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

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 sees

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 …

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