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.
“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.