A contemporary account of the work and influence of Monet by the French writer, poet and art critic Séverin Faust (1872-1945), published under the pseudonym Camille Mauclair in 1904.
With Claude Monet we enter upon Impressionism in its most significant technical expression, and touch upon the principal points referred to in the second chapter of this book.
Claude Monet, the artistic descendant of Claude Lorrain, Turner, and Monticelli, has had the merit and the originality of opening a new road to landscape painting by deducing scientific statements from the study of the laws of light. His work is a magnificent verification of the optical discoveries made by Helmholtz and Chevreul. It is born spontaneously from the artist’s vision, and happens to be a rigorous demonstration of principles which the painter has probably never cared to know. Through the power of his faculties the artist has happened to join hands with the scientist. His work supplies not only the very basis of the Impressionist movement proper, but of all that has followed it and will follow it in the study of the so-called chromatic laws. It will serve to give, so to say, a mathematic necessity to the happy finds met by the artists hitherto, and it will also serve to endow decorative art and mural painting with a process, the applications of which are manyfold and splendid.
I have already summed up the ideas which follow from Claude Monet’s painting more clearly even than from Manet’s. Suppression of local colour, study of reflections by means of complementary colours and division of tones by the process of touches of pure, juxtaposed colours—these are the essential principles of chromatism (for this word should be used instead of the very vague term “Impressionism”). Claude Monet has applied them systematically, especially in landscape painting.
There are a few portraits of his, which show that he might have made an excellent figure painter, if landscape had not absorbed him entirely. One of these portraits, a large full-length of a lady with a fur-lined jacket and a satin dress with green and black stripes, would in itself be sufficient to save from oblivion the man who has painted it. But the study of light upon the figure has been the special preoccupation of Manet, Renoir, and Pissarro, and, after the Impressionists, of the great lyricist, Albert Besnard, who has concentrated the Impressionist qualities by placing them at the service of a very personal conception of symbolistic art. Monet commenced with trying to find his way by painting figures, then landscapes and principally sea pictures and boats in harbours, with a somewhat sombre robustness and very broad and solid draughtsmanship. His first luminous studies date back to about 1885. Obedient to the same ideas as Degas he had to avoid the Salons and only show his pictures gradually in private galleries. For years he remained unknown. It is only giving M. Durand-Ruel his due, to state that he was one of the first to anticipate the Impressionist school and to buy the first works of these painters, who were treated as madmen and charlatans. He has become great with them, and has made his fortune and theirs through having had confidence in them, and no fortune has been better deserved. Thirty years ago nobody would have bought pictures by Degas or Monet, which are sold to-day for a thousand pounds. This detail is only mentioned to show the evolution of Impressionism as regards public opinion.
So much has Monet been attracted by the analysis of the laws of light that he has made light the real subject of all his pictures, and to show clearly his intention he has treated one and the same site in a series of pictures painted from nature at all hours of the day. This is the principle whose results are the great divisions of his work which might be called “Investigation of the variations of sunlight.” The most famous of these series are the Hay-ricks, the Poplars, the Cliffs of Etretat, the Golfe Juan, the Coins de Rivière, the Cathedrals, the Water-lilies, and finally the Thames series which Monet is at present engaged upon. They are like great poems, and the splendour of the chosen theme, the orchestration of the shivers of brightness, the symphonic parti-pris of the colours, make their realism, the minute contemplation of reality, approach idealism and lyric dreaming.
Monet paints these series from nature. He is said to take with him in a carriage at sunrise some twenty canvases which he changes from hour to hour, taking them up again the next day. He notes, for example, from nine to ten o’clock the most subtle effects of sunlight upon a hay-rick; at ten o’clock he passes on to another canvas and recommences the study until eleven o’clock. Thus he follows step by step the modifications of the atmosphere until nightfall, and finishes simultaneously the works of the whole series. He has painted a hay-stack in a field twenty times over, and the twenty hay-stacks are all different. He exhibits them together, and one can follow, led by the magic of his brush, the history of light playing upon one and the same object. It is a dazzling display of luminous atoms, a kind of pantheistic evocation. Light is certainly the essential personage who devours the outlines of the objects, and is thrown like a translucent veil between our eyes and matter. One can see the vibrations of the waves of the solar spectrum, drawn by the arabesque of the spots of the seven prismatic hues juxtaposed with infinite subtlety; and this vibration is that of heat, of atmospheric vitality. The silhouettes melt into the sky; the shadows are lights where certain tones, the blue, the purple, the green and the orange, predominate, and it is the proportional quantity of the spots that differentiates in our eyes the shadows from what we call the lights, just as it actually happens in optic science. There are some midday scenes by Claude Monet, where every material silhouette—tree, hay-rick, or rock—is annihilated, volatilised in the fiery vibration of the dust of sunlight, and before which the beholder gets really blinded, just as he would in actual sunlight. Sometimes even there are no more shadows at all, nothing that could serve to indicate the values and to create contrasts of colours. Everything is light, and the painter seems easily to overcome those terrible difficulties, lights upon lights, thanks to a gift of marvellous subtlety of sight.
Generally he finds a very simple motif sufficient; a hay-rick, some slender trunks rising skywards, or a cluster of shrubs. But he also proves himself as powerful draughtsman when he attacks themes of greater complexity. Nobody knows as he does how to place a rock amidst tumultuous waves, how to make one understand the enormous construction of a cliff which fills the whole canvas, how to give the sensation of a cluster of pines bent by the wind, how to throw a bridge across a river, or how to express the massiveness of the soil under a summer sun. All this is constructed with breadth, truth and force under the delicious or fiery symphony of the luminous atoms. The most unexpected tones play in the foliage. On close inspection we are astonished to find it striped with orange, red, blue and yellow touches, but seen at a certain distance the freshness of the green foliage appears to be represented with infallible truth. The eye recomposes what the brush has dissociated, and one finds oneself perplexed at all the science, all the secret order which has presided over this accumulation of spots which seem projected in a furious shower. It is a veritable orchestral piece, where every colour is an instrument with a distinct part, and where the hours with their different tints represent the successive themes. Monet is the equal of the greatest landscape painters as regards the comprehension of the true character of every soil he has studied, which is the supreme quality of his art. Though absorbed beyond all by study of the sunlight, he has thought it useless to go to Morocco or Algeria. He has found Brittany, Holland, the Ile de France, the Cote d’Azur and England sufficient sources of inspiration for his symphonies, which cover from end to end the scale of perceptible colours. He has expressed, for instance, the mild and vaporous softness of the Mediterranean, the luxuriant vegetation of the gardens of Cannes and Antibes, with a truthfulness and knowledge of the psychology of land and water which can only be properly appreciated by those who live in this enchanted region. This has not prevented him from understanding better than anybody the wildness, the grand austereness of the rocks of Belle-Isle en mer, to express it in pictures in which one really feels the wind, the spray, and the roaring of the heavy waters breaking against the impassibility of the granite rocks. His recent series of Water-lilies expressed all the melancholic and fresh charm of quiet basins, of sweet bits of water blocked by rushes and calyxes. He has painted underwoods in the autumn, where the most subtle shades of bronze and gold are at play, chrysanthemums, pheasants, roofs at twilight, dazzling sunflowers, gardens, tulip-fields in Holland, bouquets, effects of snow and hoar frost of exquisite softness, and sailing boats passing in the sun. He has painted some views of the banks of the Seine which are quite wonderful in their power of conjuring up these scenes, and over all this has roved his splendid vision of a great, amorous and radiant colourist. The Cathedrals are even more of a tour de force of his talent. They consist of seventeen studies of Rouen Cathedral, the towers of which fill the whole of the picture, leaving barely a little space, a little corner of the square, at the foot of the enormous stone-shafts which mount to the very top of the picture. Here he has no proper means to express the play of the reflections, no changeful waters or foliage: the grey stone, worn by time and blackened by centuries, is for seventeen times the monochrome, the thankless theme upon which the painter is about to exercise his vision. But Monet finds means of making the most dazzling atmospheric harmonies sparkle upon this stone. Pale and rosy at sunrise, purple at midday, glowing in the evening under the rays of the setting sun, standing out from the crimson and gold, scarcely visible in the mist, the colossal edifice impresses itself upon the eye, reconstructed with its thousand details of architectural chiselling, drawn without minuteness but with superb decision, and these pictures approach the composite, bold and rich tone of Oriental carpets.
Monet excels also in suggesting the drawing of light, if I may venture to use this expression. He makes us understand the movement of the vibrations of heat, the movement of the luminous waves; he also understands how to paint the sensation of strong wind. “Before one of Monet’s pictures,” said Mme. Morisot, “I always know which way to incline my umbrella.” Monet is also an incomparable painter of water. Pond, river, or sea—he knows how to differentiate their colouring, their consistency, and their currents, and he transfixes a moment of their fleeting life. He is intuitive to an exceptional degree in the intimate composition of matter, water, earth, stone or air, and this intuition serves him in place of intellectuality in his art. He is a painter par excellence, a man born for painting, and this power of penetrating the secrets of matter and of light helps him to attain a kind of grand, unconsciously lyrical poetry. He transposes the immediate truth of our vision and elevates it to decorative grandeur. If Manet is the realist-romanticist of Impressionism, if Degas is its psychologist, Claude Monet is its lyrical pantheist.
His work is immense. He produces with astonishing rapidity, and he has yet another characteristic of the great painters: that of having put his hand to every kind of subject. His recent studies of the Thames are, at the decline of his energetic maturity, as beautiful and as spontaneous as the Hay-ricks of seventeen years back. They are thrillingly truthful visions of fairy mists, where showers of silver and gold sparkle through rosy vapours; and at the same time Monet combines in this series the dream-landscapes of Turner with Monticelli’s accumulation of precious stones. Thus interpreted by this intense faculty of synthesis, nature, simplified in detail and contemplated in its grand lines, becomes truly a living dream.
Since the Hay-ricks one can say that the work of Claude Monet is glorious. It has been made sacred to the admiring love of the connoisseurs on the day when Monet joined Rodin in an exhibition which is famous in the annals of modern art. Yet no official distinction has intervened to recognise one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century. The influence of Monet has been enormous all over Europe and America. The process of colour spots (let us adhere to this rudimentary name which has become current) has been adopted by a whole crowd of painters. I shall have to say a few words about it at the end of this book. But it is befitting to terminate this all too short study by explaining that the most lyrical of the Impressionists has also been the theorist par excellence. His work connects easel painting with mural painting. No Minister of Fine Arts has been found, who would surmount the systematic opposition of the official painters, and give Manet a commission for grand mural compositions, for which his method is admirably suited. It has taken long years before such works were entrusted to Besnard, who, with Puvis de Chavannes, has given Paris her most beautiful modern decorations, but Besnard’s work is the direct outcome of Claude Monet’s harmonies. The principle of the division of tones and of the study of complementary colours has been full of revelations, and one of the most fruitful theories. It has probably been the principle which will designate most clearly the originality of the painting of the future. To have invented it, is enough to secure permanent glory for a man. And without wishing to put again the question of the antagonism of realism and idealism, one may well say that a painter who invents a method and shows such power, is highly intellectual and gifted with a pictorial intelligence. Whatever the subjects he treats, he creates an aesthetic emotion equivalent, if not similar, to those engendered by the most complex symbolism. In his ardent love of nature Monet has found his greatness; he suggests the secrets by stating the evident facts. That is the law common to all the arts.