In my first two posts in this series, I discussed my two favorite post-impressionist artists: Cezanne and Van Gogh. I should now step back a generation to the impressionists themselves, without which neither Cezanne nor Van Gogh could have produced the work they did. I will get to my two favorites, manet and Degas, but first I must talk about Claude Monet, the heart and soul of the impressionist movement.
It was Monet who defined the impressionist enterprise as recording the perceptual world, without subsequent interpretation by the brain. His mission is to give you the stuff of pure vision – impulses of light and color – that your eye receives before the mind organizes it from past experience. It was Monet who pursued this exploration with almost scientific thoroughness, through his many studies of one subject under different lighting conditions. He remained faithful to this pursuit through a very long working life, well into the 20th century.
His early work reveals his interest in “pure” light and color, even before he has found the palette and technique which would best fit with his mission. In “The Beach at Trouville” he is using a traditional palette of blacks and earth tones, and laying on his paint is slabs similar to Manet’s paint handling. But already we see dark and light areas which join parts of several objects together; it is light which creates boundaries, not physical objects. In “Bathers at La Grenouillere” we find a scene where reflections off water assist greatly in freeing impulses of light and color from the objects which created them. We are hard pressed to find bathers in the scene, since they have been reduced to spots of dark against the light of the water.
Within a year of the “Bathers” we find that Monet’s palette has utterly changed! The knowledge that light comes in spectrum colors, combined with the availability of new pigments to match, led Monet to abandon all traditional earth colors in favor of the “rainbow palette”. The “Regatta at Argenteuil” must have burst on the scene like a splash of pure light, making any painting using a traditional earth toned palette seem dull and dirty by comparison. All that remains is for Monet to find the method of applying the paint which corresponds fully to his vision.
Shortly after, Monet began his many series, groups of paintings of the same subject done to reflect different lighting conditions with the passing of the hours. The Haystack series is an excellent example, in fact a perfect subject for hi. The wheat color of the stack contains all colors, with none dominating the others, and able to take on the color of the light falling on them. At the same time, the texture of the straw makes it naturally break up into flecks and impulses. Monet is said to have brought several canvases with him at a time, so that he could switch to another one when the light began to change.
Two other works – actually, two other series – show Monet able to apply his impressionist mission to much more solid forms in the world. The many works done of the natural arch at Etretat show its massive form largely rendered almost without substance by the play of light off its surface, though in this example the mass is still fairly substantial. Monet’s series of the façade at Rouen Cathedral, done from a room rented across the square, goes even further is vaporizing the stone and leaving only light and color.
Though the impressionists weren’t given to writing manifestos as were the groups that followed them, Monet’s entire oeuvre is a painted manifesto. He remained steadfast in his pursuit of the impressionist vision, and could even be called the only pure impressionist in the group. It was said of him by Cezanne: “Monet is just as eye…but what an eye!