Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Monet Refuses the Operation-Paints From Memory

Venice1908 Monet and Alice Piazza San Marco

What has long been known about Monet’s later years is that he suffered from cataracts and that his eyesight worsened so much that he painted from memory. He acknowledged to an interviewer that he was “trusting solely to the labels on the tubes of paint and to the force of habit.”


"All I did was to look at what the universe showed me, to let my brush bear witness to it."- Claude Monet


Monet's persistence in painting in series, beginning with the Gare Saint-Lazare and continuing in the Poplars and Haystacks, attains an impressive climax in the series he devoted to Rouen Cathedral. He began work at Rouen early in 1892, the year after he had finished the Haystacks and the last of the Poplars, and took a room above a shop in the rue Grand-Pont from which to observe the west front of the great church. He broke off to return to Giverny but resumed work at Rouen in the spring of 1893. The rest of that year and most of 1894 was spent in completing the paintings from memory. Twenty of them, ranging in effect from dawn to sunset, were exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery in 1895 with great success. Monet's friend Clemenceau justly praised their `symphonic splendour'. Pissarro reproved adverse criticism in the letter to his son in which he remarked on the series as `the work, well thought out, of a man with a will of his own, pursuing every nuance of elusive effects, such as no other artist that I can see has captured'.
Monet, it is clear, was as little concerned with the subject, masterpiece of Gothic architecture though it was, as when painting his Haystacks. Where the building invited and challenged his ability was in the fretting of the surface as it caught the light and the profound effects of shadow in the deep recesses. The heavy grain of his thick paint gave its own animation to the façade. Working largely from memory he exchanged the more fluent technique of the plein-air picture finished at a sitting for this entirely opposite quality of carefully worked-up impasto. In addition, without direct reference to the building in reality, a poetic element in his nature seems to have come uppermost. There remains the sensation of Gothic without its detail curiously similar to that of Gaudi's Church of the Holy Family at Barcelona (mainly built about the same time as Monet was painting his Cathedrals)--another instance perhaps of the subtle and far-reaching influence of art nouveau. Otherwise, rather than conveying the atmospheric reality of sunlight, a painting such as the example given here can be appreciated as a gorgeous dream.

Monet Refuses The Operation


"Doctor, you say there are no haloes

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don't see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

Fifty-four years before I could see

Rouen cathedral is built

of parallel shafts of sun,

and now you want to restore

my youthful errors: fixed

notions of top and bottom,

the illusion of three-dimensional space,

wisteria separate

from the bridge it covers.

What can I say to convince you

the Houses of Parliament dissolves

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don't know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. The world

is flux, and light becomes what it touches,

becomes water, lilies on water,

above and below water,

becomes lilac and mauve and yellow

and white and cerulean lamps,

small fists passing sunlight

so quickly to one another

that it would take long, streaming hair

inside my brush to catch it.

To paint the speed of light!

Our weighted shapes, these verticals,

burn to mix with air

and change our bones, skin, clothes

to gases. Doctor,

if only you could see

how heaven pulls earth into its arms

and how infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapor without end."

Poem by Lisel Mueller


5 comments:

marta said...

I saw a retrospective of his paintings that he did later in his life at the Portland Art Museum a couple of years ago. It was pretty amazing to see the work and how his eyesight affected the paintings. He later did have surgery for the cataracts and went back and repainted some of the ones he did while his vision was impaired. It was striking. But you could how much of a genius he was because the quality of those he painted while his vision was impaired were just as inspiring.

men said...

I am constantly in 'awe' of creative artisians such as Monet. How's that for turning a deficit into an advantage and becoming so proficient at the sense of what is? Thanks for blogging about this. I have learned something new today ! Mahalo, Menehune

barb cabot said...

Thanks for your comment Menehune (love saying your nickname). I find it so interesting to see how he dealt with this loss. I have marvelled at how Monet could paint the same subject over and over, changing the sense of the subject depending on the light or the season in which he painted the subject. I'm thinking of when I saw his series of haystacks. I love his Rouen Cathedral series as well for the same reason. Each one is so different in feeling though there is continuity throughout. Simply Amazing.

barb cabot said...

Thank you Marta for sharing your experience. I would love to see the difference in those paintings. He was an amazing artist. I visited Giverny with my daughter and absolutely loved his home and the spectacular setting. It was easy to see how he was inspired to paint so many of the scenes from his environment.

girasoli said...

Monet is one of my favorite painters. I was thrilled to see some of his paintings in Paris. Interesting post.

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