Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Claude Monet (1840-1926):|
Painting Light with the Mind's Eye
Monet was one of the world's greatest landscape painters and purist of
the French impressionist movement. His contemporary, Paul Cezanne proclaimed, "Monet
is only an eye, but my God, what an eye." His artist roots began in 1858 when the
17 year-old Monet met Eugene Boudin, who oriented him toward landscape and open-air
painting (en plein-air).
Monet recalled "All of a sudden it was like a veil
torn from my eyes and I understood at last. I realized what painting could be.
My own destiny as a painter opened up before me. My eyes were opened and I gained
a real understanding of nature, and a real love of her as well."
As lighting effects on nature's landscape are constantly changing, Monet would paint the same scene with a dozen or more canvases. In the morning mist of the River Seine, the haystacks at Giverny, the poplar trees at Epte, and the façade of Rouen Cathedral, Monet tried to capture the fleeting moment of colors and shades on his canvases from sunrise to sunset. He once reflected, "I wish I had been born blind and then suddenly gained my sight so that I could begin to paint without knowing what the objects were that I could see before me." The writer Guy de Maupassant followed Monet in his search of impressions at the Cliff of Etretat in 1885 and wrote:
Like Don Quixote battling the windmills, Monet would tackle the great façade of Rouen Cathedral during February to March of 1882 and 1893. Facing westward, the cathedral's giant textured screen mirrored the variegated tones of atmosphere and light from sunrise to sunset. Monet changed canvases by the hour, seeking to capture the evanescent color tonalities cloaking the huge architectural skeleton. Writing to his wife Alice on March 29, 1893 from Rouen, Monet cried out in despair: "I am a prisoner, and I have to get through it all, though I have reached the end of my tether, it's killing me, and I keep working in a state of feverish frenzy. Have been working on fourteen canvases today, which never happened before." Indeed, Monet was treading on new grounds, soaring into the unknown, and conquering a new dimension in the history of art. Never has anyone sought so methodically and so patiently to capture consecutive moments of time on the canvas. Monet's mind's eye gave us the impressionistic "instantaneity" of infinite illuminosity.
When twenty paintings of Monet's Rouen Cathedral were exhibited on May 10, 1895 at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, the series was acclaimed a sensational success. Everyone was surprised and awed by the remarkable gradations and variations of light mirrored by the cathedral from dawn to noon to dusk, under clear to foggy weather. Georges Clemenceau extolled the "symphonic splendor" of the canvases in an article "The Revolution of the Cathedrals" published in La Justice (May 20, 1895):
In Clemenceau's eyes, Monet's renderings of Rouen Cathedral were not only a revolution in art but a revelation of reality. Dividing the twenty canvases into four groups, he compared them to the transition of light during four different times of the day as gray (dawn), white (morning), iridescent (afternoon), and blue (evening):
In the spring of 1908, Monet suffered from failing eyesight. His double cataract condition worsened after the death of his wife in 1911. Rarely leaving the solitude of Giverny, Monet now semi-blind, worked on unremittingly painting his waterlilies. Sitting by his pond at Giverny, Monet passed the morning hours in silence. He watched the clouds above moving across his reflected pool of water below like a fairyland procession. When he became discouraged, his intimate friend Clemenceau encouraged him on: "You can still do it, so do it!" In the spring of 1916, the 75-year old Monet began work on his large decorative panels of Waterlilies commissioned for France. This monumental project was to occupy him for the rest of his life. Monet installed a dozen canvases placed in a circle on the floor all about six feet tall and twelve feet wide. The art dealers Georges Bernheim and René Gimpel described the spectacle:
Wearing heavy glasses as his cataracts became worse in 1917, Monet complained to Gimpel, "I see much less well, I am half blind and deaf." A cataract operation on one eye was performed in February 1923 which partially restored his sight. Monet soon returned to work in November with renewed vigor. Even at night, the waterlilies were dancing in his dreams, as he struggled to bring them to life on the canvases before his death in 1926. When they were installed in the oval rooms in the Orangerie of Tuleries, Paris on May 17, 1927, Clemenceau described the experience of Monet's "Waterlilies" as entering a fairyland:
Indeed there is a breathtaking quality in Monet's last works on the Waterlilies which are so strikingly rich is subtleties of shades and tonalities of color. Monet's water surface seems to sparkle with an inner illumination. Just as the deaf Beethoven summoned his inner ear to compose the sublime Last String Quartets, the blind Monet was using his inner eye to paint his magnificient Waterlilies. Despite the darkened world around him, the beauty of nature remained forever fresh in Monet's mind's eye. This was his glorious gift to the world.
Essay written as part of book,
The Eye of the Eye: Insight from Sightless Seers
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