Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1957
In his biography/critical study of Claude Monet, Paul Tucker has a problem: Monet is known chiefly for the evanescent aspects of his landscapes, his innovative use of air, light, and color—factors that have prompted critics often to ignore other aspects of his craft, such as content, composition, and historical relevance. Tucker attempts to revise this reductive critical view by analyzing the paintings in terms of Monet’s life and the political, cultural, and social complexities of his day. By blending biography with critical studies of specific paintings, Tucker shows how Monet challenged landscape conventions by complicating them, juxtaposing modern industrial imagery to idyllic nature scenes and showing the effects of the railroad and the tourist trade on vacation locales. Tucker traces Monet’s aesthetic development by looking at his paintings in chronological sequence and by exposing the modern tensions underlying Monet’s beautiful views.
Monet began his career painting nature scenes and industrial sites. From his mentor Eugène Boudin, Monet learned how to paint in plein air, how to recognize subtle changes in weather and lighting conditions, and how to incorporate contemporary developments, such as factories and train stations, which were not then considered proper subjects for landscape paintings. How could he find beauty in smokestacks? Monet searched for ways to accommodate the workaday world of industrial development into the pleasure-oriented aesthetic of French painting. In Port of Honfleur(1866) Monet juxtaposed colorful local fishing boats to steam craft and city people, thereby joining the nostalgic with the modern. With the middle-class people parading up and down a sun-drenched patio in Garden at Sainte-Adresse (1867), Monet included distant mercantile ships that suggest the hardworking business world that helps these people afford their luxury. Tucker demonstrates how this tension between opposites—the old and the new, the workaday and the leisurely, the acceptable and the innovative, and the public and the private—energizes Monet’s earlier work.
Monet arrived in Paris in the early 1860’s, when the Paris Salon determined the success or failure of every aspiring painter. Every year painters were obliged to submit paintings for the Salon judges’ harsh scrutiny in order to vie for the chance to be included in the Salon’s exhibitions. While this arrangement worked for a while, the increasing conventionality and predictable criteria of the Salon’s judges led Monet to look elsewhere to promote his art. Monet knew how to paint to suit the judges, but real artistic growth depended on his further exploring what came to be known as the Impressionist technique, which included wider, more obviously painterly brush strokes, brighter color contrasts than the Salon judges deemed customary, evanescent lighting effects, and the inclusion of alien subject matter, such as industrial sites, railroad bridges, and train stations. Torn between the desire to try innovative techniques and the need to make money, Monet eventually found the answer by joining the Impressionist exhibition that bypassed the Salon’s seal of approval.
In addition to turning away from the Paris Salon tradition, Monet traveled to broaden his scope as a painter. Always the shrewd businessman, Monet, if forced by political turmoil to visit England for a time, would take the opportunity to learn of Joseph Turner, a painter with whom he shared many affinities, or paint a series of London bridges; or he would visit Holland and paint the landscape beauties there. When in France, Monet searched for out-of-the-way towns along the Normandy coast where he could stay cheaply for a few weeks or months and produce a large quantity of paintings based on local scenery. His later series of poplar trees, haystacks, and the façade of the Rouen cathedral are masterpieces of economy as well as technique, for by keeping to one subject matter he could paint on several canvases at one time. In his final years when he turned his Giverny estate into both a European garden and an Eastern water garden, he constructed his own landscape effects in the comfort of his home. When he could no longer travel because of advanced age and cataracts, he continued to paint water lilies in such a way as to impress the public with his continued artistic growth from exhibition to exhibition.
By repeatedly returning to the same scene under different weather and lighting conditions, Monet could emphasize the mysterious impermanence of the subject matter. Critics have often ignored the subject matter of Monet’s work; Tucker counteracts this omission by analyzing the many subtle relationships within a Monet scene. For example, in The Luncheon (1873), Tucker shows how the parasol points to the bag, the bag in turn leans against a cart, the cart sits at the edge of the table, and so on, all forming a system of interactions while remaining separate from one another. Thus did Monet create harmonic effects out of the seemingly arbitrary arrangement of household objects. Monet would also set up opposing horizontal and vertical lines that would suggest the dynamic nature of his content. In Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil (1873), for example, Monet emphasizes the dynamics of the new technology by having two sailboats underneath the bridge moving in opposite directions while two trains on the bridge are also moving in opposite directions—thus sending the picture in four directions simultaneously—as two men calmly watch from the shore. Nothing is accidental in these seemingly frivolous paintings of outdoor recreation, boat scenes, and park scenes.
Tucker also points out the hints of narrative in Monet’s portraits of Camille, his first wife, sitting with their son at luncheon, or reading outside, or sitting on a bench with a man standing beside her. Repeatedly he finds hints of suburban unease, unanswered questions, in these scenes. Compared to similar scenes of other painters where the narrative is easily guessed, Monet often left his domestic world curiously inscrutable, as if on canvas he could not help hinting at problems in his family or the larger question of finding happiness in the new suburbs of Paris.
Tucker shows how Monet would play on his audience’s sympathies by his choice of content. The poplar, subject of a series of paintings, were seen by the French as their national tree, a symbol of liberty. In another series, haystacks spoke of the intimate relationship between the French people and their homeland. To farmers the haystacks were literally their livelihood, while art critics could marvel over the color harmonies, the similarities in shape between the stacks and the farmhouses in the distance, and the way Monet has them glow in the different grades of light—winter light, morning, late afternoon, sunset. While the paintings of the façade of the Rouen cathedral continued these lighting variations, they also contrasted Impressionism and Gothic art, juxtaposing traditional religious imagery to up-to-date nonreligious painting techniques. The water lilies spoke strongly of Monet’s love of Japanese art, and by focusing solely on water, lilies, and reflections of the sky, he could overturn the traditional placement of the sky over the land. By painting the surface of the water broken by strands of water lilies, Monet could show the reflection of sky low on the canvas, thereby inserting a subversive note within his most idyllic last paintings. These were landscapes without land, and the play of reflection on stretches of water bordered on abstraction. Contrary to legend, Monet was highly conscious of the symbolic potential of every subject he painted, and by repeating objects in a series he knew how to heighten the powerful associations they evoked in the viewing public.
Tucker also traces some of the complex cultural influences in Monet’s work. By juxtaposing contemporary fashion drawings to Monet’s paintings such as The Woman in the Green Dress(1866), Tucker shows how Monet borrowed from whatever media he pleased: fashion magazines, Japanese prints, photographs, the paintings of his Impressionist friends, and other famous paintings in the French tradition. Some of his outdoor arrangements are virtual catalogs of gestures, studies, and borrowings from paintings from his friends and predecessors—some with tongue-in-cheek knowledge of the associations he would arouse in the minds of his audience. HisLuncheon in the Grass (1865) competes with a painting of the same name by Édouard Manet, but instead of shocking his audience as Manet did by including a nude female, Monet draws upon court portraiture and popular fashion plates, as well as eighteenth century paintings of outdoor scenes, to blend the contemporary with the traditional. Tucker frequently juxtaposes Monet’s paintings to these sources, emphasizing the artful calculation underlying the choice of seemingly incidental subject matter.
Tucker has a harder time proving the political content of Monet’s work. He claims that a sunrise inImpression, Sunrise (1872) reflects the surge of French nationalist spirit after the Franco-Prussian War—a claim scarcely provable one way or the other. He thinks that other paintings such asJapanese Bridge (1918-1922) could reflect Monet’s agitation during World War I. Such concern was apparent enough in his letters, but Monet’s cataract surgery and other problems of advancing age could also account for the abrupt changes in color and brushwork in this painting. It is true that Monet accepted several government commissions that eventually led to his Grandes Décorations (1922, 1927), his immense twenty-two-panel project which resulted in three rooms, two oval and one circular, completely lined with paintings of water lilies and weeping willows. The Franco-Prussian War and World War I led Monet to paint views of Holland and Britain in exile. Yet to find a connection as Tucker does between Monet’s Weeping Willows (1918-1919) and the ravages of World War I reduces the nature painting to war commentary. Monet could have painted his water lilies and Japanese bridges in spite of the political changes of his day; not everything he painted had to reflect the politics of the moment. After 1880, Monet’s work shows a major shift away from contemporary subject matter. He continued to try new techniques, but the tensions in the subject matter of his younger years gave way to straight contemplation of nature and architecture. While the historical changes that Monet experienced are interesting for biographical reasons, one questions how much relevance they have for his work.
Having written two books on Monet and served as curator of two major exhibitions of his paintings, Tucker can sometimes sound more like Monet’s publicist than his critic and biographer. He often quotes praise for Monet’s work from critics of his day that gushes as much as makes interesting points. This, in fact, demonstrates a basic problem with appreciating Monet. The painter’s accessibility and popularity can hinder a deeper understanding of his work; the surface beauties of his paintings blind the viewer to the complex aesthetic underlying them. Even as he promotes Monet, Tucker tries to keep him from getting consigned to coffee-table books, decorations for swimwear, and mere crowd-pleaser status. Compared to the Post-Impressionist status of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, Monet’s modern status is threatened by the nonrepresentational claims of twentieth century art (in which a painting is simply a collection of marks on a canvas), his decorative facility, which can seem shallow, and his constricting consignment to the Impressionist school. In contrast with the Post- Impressionists, who started to use color in more radical ways, Monet created works that embody some still powerful but old-fashioned views on art, such as the importance of understanding nature, the beauty of landscape, and the value of light and color bound by perception. Thanks to the sumptuous illustrations in this volume, Monet’s paintings seem to justify Tucker’s high praise. The paintings speak for themselves.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXVI, July, 1995, p. 96.
The New York Times Book Review. C, December 17, 1995, p. 23.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 16, 1995, p. 20.
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