The Foreign and the Familiar

It was, I thought at the time, rather like going to church. The spare, sweeping space of the galleries, the click of heels across marble and wood, the sound of parents shushing children into silence and the sight of impassive, stolid guards lined up along the walls like ushers felt familiar, even if the painting and sculpture did not.

I was young and slightly timid, well-educated but inexperienced in the arts.  With an eye still incapable of discerning distinctions and little appreciation for technique, my first experience of a “real” art museum felt like a visit to a foreign country.  I might as well have been in Tanganyika, a country that still existed the year I found myself plucked from my familiar, everyday world and transported to the National Gallery of Art.

Previously, my museum-going had been confined to the Des Moines Art Center.  Building additions, including one designed by I.M. Pei, have changed its appearance over the years and expanded the space available for exhibits, but in its original incarnation it was positively cozy. With creamy stone facades, immaculate lawns and lush trees, it could have been any upper-middle class home in any upper-middle class Iowa neighborhood. It was as familiar as the neighborhood playground or the Dairy Queen, and as comfortable. It played to its audience, and did it well. Continue reading

Claude Monet ~ Alive & Well in Mississippi

Highlighted by savvy museum curators and hawked within an inch of their beautiful lives by mass-market retailers and online poster-and-frame shops, the French Impressionists remain popular painters.  Once derided and criticized, their landscapes, serial studies and portraits are as pleasing to the art establishment as they are accessible to people who just want a pretty picture on their wall. It’s easy to imagine Mssrs. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne and Manet (late to the movement, but influential in its inception) sitting around a celestial hillside, watching the play of light on the  clouds and congratulating themselves on their remarkable staying power.

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

Claude Monet ~ Impression, Sunrise

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, on the other hand, wanted to paint 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 his words, I can’t help but wonder if Seitz 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, and it’s entirely 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 a unique vision. 

In his award-winning book,  The 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 “snap shots” influenced their thinking.  The phrase “fleeting moment” 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 painter, his legacy still lives in the water-lily ponds, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge and grand central allée strewn with nasturtiums.  Just as lovely is the collection of paths and beds in the walled Clos Normand, the large, traditional Normandy flower garden just outside the house. 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 all in a deliberate act of creation – he was an artist creating his own subject.  He left nothing to chance. Renoir may have 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 alike to be his greatest legacy – as beautiful, inspirational and pervasive in its later influence as it was for Monet himself.   

Until my recent trip to Mississippi, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Monet’s double role in shaping our vision of the world. Fairly adept at recognizing his work as a painter, I’d never considered the possibility that his life as a gardener and nurturer of the very world that informed his work might someday affect my own perception of the landscape.

Imagine my surprise when I turned down a  muddy gravel road in the midst of the old Doro Plantation, halfway betweeen a clapboard house flying the Confederate flag and the fishing shacks moored along the levee, only to discover a landscape so purely impressionistic it was hard to believe it wasn’t already on canvas. Stopped in my tracks by what appeared to be rippling curtains of white wisteria hanging from the heavens, I decided to disregard the likelihood of snakes and the possibility of tetanus. Scrambling and tumbling my way across half-buried barbed wire and through piles of fallen brush into the old 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 already had been there, dappling the leaves with light, capturing the pristine translucence of new growth and then washing the world’s canvas with a sheen of new rain and unnameable colors.  I’d have been less astonished had I walked into Monet’s studio and discovered the canvases suddenly alive, 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 afternoon, the only thing missing was the artist himself, to record the miraculous beauty of that first impression.

Doro Plantation ~ The Pecan Orchard in Spring


 Doro Plantation ~ Wisteria Drifts

Doro Plantation ~ Hidden Lavender 


 Doro Plantation ~ Turning of the Season

Looking at the photographs today, I see them primarily as photographs, snapshots, lovely compositions in their own right and touching reminders of those unexpected bits of beauty found tucked away into the silence of a Mississippi afternoon. 

But now and then I see again the play of light, and feel the warming breeze, and catch my heart leaping up as the first impression comes back.  Breathless, I re-experience a truth as unexpected as the plantation orchard.  Once ~ just once, or at least once ~ I was granted the privilege to see the world as Claude Monet would have seen it -tumbled into  light, drenched with atmosphere, and patched with color so piercingly pure no response is possible except to be astonished by what Monet spent his lifetime revealing – that brushes, paint and canvas are sufficient to capture first impressions for a lifetime of enjoyment.


Doro Plantation – Daffodil Bridge


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