Morning with Monet

Claude Monet ~ Impression, Sunrise

Highlighted by savvy museum curators and hawked within an inch of their beautiful lives by mass-market retailers, the French Impressionists remain popular painters. Once derided and criticized, their landscapes, serial studies, and portraits have become as pleasing to the art establishment as to ordinary people seeking a pretty picture for their wall. It’s easy to imagine Messrs. Monet, Renoir,  Degas, and Cézanne sitting around the heavenly atelier, watching light play over the clouds and congratulating themselves on their remarkable staying power.

Less concerned with realistic form than with natural light, atmosphere, and color, Impressionists sought to paint the world as they perceived it rather than in accordance with conceptual guidelines. In a brief overview of the movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes:

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” and not a finished painting.
It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions.

 Traditional landscape artists tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world – leaves, blossoms, blades of grass – as carefully as an illustrator, and with an eye to accuracy. Monet was more concerned with painting what he saw ~ not separate leaves or discrete blossoms, but splashes of constantly changing color and light.

According to William Seitz, art historian and author of the Monet volume for the Masters of Art series:

It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless color patches.

Reading Seitz’s words, I can’t help wondering if he knew of Marius von Senden’s 1932 study called Space and Sight. Quoted extensively in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, von Senden had collected stories of men and women blind since birth who regained their sight with newly available cataract surgery. For most, it was a difficult transition, full of necessary learning. As von Senden puts it, for the newly sighted, “Space ends with visual space…with color patches that happen to bound his view.”

Beginning with Manet, the idea of ‘color patches’ was integral to the development of the Impressionist vision; it’s possible that von Senden picked up the phrase from the painters themselves. In any event, it’s easy to imagine a painter like Monet roaming the countryside with his easel and palette, painting whatever he happened upon and in the process giving us a record of the world informed by these new techniques and his unique vision.

In his bookThe Impressionist Garden, Derek Fell notes the Impressionists’ commitment to “capture and record the fleeting moment” through their brushstrokes. Perhaps the development of photography and the new ability to take ‘snapshots’ influenced their thinking. The phrase “fleeting moment” certainly recalls photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous commitment to his own ‘decisive moment.’ Whether Monet’s reflections on his art were known to Bresson I can’t say, but the lives of Monet (d.1926) and Bresson (b.1908) briefly overlapped; they experienced the same technological advances and no doubt shared some of the same artistic concerns.

Monet’s Garden at Giverny

In 1883, Claude Monet moved to Giverny, and began to develop his garden. In the process, nothing escaped his attention. As avid a gardener as a painter, his legacy still lives in the water-lily ponds, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge, and grand central allée strewn with nasturtiums; the collection of paths and beds in the walled Clos Normand, the large, traditional Normandy flower garden just outside the house, is equally lovely. When Monet acquired the old farmhouse in 1890, he sacrified an old and tired orchard in order to plant new gardens and install the custom-designed metal hoops and pergolas that carried his roses and clematis.

Eventually, he turned his attention to the water garden. He rerouted a river, selected hybrid water lilies for their color, and designed his bridge in a deliberate act of creation. An artist creating his own subject, he left nothing to chance. Renoir built a glass-walled studio in his garden in order to paint his beloved olive trees, but Monet commissioned a studio boat, the better to paint his water lilies.

Claude Monet ~ Le Bateau-atelier 1876

“Apart from painting and gardening, I’m not good at anything,” Monet once remarked. Amusing self-deprecation aside, his talents in both areas resulted in the creation of the garden at Giverny. Composed as if it were a painting, and over time the subject of much of his best work, it is considered by many painters and gardeners to be his greatest legacy – as beautiful, inspirational, and pervasive in its later influence as it was for Monet himself.

Until a trip to Mississippi some years ago, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Monet’s double role in shaping our vision of the world. Despite my affection for his paintings, I’d never considered the possibility that his gardens, and his interpretation of them, might one day shape my own experience of the land.

Turning down a gravel road in the midst of the old Doro Plantation, halfway betweeen a clapboard house flying the Confederate flag and a cluster of fishing shacks moored along the levee, I discovered a landscape so purely Impressionistic it was hard to believe it wasn’t already on canvas. Rippling curtains of white and lavender wisteria hung everywhere, recalling Giverny.  A multitude of greens sprouted from bushes and trees, and the grasses were filled with glowing purple and pink spiderworts. Scrambling across barbed wire and piles of fallen brush into a pecan orchard, I found my footing and looked up in astonishment.

It wasn’t that the orchard reminded me of Monet, it was as though Monet himself already had been there: dappling the leaves with light, capturing the pristine translucence of new growth, and washing the world’s canvas with a sheen of unnameable colors. I’d have been less astonished had I walked into Monet’s studio and discovered the canvases suddenly come to life,  or walked into his garden and surprised him painting a few new shrubs into place.

In Giverny, Monet constructed a garden for himself. That day on the Doro Plantation, where accidents of nature and history had rerouted the Mississippi, reshaped the land, and left a secret, unexpected collection of trees, flowers, and grasses to shimmer in the springtime light, the only thing missing was the artist himself: recording the miraculous beauty of a world akin to the gardens he had grown.

Looking at the photographs today, I remember those unexpected bits of beauty tucked away into the silence of a Mississippi morning.

Seeing the play of light, imagining the warming breeze, and re-experiencing those first, memorable impressions, I realize an unexpected truth. For a few moments, I had seen the world as Claude Monet saw it: tumbled into light and patched with color so piercingly pure no response beyond a sigh is possible. For the first time, I appreciated the enormity of what Monet spent a lifetime revealing: that brushes, paint, and canvas are sufficient to capture our first impressions of the world, and to provide a lifetime of enjoyment in the process.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Sublime Landscape

Some might consider it little more than a proverbial wide spot in the road, but Sublime, Texas — population seventy-five or so — has a post office, a Lutheran church founded in 1868, and some of 2021’s earliest bluebonnets.

Traveling west of town on Alternate Highway 90 last weekend, I began to see pastures and rangeland that were filling with flowers. Before long, those familiar reds and blues spread among the oaks will be joined by an extravagance of colorful yellows, pinks, and whites.

No one around Sublime minds a pure blue field, of course.

After all, this is the highway and these are the fields that gave rise to one of the loveliest tributes possible to our state wildflower, and our “sweet bluebonnet spring.”

You don’t have to be Texan to get a tear in your eye when you hear Emmylou and Willie sing Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway,” but if you are a Texan, you probably can’t help it. I know I can’t.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Warblers

I’ll confess that I giggled a bit when friend Tina of My Gardener Says first mentioned the presence of ‘butter butts’ in her yard. It seemed such an improbable name, until I learned that the more polite version is ‘Yellow-rumped,’ and that both names refer to a little patch of yellow on the nether end of the warbler Setophaga coronata.

Wintertime warblers are easy to find here, especially in places like Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where plentiful, berry-filled wax myrtles draw them in. Able to digest the wax in berries, the warblers often supplement their insect-heavy diet with berries of juniper, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

In fall and winter, they also frequent more open woods and shrubby areas like the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where the flitty little creature shown above paused long enough in its foraging for me to capture its image.

Wax myrtle berries and budding leaves

Two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler exist: the Myrtle Warbler, found primarily in the eastern United States and Canada, and the Audubon’s Warbler, a bird of western states. The Audubon’s throat is yellow, while the Myrtle’s is white, so I seem to have found a Myrtle Warbler.

Poet Kevin Cole, a resident of South Dakota, may see more Audubon’s Warblers: reason enough to celebrate that bird in his poem of the same name. Despite slight differences in the birds, the poem seems applicable to both.

The Audubon warblers keep the time of their coming,
Arriving on stillness of a storm,
Their breast and backs as dark as low bruised banks of cloud,
Rumps and throats as yellow as blooms of buckwheat.
They throng this evening in the newly-leaved,
Tender-tipped canopies nervously weaving
Through the catkins like frantic prophets
Bearing some divine prophecy of the coming spring.
I wait, hoping for nothing too grave:
News of ruinous lands, of cutting and swarming locusts,
Of withering vines and empty granaries,
Of fasting, weeping, and rending of garments.
No, I wait for lighter fare:
Perhaps a promise that the green heron will nest
On the west end of the slough and that the ironweed
And wood lily will once again together bloom.
This would be an ample prophecy for another year—
This, and a promise to keep the time of their coming.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Poet Kevin Cole earned his BA and MA in literature from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in literature from Baylor University. He currently teaches English at the University of Sioux Falls.

Hulls and Humanity

While Galveston was seeking new ways to celebrate Mardi Gras and South Padre Island continued to hope for a successful spring break, Port O’Connor began cleaning rods and repairing reels in anticipation of the spring flounder run.

Port O’Connor knows how to party, but in Port O’Connor, fishing comes first.  Lying at the end of the coastal road, clinging to the edge of Matagorda Bay like a derelict boat that refuses to die, the town is salted with spray: rusted and grayed, weathered from decades of storms. At first glance, she seems an unpromising destination, but beneath the surface of her bays, redfish and  trout school and scatter. Beyond the intracoastal waterway, across the barrier island and over the dunes, surfcasters work the waves; offshore, marlin, snapper, and tarpon lure the adventurous with the promise of exhilarating combat.

Some years ago, I spent time in Port O’Connor maintaining a classic sailboat. Owned by land-locked partners who wanted to keep their boat near the Gulf for easy access to offshore sailing, it was a delightful opportunity. I labored through the days sun-lit and warm as a basking turtle; evenings were filled with equal delights. After dinners of fresh-caught shrimp or fish, a lamp-lit cabin and uninterrupted time for reading or sleep were there for the taking. If I happened back onto the dock to gaze at stars or watch passing barges, an old fellow who lived aboard two slips down sometimes came to visit, glad for a few minutes of conversation.

The man loved to tell stories, and his tales were memorable. Generally, they involved long, intricate meanders through the details of weekend bar fights: harmless confrontations fueled by drink and boredom. But he watched visitors to the marina with a sharp eye, and recounted their antics with amusement.

My favorite of his stories, a Hemingwayesque account of a young man and the bay, involved a novice who went out to fish in a lightweight dingy without a motor. He hooked the big one he’d always dreamed of, then found he couldn’t land it. The fish towed the dingy across the flats until the line broke. At that point in the story, between snorts and guffaws, the old story-teller would gasp, “Damn fool never thought to cut his line, but even if he’d had the thought, it wasn’t gonna happen, ’cause he didn’t have a knife. No knife! Who goes fishing without a knife?”

Sometimes the old man shared his recipe for ceviche, or bragged on the boys who hang trophy marlins, or reminisced about the old days, when life was simpler. Always, he ended with The Storm. The Storm was Carla, the mythic hurricane that landed on Matagorda’s shores long before Katrina, Rita, Harvey, or Ike provided their own dramatic narratives.

Carla was a Cecil B. DeMille kind of storm: a storm so vast, so compelling, that decades later people still gasped at the memories. Carla carried wheat straw from fields and drove it into the brick walls of homes. She left rattlesnakes hanging from trees, and broke the legs of cattle. Her unearthly howl so unnerved one woman that she ran into her back yard and howled back in defiance, until her panic-stricken family dragged her back into the house and made her drink whiskey.

Almost as an afterthought, Carla raged through Port O’Connor’s collection of boats. Skiffs and jon boats were scattered or destroyed. Shrimp trawlers plowed into fields; sport fishers were carried inland by the surge. Barges forced miles inland were strewn up and down major highways like old-fashioned toys. When it was over, there was nothing to do but gaze over the scene in numbed astonishment and think, Well.

Loss wrought by storms is at least understandable. When wind, waves, and surge tear at rigging and batter hulls for hours at a time, some boats will survive, but many let go before the implacable forces of nature, tossing and tumbling to their deaths.

What isn’t so easily understood is death by inattention: the death of a boat that’s been abandoned — left neglected and lonely, allowed to rot away in marshes, at docks, or on out-of-the-way moorings.

Like dogs or cats callously thrown into the world to fend for themselves, unwanted and unloved boats know they’ve been abandoned, and they grieve. Deserted by owners too busy to give them care, relinquished in favor of other pursuits, cast off as no longer romantic or affordable, they are ownerless in truth if not in fact.

Bereft of attention, they begin to decline. Unused hoses harden and crack. Unlubricated winches seize up; barnacles colonize the bottom. Rust blooms, paint flakes, and hanging gardens of algae begin to ring the waterline. Eventually, as time and weather shred the canvas and dry the wood, the boat begins to settle on her lines, leaning inexorably into dereliction.

Anyone familiar with boats has seen it happen, and knows the truth. A boat has to be loved, used, and maintained, lest it die. But when inattention has led to a boat’s dereliction or seeming death, nothing satisfies more than bringing it back to life.

The process of restoration is neither mysterious nor complicated. The only requirements — apart from money — are a few simple tools, a good bit of time,  and a high tolerance for tedium. It’s also helpful to understand that 19th century techniques don’t always lend themselves to 21st century schedules, and to have a passing acquaintance with the basics of weather. But with diligence and focus, even the worst damage can be undone. With patience and persistence, wood turns silky, fiberglass shines, and machinery that clanked, rattled, and banged begins to quietly hum like an absorbed and happy child.

As work progresses and the boat begins to realize that she’ll sail again, you can sense the signs of new life. A boat with hopes of leaving the dock rides differently in the water. The rigging no longer howls like a woman facing down a storm; it sings in the breeze with overtones of satisfaction and joy. When a boat no longer feels abandoned, when she once again hears the call of the sea, she begins to gaze into the depths of her watery mirrors with a sense of restored dignity. 

When I find myself working on a more-or-less abandoned boat, it becomes  impossible not to think of parallels between its condition and the plight of people left to bob and rot in the backwaters of society. Decades ago, ‘derelict’ was a word reserved for bums, drifters, and vagrants. To be called derelict was to face moral judgements built upon assumptions that you were negligent, undependable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.

Certainly, there are irresponsible and deeply untrustworthy people in the world, just as there are people who seemingly prefer disconnected and unproductive lives. But some who wander our world have more in common with derelict boats than with skidrow bums or amoral profiteers. Abandoned by family, neglected by friends, or rejected by the institutions and structures of society, their dereliction is less a matter choice than of circumstance.

If transformation is to come, what holds true for boats will be no less true for such people. No matter how damaged a heart, no matter how hardened its lines, no matter how tattered its dreams or hard its grounding onto the shoals of unhappiness, there is nothing that time, patience and loving attention cannot restore.

Repairing a heart certainly requires dedication, an acceptance of the vicissitudes of daily life, and a willingness to engage in repetitively difficult or unpleasant tasks. Certainly it profits from steady faith and a willingness to believe that even when the past makes its presence known, even when its reflections linger and shimmer in the brightness of newer days, all of the shabbiness, disrepair, and simple ugliness of dereliction eventually can be undone.

In a season dedicated to exchanging hearts as tokens of affection, it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder these less romantic realities of life and love. Somewhere, docked at the edges of our lives, moored just beyond our concern, run aground in a marsh of indifference or neglect, a derelict heart leans inexorably toward desolation: forsaken and forlorn. It may be time to begin its restoration.

Comments always are welcome.

Spell-bound in Winter

Grown to middle age, my calico became placid and content, spending her days in search of perfect napping spots, or indulging in bird-watching at the window. Long past the enthusiasms of kittenhood, her favorite excitement was shredding cheap tissue paper. She preferred white, although she’d work with colored if necessary.  Each Sunday morning, I gave her a dozen sheets. For the next week she rolled in it, hid under it, buried toys in it, or clawed at it until nothing remained but a flurry of shreds.

Despite her even temper, she disliked every sort of storm. Lightning would bring her to electrified attention, while thunder tripled the size of her tail in a flash. Approaching winter cold fronts set her pacing for days. She was my best prognosticator. Once a low crossed the Red River, she began moving restlessly from room to room. By the time it got to Dallas, she’d be tearing full-tilt through the house, circling around and around until collapsing in a heap.

She survived several tropical storms and two hurricane evacuations, and what she lacked in scientific knowledge she made up for in pure instinct: she knew storms are bad. When her people began to fuss and mutter about systems still hundreds of miles away, she headed to her carrier, ready to snuggle down and wait it out: wide-eyed and anxious, uttering the low, undeciperable sounds she reserved for rising storms.

We had much in common, that cat and her people. On the other hand, when storms brew, the air is charged with as much anticipation as anxiety.  Conversations grow a little louder, chatter becomes more insistent. As weather bulletins increase in frequency, questions become more pointed, and attention more focused.

Some want the storm to turn, to dissipate, to wander and die, but others are equally eager to see what nature has up her sleeve this time. We’re like children convinced goblins are living in the closet. Consumed as much by curiosity as by our wonderful terror, we wouldn’t mind the chance for just one glimpse.

This strange combination of fear and fascination accompanies winter storms, as well as hurricanes. Nor’easters, blizzards, white-outs, ice: we hate the interruptions they bring to life, the complications, the immobility. And yet a compulsion overtakes us, an insistent need to feel nature’s effects, to walk, to measure, to experience the howl of wind and the hush of new-fallen snow. We become spellbound as much as snowbound, in thrall to the swirl of the storm.

Emily Brontë captured the feeling well, in her poem titled “Spellbound.”

The night is darkening ’round me,
the wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
and I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
and yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
wastes beyond wastes below;
but nothing dear can move me;
I cannot, will not go.

Brontë had it right. As much as the storms of summer, winter storms can be compelling, exciting and beautiful. Unfortunately, winter is more than storms. Vita brevis, ars longa, as the saying has it. But on this side of Solstice, vita brevis, ars longa, et hiems longior seems more appropriate: life is short, art long, and winter even longer.

December passes quickly enough with celebration and holiday distractions. Even during a pandemic, January arrives with all the hopes of a New Year: a sense of renewed purpose and optimism. But winter is winter, a season of sighing, and waiting, and longing for an end to cold, darkness, and a similitude of days.

As the exultation of Brontë’s storm passes, the endurance of winter begins. It resembles the patience of a sickroom, the shock of unexpected absence, the tedium of sleeplessness. A sense of endurance seems to mark even the natural world as it waits in quiet resignation for the turning to come: a turning marked by lengthening days and increasing light.

The bleakness of mid-winter leaves the world strangely quiet. Wraith-like creatures leave only tracks in freshly fallen snow; sun and moon alike leave only shadows as evidence of their passage.

For the watchers from the windows, for the walkers beneath the moon, for every harsh and glittering star reflected in the sparkle of the snow, time seems to stop. Brontë herself might invite us to stop, and turn, leaving our accustomed roads for a more poetic path. Come along, she seems to say. Enjoy a winter’s walk.

 

The Grammarian In Winter

Winter speaks in passive voice,
conjugates brief slants of light,
parses out cold stars along a tracery of oak.
Beneath the rising moon, fine participles gleam.
D
angling remnant leaves pull free
to tumble down the winds,
evocative declensions of a season now unbound.
Split by ice, the pond breathes smoke.
Split by cold, the blackened ferns release their shattered fronds.
Split by hoarfrost, fences bend and crack across the cold-boned land.
Infinitives abound.
Silent, shrouded by the pond’s slight breath,
clear-eyed herons sweep the snow
as if to scry its source;
their spellbound cries declaim the day,
punctuating
dim and drifting hills.
   Linda Leinen

Comments always are welcome.
Watching the snow fall across the country, I was moved to edit and republish one of my own favorite posts.
Steve Gingold kindly provided images of the snow and ice. For more wonderful winter photographs, visit his website.