Painting Light with the Mind’s Eye

Painting Light with the Mind’s Eye

Posted on Oct.05, 2010, by , under Inspirational Stories

Claude Monet (1840-1926):

Painting Light with the Mind’s Eye

By Peter Y. Chou

Monet was one of the world’s greatest landscape painters and purist of the French impressionist movement. His contemporary, Paul Cezanne proclaimed, “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye.” His artist roots began in 1858 when the 17 year-old Monet met Eugene Boudin, who oriented him toward landscape and open-air painting (en plein-air). Monet recalled “All of a sudden it was like a veil torn from my eyes and I understood at last. I realized what painting could be. My own destiny as a painter opened up before me. My eyes were opened and I gained a real understanding of nature, and a real love of her as well.”

As lighting effects on nature’s landscape are constantly changing, Monet would paint the same scene with a dozen or more canvases. In the morning mist of the River Seine, the haystacks at Giverny, the poplar trees at Epte, and the façade of Rouen Cathedral, Monet tried to capture the fleeting moment of colors and shades on his canvases from sunrise to sunset. He once reflected, “I wish I had been born blind and then suddenly gained my sight so that I could begin to paint without knowing what the objects were that I could see before me.” The writer Guy de Maupassant followed Monet in his search of impressions at the Cliff of Etretat in 1885 and wrote:

Monet was no longer a painter, in truth, but a hunter. He took six canvases
and put them aside in turn, following the changes in the sky. And the painter,
before his subject, lay in wait for the sun and shadows, capturing in a few
brushstrokes the ray that fell or the cloud that passed… I have seen him
thus seize a glittering shower of light on the white cliff and fix it in a
flood of yellow tones that, strangely, rendered the surprising and fugitive
effect of that unseizable and dazzling brilliance. On another occasion he took
a downpour beating on the sea in his hands and dashed it on the canvas—
and indeed it was the rain that he had thus painted…

Like Don Quixote battling the windmills, Monet would tackle the great façade of Rouen Cathedral during February to March of 1882 and 1893. Facing westward, the cathedral’s giant textured screen mirrored the variegated tones of atmosphere and light from sunrise to sunset. Monet changed canvases by the hour, seeking to capture the evanescent color tonalities cloaking the huge architectural skeleton. Writing to his wife Alice on March 29, 1893 from Rouen, Monet cried out in despair: “I am a prisoner, and I have to get through it all, though I have reached the end of my tether, it’s killing me, and I keep working in a state of feverish frenzy. Have been working on fourteen canvases today, which never happened before.” Indeed, Monet was treading on new grounds, soaring into the unknown, and conquering a new dimension in the history of art. Never has anyone sought so methodically and so patiently to capture consecutive moments of time on the canvas. Monet’s mind’s eye gave us the impressionistic “instantaneity” of infinite illuminosity.

When twenty paintings of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral were exhibited on May 10, 1895 at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, the series was acclaimed a sensational success. Everyone was surprised and awed by the remarkable gradations and variations of light mirrored by the cathedral from dawn to noon to dusk, under clear to foggy weather. Georges Clemenceau extolled the “symphonic splendor” of the canvases in an article “The Revolution of the Cathedrals” published in La Justice (May 20, 1895):

With twenty pictures, divers effects aptly chosen, Monet has given us the feeling
that he could have, that he would have made fifty, one hundred, one thousand,
as many as the seconds in his life, if his life had lasted as long as the stone
monument, and if at each beat of his pulse he had been able to fix upon the canvas
a corresponding moment in his model’s existence. As long as the sun shall shine
upon it, there will be as many ways of being the Rouen Cathedral as man can make
divisions of time. The perfect eye would distinguish them all, since they sum
themselves up in vibrations perceptible even to our present retinas. Monet’s eye,
the eye of a precursor, is ahead of ours, and guides us in the visual evolution
which renders more penetrating and more subtle our perception of the universe.

In Clemenceau’s eyes, Monet’s renderings of Rouen Cathedral were not only a revolution in art but a revelation of reality. Dividing the twenty canvases into four groups, he compared them to the transition of light during four different times of the day as gray (dawn), white (morning), iridescent (afternoon), and blue (evening):

Then in a great sweeping glance, you would be dazzled by the perception of
the miracle, the revelation of the prodigy. And these gray cathedrals, which are
crimson or azure shot with gold, and these white cathedrals with portals of fire,
dripping with green, red, and blue flames, and these iridescent cathedrals which
appear to have been seen through a revolving prisms, and these blue cathedrals
which are rose, would give you at once the lasting vision not of twenty but of
one hundred, one thousand, a billion states of the eternal cathedral in the endless
cycles of the sun. It would be life itself, as the sensation of it can be given us
in its most living reality— the final perfection of art, hitherto unattained.

In the spring of 1908, Monet suffered from failing eyesight. His double cataract condition worsened after the death of his wife in 1911. Rarely leaving the solitude of Giverny, Monet now semi-blind, worked on unremittingly painting his waterlilies. Sitting by his pond at Giverny, Monet passed the morning hours in silence. He watched the clouds above moving across his reflected pool of water below like a fairyland procession. When he became discouraged, his intimate friend Clemenceau encouraged him on: “You can still do it, so do it!” In the spring of 1916, the 75-year old Monet began work on his large decorative panels of Waterlilies commissioned for France. This monumental project was to occupy him for the rest of his life. Monet installed a dozen canvases placed in a circle on the floor all about six feet tall and twelve feet wide. The art dealers Georges Bernheim and René Gimpel described the spectacle:

a panorama made up of water and lilies, of light and sky. In that infinitude,
water and sky have neither beginning nor end. We seem to be present at one
of the first hours in the birth of the world. It is mysterious, poetic,
delightfully unreal; the sensation is strange; it is a discomfort and a
pleasure to see oneself surrounded by water on all sides.

Wearing heavy glasses as his cataracts became worse in 1917, Monet complained to Gimpel, “I see much less well, I am half blind and deaf.” A cataract operation on one eye was performed in February 1923 which partially restored his sight. Monet soon returned to work in November with renewed vigor. Even at night, the waterlilies were dancing in his dreams, as he struggled to bring them to life on the canvases before his death in 1926. When they were installed in the oval rooms in the Orangerie of Tuleries, Paris on May 17, 1927, Clemenceau described the experience of Monet’s “Waterlilies” as entering a fairyland:

A stretch of water covered with flowers and foliage in all the tumult
of the solar fire, with the mutual repercussions of the heavenly vault
and the aquatic mirror… When the waterlilies carry us up from the
liquid plane to the clouds, travelers in infinite space, we leave earth
and its sky, even to enjoy fully the sublime harmony of things far beyond
our little planetary world in the full flight of our emotions.

Indeed there is a breathtaking quality in Monet’s last works on the Waterlilies which are so strikingly rich is subtleties of shades and tonalities of color. Monet’s water surface seems to sparkle with an inner illumination. Just as the deaf Beethoven summoned his inner ear to compose the sublime Last String Quartets, the blind Monet was using his inner eye to paint his magnificient Waterlilies. Despite the darkened world around him, the beauty of nature remained forever fresh in Monet’s mind’s eye. This was his glorious gift to the world.

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