Conjuring with Time and Space
Part 10, Chapter 54 of Daniel Boorstin's The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination
The Painted Moment
The story that begins with the reach to eternity climaxes in our time with the effort to capture the elusive moment. The power of stone enticed the builders of Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and the Parthenon. But it was the power of light that produced the most modern art forms, for light, the nearly instantaneous messenger of sensation, is the speediest, the most transient. Light, after the heavens and the earth, God's first creation in Genesis (1:3), remains the Judeo-Christian symbol of the presence of God. John the Baptist announced Jesus as light (John l: 4ff.), affirmed by Jesus himself. Candles are lit on the Jewish Sabbath and mark holy festivals. And in modern times light has played surprising new roles for those who would recreate the world.
"Modernity," said Baudelaire, "is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, one half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable." For this modern half, light is the vehicle and the resource. It was the Impressionists who made an art of the instantaneous, and Claude Monet (1840-1926) who showed how it could be done. To shift the artist's focus from enduring shapes to the evanescent moments required courage. It demanded a willingness to brave the jeers of the fashionable salons, a readiness to work speedily anywhere, and an openness to the endless untamed possibilities of the visual world. Cezanne summed it up when he said, "Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!"
Monet working in his boat (Édouard Manet, 1974)
The son of a prosperous grocer, Monet was born in Paris in 1840 and as a child of five moved with his family to Le Havre on the north side of the Seine estuary on the Normandy coast. That city, it was said, was "born of the sea," and so too was Monet the Impressionist. In the weather of Normandy, as generations of Channel passengers have painfully learned, the proverbially unpredictable sun, clouds, rain, and fog transform the sky and its sea reflections from moment to moment. Young Monet, impatient to flee the "prison" of school, eagerly explored beaches and cliffs. Until 1883 he was frequently refreshing his vision with visits to the French coast, north or south. Then he found in the Seine, in the Thames, and in his ponds at Giverny other water mirrors for his ever-changing world. "I should like to be always near it or on it," he said of the sea, "and when I die, to be buried in a buoy."
The first signs of his talent were his caricatures of teachers and other local characters in his school copybooks. By the time he was fifteen he was selling these in the shop of the local picture framer. There a chance encounter would shape Monet's life as an artist and the future of Western painting. Eugene Boudin (1824-1898), a painter and son of a pilot, had worked on an estuary steamer before opening the picture-framing shop patronized by some of the leading artists of the age. They urged him to try his hand at landscapes. With Millet's encouragement Boudin went to Paris, where he rebelled against the studio style of the Beaux-Arts by painting natural scenes in the open air. Back in Normandy he painted vivid seascapes.
The fifteen-year-old Monet later recalled that when he first saw Boudin's seascapes he disliked them so much - they were not at all in the "arbitrary color and fantastical arrangements of the painters then in vogue" - that he did not want to meet the man who painted them. But one day in the shop, about 1856, Monet ran into Boudin, who praised the young man's caricatures. "You are gifted; one can see that at a glance," he said, "But I hope you are not going to stop there . . . soon you will have had enough of caricaturing. Study, learn to see and to paint, draw, make landscapes. The sea, the sky, the animals, the people, and the trees are so beautiful, just as nature made them, with their character, their genuineness, in the light, in the air, just as they are." Painting outdoors was still unusual for artists when Boudin took it up. Constable and Corot had done outdoor sketches, but painting had been an art of the studio, where the artist could control the subject and the light. The introduction of metal-tubed pigments in the 1840s in place of the laborious studio process of mixing colors had made outdoor painting practical.
"The exhortations of Boudin," Monet recalled, "had no effect . . . and when he offered to take me with him to sketch in the fields, I always found a pretext to decline politely. Summer came - my time was my own - I could make no valid excuse; weary of resisting, I gave in at last, and Boudin, with untiring kindness, undertook my education. My eyes were finally opened and I really understood nature; I learned at the same time to love it." That summer Monet went on an outdoor excursion with Boudin to Rouelles, near Le Havre. "Suddenly, a veil was torn away. I had understood - I had realized what painting could be. By the single example of this painter devoted to his art with such independence, my destiny as a painter opened out to me." Boudin preached the need to preserve "one's first impression." "Everything that is painted directly on the spot," he insisted, "has always a strength, a power, a vividness of touch that one doesn't find again in the studio." Boudin was urging him to capture the moment of light.
The artist's move out of doors was not only a change of place. As Monet would show, it changed the "subject" of his painting and the pace of his work, leaving a predictable studio world of walls and windows and artificial light for scenes of evanescent light. Monet would create new ways of capturing that light and that evanescence.
At the age of eighteen, encouraged by Boudin, Monet applied- to the Municipal Council of Le Havre for a grant to study art in Paris. The council turned him down on the grounds that "natural inclinations" for caricature might "keep the young artist away from the more serious but less rewarding studies which alone deserve municipal generosity." Still his father sent him to Paris for advice from established artists and a tour of the salons where artists' reputations were made. Originally sent for only a month or two, he was quickly seduced by the city and decided to remain indefinitely. He was fascinated by the artists' cafe world, by the debates between the romantic "nature painters" and the "realists" known for their still lifes and workers' scenes.
The headstrong young Monet refused to enroll in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, citadel of the establishment, though it would have pleased his father and assured a parental allowance. Instead he joined the offbeat Academie Suisse, where there were no examinations and no tuition. For a small fee artists could work from a living model. The "academy" had been started by a former model in a decrepit building where a dentist had once pulled teeth for one franc each. The free atmosphere and low cost had attracted some great talents. Courbet and Manet had worked there. Pissarro still stopped in occasionally to paint or to meet friends, and Monet found him a kindred spirit. Perhaps the most intellectual and self-conscious of the Impressionist circle, Pissarro (1830-1903), introduced Monet to the scientific rationale for their new approach to painting.
Monet's parents in Le Havre were alarmed at the rumors of his bohemian life in Paris, and in 1860, when young Monet was unlucky enough to have his number called for the obligatory seven years of military service, they thought they had him cornered. Monet's father offered to "buy" a substitute if Monet would commit himself to the career of a respectable artist. But they had misjudged their son.
The seven years of service that appalled so many were full of attraction to me. A friend, who was in a regiment of the Chasseurs d'Afrique and who adored military life, had communicated to me his enthusiasm and inspired me with his love for adventure. Nothing attracted me so much as the endless cavalcades under the burning sun, the razzias [raids], the crackling of gunpowder, the sabre thrusts, the nights in the desert under a tent, and I replied to my father's ultimatum with a superb gesture of indifference.... I succeeded, by personal insistence, in being drafted into an African regiment. In Algeria I spent two really charming years. I incessantly saw something new; in my moments of leisure I attempted to render what I saw. You cannot imagine to what an extent I increased my knowledge, and how much my vision gained thereby. I did not quite realize it at first. The impressions of light and color that I received there were not to classify themselves until later; they contained the germ of my future researches.
He had long admired Delacroix's paintings of Algeria, which had first awakened him to the wonders of the North African sun.
When he fell ill with anemia and was granted sick leave, his parents bought him out of the Chasseurs. And in the summer of 1862 he had another lucky encounter, this time with a half-mad Dutch painter, Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891), who would inspire Monet's later work by his bold outdoor sketches and watercolors not so much of the ships and windmills but of the changing atmosphere. "He asked to see my sketches, invited me to come and work with him, explained to me the why and wherefore of his manner and thereby completed the teaching I had already received from Boudin. From that time he was my real master; it was to him that I owe the final education of my eye."
The very "sketchiness" of Monet's drawings that so much appealed to Jongkind was what troubled his artist aunt in Le Havre. "His sketches are always rough drafts, like those you have seen; but when he wants to complete something, to produce a picture, they turn into appalling daubs before which he preens himself and finds idiots to congratulate him." His father let him go back to Paris on the firm understanding "that this time you are going to work in dead earnest. I wish to see you in a studio under the discipline of a well-known master. If you resume your independence, I will stop your allowance without more ado." Through family connections he found a place in the studio of Charles Gleyre, who was both reputable and conventional enough to satisfy his father. "When one draws a figure," Gleyre advised, "one should always think of the antique. Nature . . . is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest. Style, you see, is everything." Another student was the young Renoir (1841-1919), whom Gleyre lumped together with Monet as misguided spirits and so encouraged a lasting friendship. They also felt kinship with another Gleyre pupil, Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), whose wealthy family had allowed him to have his fling at art and who more than once would be a lifesaver for Monet.
By the summer of 1864, Monet had left Gleyre's studio and begun his staccato life of painting-excursions to the forests near Paris and the seacoasts of Normandy and elsewhere. It was during these twenty years that Monet developed as the Arch-lmpressionist. Outside the familiar line of development of Western painting, with new ways of depicting the solid outer world, Monet instead aimed to report whatever the alert artist self could make of the moments of light that came to it. As Monet's biographer William C. Seitz puts it, he was "shucking off the image of the world perceived by memory in favor of a world perceived momentarily by the senses."
Monet came to this freedom of re-creation by stages. His early success at the Salon of 1865 with a harbor seascape (Pointe de la Hève, Sainte-Adresse) and in the Salon of 1866 with his life-size portrait of Camille Doncieux showed that he had the competence to satisfy the Academicians. Zola praised the portrait ("a window open on nature") for its "realism," and extolled Monet as "a man amid this crowd of eunuchs." But Manet was irritated when, through the similarity of their names, he was praised for a work by that "animal" Monet. Despite such minor premature triumphs more than twenty years would pass before Monet was widely recognized or could make a comfortable living. Meanwhile, he suffered all the pangs of the bohemian, which would provide Zola's painful details for his novels about the egoism and frustrations of the Impressionist artists. When Zola published L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) in 1886, it ended his thirty-year friendship with Cezanne, and deeply offended Pissarro and Renoir. Monet still confessed "fanatical admiration" for Zola's talent, but would never forgive him. "I have been struggling fairly long and I am afraid that in the moment of succeeding, our enemies may make use of your book to deal us a knockout blow."
Nor was Monet exaggerating the pain of those years. In the gloomy summer of 1866, when all his possessions were about to be seized by his creditors, Monet slashed two hundred of his canvases to save them from that fate, which explains why so few of his early works survive. In those years he was continually on the move, avoiding creditors and seeking a home he could afford. For lack of any other place, in 1867 he had to go back to his family in Le Havre. There he was temporarily rescued by his wealthy artist friend Bazille who bought Monet's Women in the Garden for twenty-five hundred francs to be paid out in fifty monthly installments of fifty francs each. This work had been refused at the Salon of 1867. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, despite his financial difficulties Monet took Camille Doncieux, his mistress, whom he had just married, and their son born three years before, to London, and then to Holland–painting all the while. Returning to France in 1871, he found the enterprising dealer Paul Durand-Ruel willing to pay good prices for his paintings. He included Monet's works in his catalog, which unfortunately was never published because of the financial crash of 1873 and the following six-year depression.
Women in the garden (Claude Monet, 1866-7)
What is remarkable is not that Monet's talents were not recognized sooner, but that, even without powerful patrons, his new vision was recognized during his lifetime. Unlike many other pioneer artists of his generation, he would end his life prosperous and acclaimed. For twenty years, meanwhile, he migrated from one seacoast or river site to another, with occasional forest and urban interludes.
When the jury of artists for the annual Paris Salon of 1863 had rejected three fifths of the paintings submitted, there was such an outcry that the politically sensitive Napoleon III "wishing to leave the public as judge of the legitimacy of these complaints has decided that the rejected works of art be exhibited in another part of the Palais de l'Industrie. This exhibition will be elective . . ." This historic Salon des Refuses included pictures by Monet's friends, Jongkind, Pissarro, and Cézanne. The center of interest and of controversy was Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, a large canvas (six by nine feet) of two fully dressed male artists and two fully undressed female models decorously picnicking in the woods. A painting by Courbet had also been rejected for "moral reasons." When the emperor publicly labeled Manet's painting as "immodest," he attracted the crowds. The young Monet had none of his works in this salon. But it heralded a new spirit among Paris artists, of which Monet himself would be one of the brightest stars.
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Édouard Manet, 1863)
As Manet had adapted his shocking Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe from works of Giorgione and Raphael, now Monet, who had seen Manet's work at the Salon des Refuses, decided in 1863 to have his own try at the familiar theme. His work, he hoped, would be more true to nature. The surviving central fragment is now in the Louvre, and a smaller replica he made in 1866 can be seen in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Monet was already beginning to use his characteristic Impressionist technique of flat colors, bright patches, and broken brushwork.
During these years Monet was developing into the bold Impressionist. On a visit to Le Havre in 1872 he painted a view of the harbor, Impression: Sunrise, which in 1874 was one of his twelve works (five oils, seven pastels) in a historic private group exhibit. The 165 works also included Degas, Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Morisot, among others. Monet's painting became the eponym for the school and for a decisive movement in Western arts (not only painting). Monet's painting of Le Havre harbor viewed from his window showed a small brilliant red disk of a sun reflected in broken brushwork on the waters, with shadowy masts and hulls enveloped in damp vapors of a nebulous atmosphere. "I was asked to give a title for the catalogue; I couldn't very well call it a view of Le Havre. So I said: 'Put Impression.'"
Impression at sunrise (Claude Monet, 1872)
The month-long exhibition attracted a large paying audience. But more seem to have come to laugh than to admire. One pundit praised these painters for inventing a new technique: load a pistol with some tubes of paint, fire at the canvas, then finish it off with a signature. The critic Louis Leroy's sarcastic article in the Charivari (April 5,1874) noted the "cottony" legs of Renoir's dancers. He made Monet's painting the hallmark of the show, which he called Exhibition of the Impressionists. He reported a puzzled conversation before Monet's painting:
"What does the canvas depict? Look at the catalogue."
"Impression - I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it.....and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape."
The Impressionist label stuck, and was adopted by the painters themselves. But the laughter died away. "They are being attacked–and with good reason," some friends responded, "because they resemble each other a bit too much (they all derive from Manet) and because sometimes they happen to be shapeless, so predominant is their desire of exclusively sketching reality."
This was only the first of a series of brilliant group exhibits every year from 1876 to 1882. In 1877 Mary Cassatt was invited to join. Their last group exhibit was held in Paris in 1886, and a selection by Durand-Ruel was taken to New York. Monet was regularly represented, with fifty works in the New York show. Collectors became interested in his work, and Durand-Ruel had taken him up again.
Monet's family life was not untroubled. His romance with Camille Doncieux, The Woman in the Green Dress, painted in 1866, began in Paris in 1865 and she bore him their first child in 1867, just before he returned penniless to Le Havre. Constantly short of money, in June 1875 he appealed to Manet to lend him twenty francs, for Camille's money was used up. Then during an 1876 visit seeking support from the wealthy collector Ernest Hoschedé at his chateau, Monet formed a liaison with Hoschedé's wife, Alice. The winter of 1877 was desperate for Monet back in Paris. Camille was ill and Monet had no money for food or rent. (Zola would later depict his straits in L'Oeuvre.) Again, he sought help from friends, and Manet again responded. Driven out of his Argenteuil house by debts, with Manet's financial assistance he rented a house farther from Paris at Vétheuil, also on the Seine but near open country. Before this move he offered Dr. Gachet a painting in exchange for a loan to pay for the imminent delivery of his second child. He asked Zola for money to cover the cost of moving his furniture to the house that Manet had helped him rent. Disaster piled on disaster. When the celebrated singer Jean-Baptiste Faure, who had collected Monets on speculation, now put them on auction they brought depressingly small prices. Hoschedé, financially ruined, was suddenly forced to sell his collection of Monets at sacrifice figures.
Mme. Hoschedé left her husband in that summer of 1878, about the time of her husband's disastrous sale of Monets. With her six children she moved in with the Monets at Vétheuil. There she also cared for the ill Camille and the two young Monet children. Monet still had no money for paint or canvas. "I am no longer a beginner," he wrote a friend on December 30, 1878, "and it is sad to be in such a situation at my age [thirty-eight], always obliged to beg, to solicit buyers. At this time of the year I feel doubly crushed by my misfortune and 1879 is going to start just as this year ends, quite desolately, especially for my loved ones to whom I cannot give the slightest present." Despite all, the indomitable Monet kept up his spirits by painting fields of poppies and views of the Seine. He had to pawn everything to pay for Camille's last illness. She died in September 1879, ending their thirteen troubled years together. At her death Monet wrote again to the friend asking him to retrieve from the pawnshop "the locket for which I am sending you the ticket. It is the only souvenir that my wife had been able to keep and I should like to tie it around her neck before she leaves forever." Though broken in spirit, he remained the almost involuntary servant of optical impressions. Seeing Camille on her deathbed, he could not prevent himself from capturing on canvas the blue, gray, and yellow tones of death on her face. Appalled, he compared himself to an animal that could not stop turning a millstone, for he was "prisoner of his visual experiences." The painting now hangs in the Louvre.
The life Monet shared with Alice Hoschedé for the next thirty years, despite its pains, had many sunny days. After the impoverished Ernest Hoschedé had withdrawn from his family to a bachelor life in Paris, Monet and Alice lived together with their combined eight children. In the 18805, Alice by looking after the children made possible Monet's frequent painting excursions around France and abroad. They moved to Giverny in 1883 in rented quarters. Ernest died in 1891, and they married the next year. As Monet developed the now-famous Giverny properties, this became an artist's mecca and a model bourgeois household. In the 1840s Monet traveled much less. With Alice taking a strong hand, they both developed the astonishing gardens at Giverny. Alice died in 1911.
While "impressionist" painters flourished separately, Impressionism as a group movement disintegrated. By 1881 the original group of the first Impressionist Exhibit of 1874 had dispersed, and pristine Impressionism had no group exhibits after 1886. With the aid of enterprising dealers and increasingly adventurous collectors, including many Americans, Monet became a self-supporting painter. By the 1890s he was a recognized master. And Monet experimented ever more boldly with his optical self. He offered more than a new style in his way of re-creating the artist's visual world. Monet's early experience of the volatile atmosphere of Normandy, and of the dazzling sunshine of North Africa, as we have seen, had prepared him for the fireworks of light. He had the courage to give up the publicly agree on world of the known for the world seen only by the artist himself.
This was a revolutionary shift in focus, a change both in the resources of the artist and the demands made on the artist. For while the descriptive artist had his tasks limited by the observed world out there, the Impressionist's assignments were infinite. And this way of recreating the world came close to abolishing "subject matter." The Impressionist artist's "motifs" had no other purpose than to call attention to the painting and give the viewer his bearings in the artist's world of impressions. Gone was the need for mythological, historical, religious, patriotic, or epoch-making subject matter. The optical impressions of an artist-self at a given moment were quite enough. Monet tended toward landscape or seascape, not because of their special significance, nor from a romantic love of nature. His motifs were not so much Nature as the Out-of-Doors, a world of ambient atmosphere, of ever-changing light and infinite iridescence. No object had a fixed color and even shadows could contain the whole spectrum.
Impressionists were prophets of the new, prototypical re-creators. As the young poet-critic Jules Laforgue observed of them, "The only criterion was newness....it proclaimed as geniuses, according to the etymology of the word, those and only those who have revealed something new." Every Impressionist painting was of a new "subject," which was the visual world of the artist at that evanescent moment. For novel subjects Monet found nothing more fertile than water–in the sea or the river, and in the snow, constantly changing and reflecting. And so he said "the fog makes London beautiful."
The outdoor painter worked under stringent time limits. While the studio painter could take four years for a Sistine ceiling and another five to paint the wall behind the altar, an impression by Monet had to be painted with near-photographic speed. Monet sometimes painted for only fifteen minutes at a time on a canvas. If the light was sufficiently similar on another day he might return. Atmosphere, sun, shadow and the time of day were all crucial. "One day at Varengeville," the French dealer and collector Ambroise Vollard reported, "I saw a little car arriving in a cloud of dust. Monet gets out of it, looks at the sun, and consults his watch: 'I'm half an hour late,' he says, 'I'll come back tomorrow.' "
This was an age of focused interest in optics, in the theory of light and color and the burgeoning art and science of photography. At no time since Newton had physicists made such advances or been so adventurous in their theories of light. In Germany Hermann Helmholtz (1821-1894) had invented the ophthalmoscope (1850) and a new theory of color vision, the Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was investigating color perception and the causes of color blindness, while Ogden N. Rood (1831-1902), an American professor of Columbia University, was developing a flicker photometer for comparing the brightness of light of different colors, and producing Modern Chromatics (1879). The kaleidoscope and the stereoscope had entered living rooms. Joseph Nicéphore Niepce (1765-1833), Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), and William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) had already pioneered the age of photography. It was impossible for men and women of culture not to know this magical new graphic art.
Of special interest to painters was the work of the French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul (1796-1889) who, besides doing pioneer research in animal fats to improve the candle and soap industry, had been experimenting with color contrasts at the Gobelin tapestry works. Charged with preparing dyes at the Gobelin works, Chevreul discovered to his surprise that the major problems were less those of chemistry than of optics. If a color did not register its proper effect, it was apt to be due not to a deficiency of the pigment but to the influence of neighboring colors. His researches produced his "law of simultaneous contrast," published in 1839. While Chevreul built on Newtonian theory, he discovered his own "law" by observation. "Where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors," he noted, "they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the height of their tone." Any color therefore would influence its neighbor in the direction of that color's complementary (those elements of white light absorbed by the given color). Thus red would tend to make adjacent surfaces appear greener, green would be enhanced by juxtaposed red, as red in turn would be enhanced by a neighboring green.
The intellectual Pissarro became an enthusiast for Chevreul and for the new science of color. "We could not pursue our studies of light with much assurance," he observed, "if we did not have as a guide the discoveries of Chevreul and other scientists." Neo-Impressionists, he urged, should aim "to seek a modern synthesis of methods based on science, that is, based on M. Chevreul's theory of color and on the experiments of Maxwell and the measurements of 0. N. Rood. To substitute optical mixture for mixture of pigments. In other words, the breaking up of tones into their constituents. For optical mixture stirs up more intense luminosities than mixture of pigments does." Chevreul provided the basis of the "divisionist" technique of painting. He charted the way to the pointillisme of Seurat and Signac and for Pissarro himself. And Pissarro enlisted a group he called "scientific impressionists" for whom the optical sciences were to be steps toward the liberation of man.
Monet may have known the work of Chevreul. He could hardly have avoided hearing of it from his talkative friend Pissarro. Even while Monet professed to abhor theory, he found ways of applying the emerging theories of color, and he became the archprophet of an impressionism based on bold new juxtapositions of light and color. Just as Giotto had found his way to a kind of linear perspective ahead of the modern theories of Brunelleschi and Alberti, so Monet seems intuitively to have been led to the techniques that would be justified and explained by the new science of light and color. The influence of photography, which had ceased to be arcane, was quite another matter, for it seemed to provide the equivalent of a momentary Impressionist's sketch, a scientific and foolproof grasp on instantaneity. Baudelaire had warned that photography and poetry were incompatible. But it is likely that some of the Impressionists made clandestine use of photography. It is hard not to suspect that the blurred image of photographed objects in motion had some effect on paintings like Monet's Boulevard des Capucines (1873). Perhaps the photographers' earnest quest to record the instantaneous encouraged painters like Monet to outdo them in color.
Boulevard des Capucines (Claude Monet, 1873)
The Impressionist painter had accelerated the pace of his work to match the pace of modern life. Monet was in search of the now, and capturing a short-lived motif required a spontaneous style. Monet himself described the challenge of making a laborious art serve the aim of "instantaneity." Momentarily frustrated by the too-rapid changes of light as he painted his haystack series (October 1890), he wrote:
I'm grinding away, sticking to a series of different effects, but the sun sets so early at this time that I can't go on.... I'm becoming so slow in working as to drive me to despair, but the more I go on, the more I see that I must work a lot to succeed in rendering what I am looking for: "Instantaneity," especially the envelope, the same light spread everywhere, and more than ever I am disgusted by easy things that come without effort.
This kind of painting required its own kind of patience, to wait for the precise moment and come again and again in search of that moment. Monet's friend Guy de Maupassant, who sometimes accompanied him in his search for that moment, compared Monet's life to that of a trapper.
If the bohemian artist had to survive the rigors of hunger and unheated studios, the Impressionist had to brave wind and rain and snow. A journalist in 1868 at Honfleur, opposite Le Havre, described Monet in his neighborhood. "We have only seen him once. It was in the winter during several days of snow, when communications were virtually at a standstill. It was cold enough to split stones. We noticed a foot-warmer, then an easel, then a man, swathed in three coats, his hands in gloves, his face half-frozen. It was M. Monet, studying a snow effect."
Of all painters' works those of Monet are the hardest to describe in words, precisely because they had no "subject" but the momentary visual impression on a unique self. Though suspicious of all prescribed "forms," Monet did create a spectacular new form of painting. In the "series" he found a way to incorporate time in the artist's canvases by capturing a succession of elusive moments. Monet's series were his way of making peace between the laborious painter and the instant impression of the eye. In his early years Monet had sometimes painted more than one picture of the same scene, and so revealed the changing light and atmosphere. But now he planned extensive series of the same subject under variant light, season, and atmosphere. Here was a new use of time and atmosphere, a new epic form, in which the differences between paintings were part of the plot. Monet had done something of this sort in his paintings of London in 1870. The series concept flourished and grew as Monet in his fifties finally put poverty behind him. Now a prosperous celebrity, he could elaborate his ideas at will, as repetitively and outrageously as he wished, with no worry of having to appeal to the market. Back in 1874 he had begun a surprising series of smoke and fog at the Gare St. Lazare, and had done paintings of the same fields of poppies. In the 1890s he threw himself into his series with passion and in profusion.
Gare Sainte-Lazare (Claude Monet, 1874)
Gare Sainte-Lazare (Claude Monet, 1874)
Monet's first great series seemed to have a most unpromising subject. But for this haystack (meule) series the haystack was not really his subject. "For me," he explained, "a landscape does not exist as a landscape, since its appearance changes at every moment; but it lives according to its surroundings, by the air and light, which constantly change." In May 1891 he exhibited fifteen paintings of this haystack series, showing the same motif under varying conditions of atmosphere, sun and snow, sunrise and sunset. It was this series that had inspired Maupassant's characterization and Monet's own complaints of the painful elusiveness of "instantaneity." Another series, "Poplars on the Epte" (1891), followed, depicting the variations of vertical shapes just as the haystacks pursued the rounded bulk of a haystack against the flat landscape.
Poplars on the Epte (Claude Monet, 1891)
Then, as if to show that even man's works could nourish the most subtle impressions, Monet did a series of impressions of the facade of Rouen Cathedral seen from the window of a shop opposite. When twenty of the Rouen series were exhibited in the Durand-Ruel gallery in 1895, they sold for the high price of fifteen thousand francs each, a price Monet had insisted on. Monet's friend Georges Clemenceau acclaimed the series as a "Revolution de Cathedrales" - a new way of seeing man's material works, a hymn celebrating the cathedral as a mirror for the unfolding works of light in time. Here, he said, was a new kind of temporal event. Two more great series still remained on Monet's agenda. A series on the Thames, begun in 1900, had produced more than a hundred canvases by 1904. Then, after Monet had settled down in Giverny in 1900, he began his water-garden series, which he was still elaborating at the time of his death in 1926
Water garden at Giverny (Claude Monet, 1904)
It is difficult to grasp the grandeur of any of these series when we see only individual canvases in different museums. The delight of each haystack painting comes also from our view of its Impressionist companions. Monet's fascination with the gardens at Giverny and his attention to their care were another witness to his obsession with visual change. His small home territory - Giverny, its paths, arbors, trees, and flowers and its Japanese bridge–provided inexhaustible motifs for Monet in his last years. He delighted in the daily opening and closing of pond-lily blossoms and in the moving clouds mirrored in the shifting surface of the ponds. In 1977 the Academie des Beaux-Arts, which he had spurned a century before, took possession of Giverny and made it a national Monet shrine. Clemenceau, as a politician less attracted by evanescence than was Monet, proposed that despite failing eyesight and depression at the loss of his wife, Alice, Monet should paint an encircling mural for a new studio. These dazzling murals became a monument to Monet, dedicated two years after his death, in the Orangerie of the Tuilleries and would be christened by some the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.
The Japanese bridge (Claude Monet, 1918-24)
Still, no encircling mural could properly celebrate Monet the Impressionist. His achievement was not in the durable but in the elusive moment. He conquered time by capturing light, the speediest messenger of the senses. "I love you," Clemenceau wrote to Monet, "because you are you, and because you taught me to understand light."