An article on Claude Monet

“IF MONET IS REGARDED AS THE IMPRESSIONIST par excellence, one must admit that both Degas and Renoir also have their own special qualities.Czanne,too, merits individual study, although his development in relation to later art seems to set him somewhat apart from the Impressionist movement as a whole. However, when considered with reference to Monet’s life and work, the concepts applied in interpreting Impressionist art – in particular, those of the impression, the stroke, the contrast of colors, and the consistency with which the consequences of the Impressionist ideas visible at the beginning of an artist’s career are elaborated in the long course of that individual career – make Monet’s position central.“By his fellow painters Monet was regarded as a leader, not because he was the most intellectual or theoretically minded or because he was able to answer questions that they could not answer, but because in his art he seemed to be more alert to the possibilities latent in their common ideas, which he then developed in his work in a more radical way than did the others. Considering how all these painters developed their intensely personal manners with respect to the new artistic ideas, we may observe that the new elements appeared most often for the first time in the work of Monet and then were taken over by the other Impressionists, who incorporated them as suggestions or as definite means and applied them in their own ways.

“A clear example of Monet’s influence can be noted in the change in Degas’s art after the middle 1870s when his color began to approach that of the other Impressionists and he employed techniques, particularly in pastel, that gave to the whole a more granular, broken, and flickering effect – qualities not found in his earlier work. That is true also of Czanne, Pissarro and Renoir. Monet showed the way, even if the development of the others seemed to diverge from his.

“There is still another reason for Monet’s outstanding position as an Impressionist. If we compare his paintings over a short period with the paintings of the others, we see that while the others painted within a restricted range of ideas and even of feelings, so that the Renoirs of the period 1873-76 are characterized by the joyousness in a collective world of recreation described earlier, Monet, with his powerful, ever alert eye, was able to paint at the same time brilliant pictures and also rather grayed ones in neutral tones. He was more reactive, he had more of that quality that psychologists of that time called “Impressionability.” That is to say, he was open to more varied stimuli from the common world that for these painters was the evident source of the subjects of their paintings.

“Monet could appear variable at any given moment, producing many surprising interpretations of the common matter. He altered his technique according to his sense of the quality of the whole, whether joyous or somber, that he wanted to construct in response to the powerful stimulus from the object that engaged him in the act of painting. Similarly, over the course of years, his art underwent a most remarkable general transformation. The early work of Monet appears as a painting of directly seen objects characterized by great mobility and variety. His art is a world of streets and harbors, beaches and roads, and resorts usually filled with human beings or showing many traces of human play and activity. In the late work, however, Monet excluded the human figure. There are practically no portraits and no figure paintings by Monet after the middle 1880s and few between 1879 and 1885. From that period, we can count all his figure paintings on one hand. He also gave up still life and painted no genre groups. He restricted himself to an increasingly silent and solitary world.

“When Monet traveled to Venice and London, he pictured those great cities from a distance, in fog or sunlight, without the clear presence of human beings and with no suggestion of their movement through that space. He tended, moreover, to shift from the painting of large to small fields; and, whereas at first the large fields were painted on small canvases, later he painted a small field – water in a nearby pool or a few flowers in his garden – life-size and seemingly larger than life, as if he wished to give a maximum concreteness and the most intimate presence to a small space that, although only a segment, was for him a complete world. He moved in his art from a world with deep, horizontal planes in long perspectives – the paths of carriages and traffic – to a world in which the plane of the water or the ground seen from close by has been tilted upward and has become vertical, like the plane of a picture or mirror. The quality of landscape as the extended human environment, the old traversability of space, has been minimized in the later work.

“Monet offers one of the most extraordinary transformations known in the lifework of an artist. But it does relate to an observed trait of many artists in their old age. An attempt has been made to characterize in broad terms a style of old age – what the Germans call an Alterstil – as if the late works of Titian, Rembrandt Tintoretto,and Monet must have something in common. In old age they lived presumably more within themselves than in the “world,” and from this tendency of aged artists seems to flow certain characteristics of their art. This theory rests on an arbitrary selection of old artists, however, and one can point to Ingres whose last pictures, such as The Turkish Bath, painted in his eighties, are of an indomitable sensuality and sometimes surprisingly naive and tangible in the voluptuousness of the forms. Or Pissarro, the fellow painter of Monet, who, beginning with idyllic pastoral subjects, painted in his old age streets and crowds, steamboats, factories, and people, the reverse of the process that we have observed in Monet.

“Besides his academic nudes, Renoir began by painting the sociability of his own world – pictures of his artist friends and the pleasures of Paris; but as he grew older, he withdrew from this public world. He still represented human figures, even more passionately than before. But they are completely domestic figures – a child, the nurse, the mistress, the wife, always a figure presented in an intimate relation to the observer or the painter. Monet never painted a nude, and one may suspect that his vast world of nature and the theme of water played in his art the role that the fantasy about women or children or mothers played in the imagination of other artists. All his variety, from the stillness of the lilly pond to the awful turbulence of waves beating on the rocks, may have to do with the feelings or passions that in other artists can be recognized in their mythology and subjects or through a fanciful imagery of human figures.”

– Text from “Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions”, by Meyer Schapiro

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