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


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.



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.

Monet’s approach to painting was different from Seurat’s in many ways. In contrast to the systematic marks of Seurat’s pointillism, Monet’s brush stroke varied with his response to his subjects. The sea on a calm day might be rendered in regular, fairly even strokes, but a stormy sea would call forth more agitated brushwork. Monet’s insistence on painting the same motifs at different times and under different weather conditions also differed sharply from the notion of “masterpiece” painting espoused by Seurat, in which numerous small studies would be done in preparation for a large-scale and carefully worked-out final composition depicting a moment out of time, a characteristic situation rather than a single, specific moment. Such painting implicitly endorses a number of hierarchies: not only of subject matter and size, but of an obviously pondered synthesis over an apparently immediate response. Monet’s reaction to Seurat seems to have consisted of an intensified emphasis on the ideal of the spontaneous and the nonhierarchical.

Monet’s serial paintings also seem to be related to a general interest in concepts of time during the last decade of the century, a preoccupation that took diverse forms, ranging from the philosophical writings of Henri Bergson to attempts by the French government to standardize the recording of time. (In 1891, while Monet was at work on his first series paintings, the reckoning of time was first standardized in France, with Paris time becoming the legal time for the entire country.6

The Boston Museum’s exhibition of a large number of serial paintings creates a curious impression. The various series of paintings are arranged chronologically, starting with the resolutely unpicturesque views of the Creuse valley that Monet worked on in 1889 and 1890 and ending with his painting of Waterloo and Charing Cross bridges in London and of the Japanese-style bridge in his own garden, which occupied him at the turn of the century. The paintings are handsomely installed in spacious galleries full of natural light. (The installation, though, is marred by one astonishing lapse of taste: in front of the long wall given over to the views of Rouen cathedral, someone has seen fit to construct an absurd-looking ersatz Gothic arcade, which is not only aesthetically jarring but actually blocks one’s view of the paintings.)

At the same time, despite its thematic unity, the exhibition is more diffuse than one would have expected, and it offers no particular view of Monet’s development during the period it covers. I was not the only visitor who found himself wandering back and forth almost at random, enthralled, but taking each set of pictures separately. In fact, although each subject painted in a series has a very particular local character, and some of the paintings are so vividly rendered that you sometimes can almost smell the air or feel the stir of a breeze in them, the overall effect of the show is one of surprisingly disembodied work.

This, I think, has more to do with the nature of Monet’s aims in the serial paintings than with any particular shortcoming in their presentation. As Tucker points out in the catalog, and as the show makes quite clear, most of Monet’s series paintings do not represent continuous sequences in time, as from dawn to dusk. Although one can make out such a general progression within parts of the Rouen Cathedral series, the only series that seems to have been meant as a strictly sequential record is the Morning on the Seine, in which the river and trees seem to emerge from the enveloping morning mist right before our eyes, in an almost cinematic fashion. This is both one of the most literal and one of the most clearly metaphorical of the series: the scenes are naturalistically rendered but at the same time they are presented with such reverence that we seem to be witnessing the creation of a world as well as the start of a particular day.

But Monet seems to have had quite different intentions for the other series. The Grain Stacks, for example, are composed in a provocatively simple, lumpy way but are sometimes rendered in such vivid color harmonies that some of them seem more the result of hallucination than of observation. The Poplars compositions, by contrast, explore complex geometrical structures, yet they are more naturalistic and generally more lyrical than the Grain Stacks. The Rouen Cathedral paintings, though probably the most familiar to most people, are the most puzzling. Are they meant to be taken as a kind of deconstruction of the Gothic style, or as compositions in praise of it? Is the corrosive light that seems to eat into the stony surfaces of these pictures supposed to allude to, compete with, or show disdain for the idea of the “divine light” that filtered through Gothic stained-glass windows? And what of the churning smokestacks and sonorous coal-and-pewter color harmonies that infuse some versions of Waterloo Bridge? Should we read these pictures as exaltations of London’s economic might or as images of its nightmarish industrial pollution?

The difficulties that we face in answering these questions seem to be built into the ambiguities of the paintings themselves. Although all of these works are landscapes, they exist in a space that seems to be as much mental as physical. What Monet saw before his eyes apparently became so transformed by the act of looking and painting that the resulting images are paradoxically both very, specific and barely tangible. The exceptions are instructive, for example the paintings of the Japanese bridge at Giverny, which, unlike most of the rest of the works shown in the exhibition, seem to be surprisingly straightforward accounts of bridge and garden. It is as if the artist, returning to Giverny after his time in London at the turn of the century, also felt impelled to return to the more straightforward realism with which he began his career.

While the exhibition lacks what might be called a visual argument, the explanatory wall plaques and the catalog seek to impose a very particular interpretation of the pictures—one, it should be said, that often seems to be at odds with the pictures themselves. In fact, this exhibition might best be judged as two related but somewhat separate undertakings: as an impressive show that presents a substantial part of Monet’s work during the 1890s, and as an attempt to relate Monet’s art to the social concerns that have characterized so much art-historical writing in recent years.


Since we tend to see past art from the perspective of our current concerns, it is perhaps not surprising that in 1990 Monet is being presented as a greedy businessman driven primarily by marketing strategies. According to the introductory wall plaque at the Boston Museum, “he devised his serialized procedure to distinguish himself in the extremely competitive Parisian art world and to affirm the vitality of Impressionism as an avant garde style.” This sort of thinking, a leitmotif in the exhibition’s explanatory material, is based on Professor Tucker’s catalog for the show, where such observations not only dominate, but sometimes overwhelm; the discussion of Monet’s art.

Tucker’s catalog brings together an enormous amount of documentary information about Monet and about French culture at the end of the last century. He gives detailed attention to Monet’s work on each of the series, to the critical reception that each received, and to the various political, social, and economic issues that occupied many Frenchmen during the period. Admirable as this is, the catalog also suffers from a surfeit of curiously literal and overlapping explanations, in which paintings are paired up with events in social history without any real attempt to define just what connects the two. The underlying assumption seems to be that the more background information that can be brought to bear on a picture (especially of the sort that can be backed up or summarized by statistics), the more meaning that picture will have.

The problem with this method is that the matching-up process often turns out to be approximate, reductive, or even contradictory, and often completely disregards the picture in question as it exists apart from its subject—that is, in its function as a work of art. Although all works of art are, of course, products of their society, they are also objects that produce feelings in us, and it seems to me that to search for a significance that is quite independent of the aesthetic and emotional effects of the work can seriously distort whatever meanings a picture may have, including the social ones. In particular, works of art often draw much of their force from ambiguity and nuance—from that which is not directly stated. But in most considerations of works of art as social objects, the very ambiguities and contradictions that contribute most to our reactions are often disregarded—or, if they are regarded at all, they are seen either as inconveniences or as anathema.

To be fair, Tucker is often aware of how complex and paradoxical Monet’s work can be, and he is particularly aware of how contradictory Monet was, as man and artist. But at the same time, Tucker tends to be reductive, wanting us to see Monet as either an idealist or a sharp dealer, as a solitary hermit or a gregarious opportunist. No doubt this is a welcome corrective to the frequent idealization of Monet as a kind of saintly mystic; but Tucker seems to err in the opposite direction, constantly emphasizing Monet’s competitiveness, his “calculating” choice of subjects, and his egotism, all of which are alleged to have been combined with a self-interested patriotism that led him to concentrate on themes that evoked la France profonde. Tucker even interprets Monet’s prodigious efforts to raise subscription money in order to purchase Manet’s Olympia for the Louvre as reflecting the artist’s supposed opportunism and self-interest.

Monet’s paintings, on the other hand, are dealt with in an oddly dualistic way, which alternates between, on the one hand, detailed (and sometimes tedious) formal description and, on the other, tendentious social history. Tucker’s treatments of the paintings of the grain stacks and of Rouen Cathedral offer especially good examples of what I mean, for in them he presents much diverse and somewhat contradictory information, which he then proceeds to interpret as if it were all of a piece, frequently glossing over the contradictions and avoiding some of the most interesting questions raised by the work he discusses.

As Tucker points out, the paintings that used to be referred to as Haystacks are not in fact haystacks, but are made up to wheat and the plants that yield other cereal grains, and are larger and more elaborately constructed. Monet’s paintings of the grain stacks, we are told, were meant to “affirm the essential values of the French countryside” and the “fecundity of the nation’s artistic past,” since stacks of grain (and, as it turns out, especially haystacks, which in this context are conveniently treated as if they were one and the same) had been represented by French artists as far back as the Middle Ages. “Anyone who took up the motif, therefore, automatically took his place in this heralded lineage.”

Tucker insists that Monet’s choice of subject here was a form of calculating nationalism that would help to assure his popularity, and even goes so far as to say that

for most of the decade, with the exception of his views of Rouen Cathedral, Mount Kolsaas in Norway, and the Thames, Monet found everything he needed for his art and legacy in the offerings of rural France.

These are large exceptions, although it is obvious that Monet was drawn to rural French themes, if for no other reason than that he lived in a rural part of France.7 But as it turns out, Monet is supposed to have had a very specific reason for painting such subjects. We are told that since he was preoccupied with his own earning power, Monet considered the grain stacks to be symbols of the wealth to be found in the rural regions of France.

In a long digression about the battle to keep Millet’s Angelus in France, Tucker tries to connect Monet’s Grain Stack paintings to it and to other pictures of agrarian subjects—despite the fact that all these other pictures are very different from Monet’s paintings in both style and subject. But relating Monet’s paintings to such sentimental images of rural toil and piety as Veyrassat’s August in the Brie and Millet’s Angelus misses the important point that Monet’s Grain Stack pictures are in some ways the opposite of such paintings. Instead of picturesquely representing peasants piously bowing before the Christian God, Monet’s paintings suggest a secular spirituality in which reverence is directed to nature. Instead of being shown the hard work and high spirits of French farmers, we are confronted with the simple mute presence of the stacks of grain, sometimes rendered with a smoldering, almost otherworldly intensity of color.

Tucker’s search for direct parallels between Monet’s art and the rural economy distorts his art by trying to make it conform to the kinds of fixed, absolute values that Laforgue had rejected in 1883. In the same way that Monet’s paintings resist narrative, they also resist being easily fitted into simple social programs.

In Tucker’s discussion of the 1889 Universal Exposition, for example, which precedes his chapter on the Grain Stacks, he remarks that in 1889 France had slipped from second to fourth place among nations in industrial production, “as exports continued to decline following the ever-falling price of France’s staple wheat crop.” So far as I can tell, this is the only mention made of this disastrous fall in wheat prices, and no conclusions are drawn from it. But since the stacks of grain that Monet painted contained wheat, could this mean that Monet was really painting the decline of France and evoking the decreasing ability of the French countryside to sustain the nation’s economic position?

Of course not, no more than we can say that the Grain Stacks paintings are meant primarily as affirmations of French agrarian values, or that the poplars Monet painted in 1891 should be taken literally as the equivalent of so much money in the bank, or as symbols of French republicanism, just because they were in fact valuable timber, or because they had been “selected as the tree of liberty during the Revolution of 1789.” When Tucker informs us that the poplar was so accepted “as a symbol of la France that tree-planting ceremonies occurred again in 1889 in order to mark the centennial of the Revolution,” and that the poplar was widely used as a symbol by political candidates, are we supposed to read Monet’s Poplars paintings as literal embodiments of these ideas? And if so, should we then assume that the municipal authorities of Limetz, which owned the poplars, and which insisted on having them cut down for timber as soon as they reached their prime, were in some way acting in an antirevolutionary spirit? And what are we to make of Maurice Guillemot’s observation (not mentioned by Tucker), in an 1898 article based on an interview with Monet, that Victor Hugo thought the poplar “quite possibly the only stupid tree…. It is, like the alexandrine, one of the classical forms of boredom”?8

That a stack of grain, for example, or a poplar tree can mean different things in different settings should be obvious, but it is unfortunately beyond the comprehension of single-minded art historians. One of the most egregious flaws of much recent art history is its tendency to emphasize “social context” and to draw literal and reductive conclusions about paintings, more or less independent of their settings. Tucker’s discussion of the Rouen Cathedral paintings is a good case in point, since here, for once, we are dealing with a subject that has a clearly symbolical meaning. We are told that the paintings in this series are “novel in their focus on a single motif that, like the poplar, was fraught with meaning”—a parallel that seems to me both contradictory and false. “In the early 1890s,” we are further informed, “France had witnessed a religious revival of considerable proportions…. By choosing to paint a religious structure, Monet was placing himself squarely within that discourse.” There then follow detailed discussions of French nationalism and xenophobia, of the revival of interest in Jeanne d’Arc, and of the Gothic style, which “like the poplar,” had been “linked to the nation since the Revolution of 1789.” We are repeatedly told that the choice of a Gothic monument was significant, although we are never told just why. In fact, for all the documentary evidence he produces to explain the choice of the Rouen Cathedral, Tucker is forced to concede that “Monet did not address any of these issues directly in his Cathedrals.” He concludes merely that “it was hardly coincidental that he had chosen to paint a monument of such significance to France at a time of widespread concern about the nation among her citizens.”

In fact, the paintings themselves suggest that Tucker’s evidence has a meaning opposite to the one he proposes. Perhaps Monet, who didn’t even go inside the cathedral until his project was well advanced (and even then only to hear a high mass sung by a large Parisian choir) meant the Rouen Cathedral paintings to be antithetical to the religious hierarchies and absolute values of the Church. Perhaps he, like Pissarro, who spoke of religion as “superstitious beliefs,” was reacting against the sort of nationalism and piety that Tucker discusses.

And then again, perhaps none of these concerns was uppermost in Monet’s mind—any more than any of them necessarily are in our own when we look at the paintings. Perhaps Monet was trying to do several things at once, one of them being to take on the enormous challenge that the cathedral façade presented to his own way of painting. To have light and atmosphere permeate trees and fields is one thing, but to show their effects on stone is quite another. When you contemplate the intensity of the ten Rouen Cathedral paintings lined up on a single wall at the Boston Museum you can well understand Monet’s comments in the letters he wrote from Rouen that he was “looking for something, groping my way forward,” often in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. Writing to his wife, he describes a nightmare about the “pink or blue or yellow” cathedral falling on him, and casts doubt on the the whole enterprise. “What is it that’s taken hold of me,” he asks in April 1893, “for me to carry on like this in relentless pursuit of something beyond my powers?”

But even more to the point, perhaps Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings, like so much of his work of the 1890s, should be seen as part of a grand ambition to create in painting his own equivalent of what his friend Mallarmé had created in poetry, and what his friend Cézanne was creating in a different way in painting: a pictorial language that would would be rich in overtones, nuances, and implications, but would resist clear and absolute meanings. Indeed, when we think of Monet working on the cathedral pictures, building them up optical sensation by optical sensation, groping for an elusive sense of realization, we are impelled to think also of Cézanne, who admired Monet most among living painters.

“In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.” Monet wrote to his wife from Rouen. And in mid-April 1892, when he returned to Giverny, he wrote to his dealer, Durand-Ruel, that he was “absolutely discouraged and unhappy with what I have done. I do not even want to unpack my canvases, or see them for a long time.” In the end, for Monet, as for Cézanne, there was no “final” painting. His undertaking was based ultimately on uncertainty, on trying to distill a convincing image from the engulfing flow of time. For Monet, as for Cézanne, each individual image was another small step toward a horizon that receded at the same rate at which it was being approached. In speaking of his working method, Monet spoke of the act of “taking up again,” an apparent acknowledgment that in painting such as his it would never be possible to be finished.

One of the things that the Boston exhibition makes clear is that Monet is an artist of stature comparable to Cézanne, and in no small measure because he too had the tragic sense of possessing a vision of nature so vast and complex that he could hardly hope fully to realize it. Perhaps this was what Jules Laforgue was getting at in his prescient 1883 essay, when he wrote.

In the flashes of identity between subject and object lies the nature of genius. And any attempt to codify such flashes is but an academic pastime.

This Issue

May 17, 1990