that no single image could convey the full complexity of what it represented and that all variations on a motif had equally valid claims to being “true.” As against traditional painting, in Monet’s work there was no longer a sense that one moment—or one place, or one particular view of that place—had any greater inherent claim on us than another.

Moreover, if each moment were held to have equal importance, then certain kinds of occurrences that previously were considered to be exceptionally significant no longer were, Hence the striking absence in Monet’s paintings of historical events, or of religious or literary subjects—in short, of the singular moments from the past that traditionally had formed the basis of religious and political imagery and provided the material for so much artistic expression. The rejection of absolute values implied in the refusal to accept traditional hierarchies—whether social, political, religious, or artistic—was perceived among conventional Parisians as a challenge to the established order of things.

This is perhaps why not all those who understood the Impressionists’ goals approved of them. Henry James, for example, in an article about the Impressionists’ 1876 exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s, correctly noted that their essential mission was “to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment.” But James remained skeptical about the movement. “Indeed,” he wrote, “the Impressionist doctrines strike me as incompatible, in an artist’s mind, with the existence of first-rate talent. To embrace them you must be provided with a plentiful absence of imagination.” And although James found their exhibition “decidedly interesting,” he confessed that

the effect of it was to make me think better than ever of all the good old rules which decree that beauty is beauty and ugliness is ugliness, and warn us off from the sophistications of satiety.2

Among the Impressionists, it was Monet who most insistently excluded the art of the past from his work and most strongly resisted modifications of Impressionist technique and aesthetic goals. It was also he who stuck most doggedly to outdoor painting and who insisted most persuasively on spontaneity, and on painting what the eye sees rather than what the mind knows about what the eye sees. “When you go out to paint,” he told the American artist Lilla Cabot Perry, “try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.” In later life Monet so stressed this notion of innocent spontaneity that he told Perry he wished he had been born blind and then suddenly gained his sight, so that he could have begun to paint free of interference from his brain.3

Implicit in Monet’s notions about what he saw, then, was how he saw it, which was in turn inseparable from how he rendered it. The things that he depicts are inseparable from the dynamic, flickering networks of brush strokes that he employs to depict them, and which represent not only the things themselves but the envelope of light and air that surrounds and permeates them. In his mature paintings, precedence is given to depicting fluidity and movement—to energy rather than matter. Moreover, his brush strokes not only describe the subjects that are being painted but to some degree simultaneously evoke the very process of fragmentary looking and recording that determined the way they were painted. Even when he reworked his pictures in his studio, he sought to preserve the illusion of spontaneous response to direct perception. Although Monet insisted on his fidelity to nature, it was to nature regarded as inseparable from the individual temperament that perceives it at a specific time and from a specific place. The sort of intensely optical painting that Monet practiced can be thought to lack “imagination” or “thoughtfulness” only if we do not consider the eye to be a part of the mind.

Among nineteenth-century artists, it was Monet, along with Cézanne, who best showed to what degree seeing could be in and of itself an imaginative act. One of the paradoxes of Monet’s painting is that for all its apparent insistence on objectivity, it opened the way to an extremely subjective view of nature, one that is often more like what we usually refer to as Expressionism than Impressionism.4

2.

Only a few decades ago, Monet’s reputation was so uncertain that the Museum of Modern Art’s 1960 retrospective exhibition of his work was conceived as a kind of “rediscovery.” Since the 1920s, artists and critics alike had faulted him for what they saw as the mindlessness of his art, based on the apparent superficiality of his concern with fleeting effects of light and atmosphere. It was also generally held that his work, and especially his later work, was too uneven and too far outside the vital currents of modern painting for him to be considered an artist of the very first rank, on the same level as someone like Cézanne.

Not surprisingly, the rediscovery of Monet during the 1950s was in large measure owing to the interest abstract artists took in his late, painterly, large-scale Waterlilies, which spoke eloquently to their own painterly, large-scale ambitions. Toward the end of that decade, the French critic Léon Degand was able to say that Monet’s “stock is on the rise, and it may be predicted that it will continue to rise, for in his last works Monet came to grips with one of the thorniest problems of present-day art.”5

Degand’s prediction has come true in ways that could not have been foreseen at the time, and now that Monet’s star has indeed risen, his preeminent position in nineteenth-century painting is based on far more than just his Waterlilies. One measure of an artist’s greatness is the way his work is able not only to withstand, but even to provoke, divergent evaluations based on changing tastes. Thus Monet, rediscovered three decades ago as the father of lyrical abstraction, is now, in keeping with current trends, considered to have occupied an important place in relation to the social thinking of his time. In fact, thanks to a number of new books about him, and to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ current exhibition of his paintings of the 1890s, we now know not only what Monet painted and thought about what he painted, but how he lived and even what he ate.

Not all of this information actually helps us to understand or appreciate Monet’s art, or even his life, any better. Madame Joyes’s book, for example, is like a prolonged version of the chatty, glossily illustrated article that one might find in Gourmet. From it we learn, not surprisingly, that Monet, like most Frenchmen of the time, much enjoyed the pleasures of the table. He also kept a notebook of recipes—most of them, it should be said, standard fare for the period, unless you believe that calling a salt cod soup Bouillabaisse de morue (Cézanne) makes it special. (Joël Robuchon, a well-known chef, has adapted these recipes for the modern kitchen.)

Charles Weckler’s mercifully short Impressions of Giverny consists of dull, grainy photographs of Monet’s house and property northwest of Paris, including some of the same subjects that Monet painted there. If you wonder why a reputable art publisher like Abrams became involved in such an enterprise, you need only look at the Boston Sunday newspapers, in which hotels are offering hard-to-get weekend tickets to the Monet show in ads saying, “Spend a weekend in Boston enjoying the French countryside.” “Monet isn’t everything,” as John Updike recently wrote in The New Republic (March 19, 1990), but….

Monet by Himself gives an interesting, if somewhat sparse, selection of passages from the artist’s voluminous correspondence, along with many color illustrations of his paintings. This book would have been more useful if a good many more of Monet’s letters had been included, along with some of the more revealing autobiographical statements in his interviews. Far more informative, and provocative, than any of these books is Paul Hayes Tucker’s well-researched and well-illustrated catalog for the Boston Museum’s exhibition, which raises a number of interesting questions about Monet’s paintings and about the relationship between art and history.

3.

Although Monet frequently painted more than one version of his landscape views right from the beginning of his career, during the 1890s he went about this more systematically than he had before. The series of paintings he did of the same subjects were larger and he also began to exhibit them together. In these series, each picture was conceived as a variation on a given subject, one frequently seen from the same place and presented in a very similar compositional format. Such sets of paintings allowed Monet more systematically than before to show his subjects as they changed through time, and even to evoke the passage of time itself as one of the main subjects of his painting. Among the best known of these series are the stacks of grain, mainly wheat, that he painted in the fields near his house in 1888–1891, the rows of poplars that he painted along the banks of the Epte in 1891, and the views of Rouen Cathedral that he worked on between 1892 and 1895.

There are many different ways of explaining why Monet chose to work in this way at this particular time. And while all of them offer only partial explanations, taken together they give us a fairly good idea of what Monet’s main concerns were. As Professor Tucker points out, during the previous decade there had been a reaction against Impressionism, and many artists associated with the style had defected. During the 1880s, for example, Renoir flirted with a hard-edged classicism and Pissarro came under the influence of Seurat’s pointillistic technique, as exemplified in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte (1884–1886), which was a strong, even aggressive reaction against Impressionist practice. By the end of the decade, Monet was virtually alone in sticking to what might be called an orthodox Impressionist technique.

  1. 1

    Jules Laforgue, “L’Impressionnisme,” translated in Linda Nochlin, ed., Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1874–1904 (Prentice-Hall, 1966), p. 15.

  2. 2

    Henry James, “Parisian Festivity,” The New York Tribune, May 13, 1876; reprinted in Bernard Denvir, The Impressionists at First Hand (Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 102. James’s own notion of beautiful painting may be surmised from the beginning of The American, also published in 1876, in which Christopher Newman admires “Murillo’s beautiful moon-borne Madonna”—precisely the sort of picture that typified what Laforgue called the “dead language procedures” of traditional painting.

  3. 3

    Lilla Cabot Perry, “Reminiscences of Claude Monet from 1889 to 1909,” as reprinted in Charles F. Stuckey, ed., Monet: A Retrospective (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1985), p. 183.

  4. 4

    It is not merely coincidental that in his 1913 Reminiscences Kandinsky described how his great revelation about the expressive power of painting had occurred in front of one of Monet’s Haystack paintings.

  5. 5

    Vicissitudes of Claude Monet,” in Léon Degand and Denis Rouart, Claude Monet (Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1958), p. 110.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print