Art In History Art Blog
I turn now from Degas and Manet to Claude Monet - THE Impressionist. This is another of those artists, like Leonardo, whom I would not really call a "favorite", but whom I recognize as a towering figure in the development of artistic vision in his time. I respond more to the works of Degas and Manet. But as with Leonardo, no artist in the period following Monet could work without coming to terms with his redefinition of painting. You could follow him or reject him, but you had to deal with the terms which he had established.
Monet redefined painting on several levels: the enterprise, artistic vision, palette and technique. First, he finally stated that the work done directly on the scene was an end in itself. This had been coming, no doubt, but Monet and his fellow impressionists at last turned decisively away from the studio piece, developed form preparatory sketches. The "Bathing at Grenouillere" above is a good early example.
It is also an excellent example of Monet's new vision, as is the "Beach at Trouville". For me this is by far his most important contribution. Monet defined his enterprise as recording the play of light and color on the eye, perception as opposed to conception, what we see before we interpret it through experience. Darks are darks, lights are lights, and these can as easily destroy form as describe form. He has totally undermined the assumption that we are painting a known world, and using light and color to reveal it.
In the 1870's, Monet took another giant step, introducing the rainbow palette, and effectively banning blacks and browns from his work. The "Regatta at Argenteuil" is generally thought of as the work which first states this new palette clearly. It is certainly true that just at this time a whole new set of colors were becoming available to artists, without which the rainbow palette would not have been possible. But Monet's real discovery was that all the browns of the world were really made up of pure colors working together. His great gift was not the USE color, but to SEE color.
His final great invention was to translate the notion of perceived reality as a field of fragments of light and color, into the logically appropriate technique: broken flecks of color. If art is perception, then there are no forms or edges yet, since these are the result of interpretation in the mind. The "pointillist" technique is probably the most obvious trademark of the impressionist style in its maturity.
Monet went on to break new ground in another way: the series done of the same theme at different times. The haystacks series is archetypal, showing a subject with little inherent meaning as an object, but endless fascination as a foil for light. As Monet studies them at different times of day and of year, it is almost as if the reality of the haystack can only be the sum of all the discrete moments of its existence in light.
Two of his other series deserve special mention: Rouen Cathedral and the Waterlilies. In the series done at Rouen, most from the vantage point of a single window overlooking the facade, we see substance totally dissolved by light. He had begun this is his series on "Rocks at Etretat", but it is carried much further at Rouen. It is as if he wishes to take on the most difficult opponent: the solidity of stone.
The "Waterlilies" go even farther, but with a subject which is much more naturally susceptible to his vision. Water is less a reality than a reflector of reality, by nature. In these works Monet deals marvellously with the inteplay of lilypads an the surface with reflected trees and clouds, intermingling with an equal claim to "truth". In the later examples in this series, it is only with the greatest difficulty that we separate what is "real" from what is reflected.