The favorite artist of everyone who has never studied art, I tend to overlook Monet as his huge popularity has made him kitsch.
In an attempt to conquer this and find Monet, the Innovator, I am forcing myself to study Monet and a specific aspect of his art – hopefully to give me a renewed appreciation of him. As a launching point, I chose The Pointe du Petit Ailly in Gray Weather because I am drawn to the overwhelming form of the cliff and the abstract qualities in the piece.
Monet painted scenes around the coastal towns of Pourville and Varengeville in the early 1880s, then stayed in Pourville for the early spring of both 1896 and 1897. Although Monet referred to Pourville as “a little nothing village,” he favored it over its more populous and touristy neighbor, Dieppe, due to Pourville’s superior cliffs and lower hotel prices.
Monet describes in a letter how, by returning to previously painted motifs “I told myself that a series of overall impressions…would not be without interest. I waited until the idea took shape, until the order and composition of the motifs had gradually imprinted themselves on my brain.”
He began creating series paintings in the 1890s, starting with his famous haystacks. “Monet replaced the object with the detached motif of continuum of vision, at the level of sensory perception and no longer by reference to the operating experience.” Monet exhibited 24 paintings from three different series under the combined title “Cliffs” in 1898.
Impressionism is the first movement to take advantage of the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Rather than traditional representation, paint and color take center stage in painting aware of its own flatness. The focus on the line began to diminish with Impressionism, especially in Monet’s work, as color and effect were emphasized. “Starting from the ‘retinal’ tradition of Impressionist painting, Monet took one step further and…managed to produce a profound reflection on the very nature of painting. Monet’s eye was clearly not a passive instrument for representing reality, but an active agent of interpretation.”
Beginning with observation, Monet then painted what it lead him to feel, saying, “I do what I can to convey what I experience when observing nature, and, more often than not, in order to convey what I feel, I completely forget the most elementary rules of painting, if indeed such a thing exists.” Although he began his work directly before a motif or observed it from a balcony, it is interesting to note that in the 1890s, Monet increasingly retouched his paintings in his studio, ever perfecting his chosen motif.
After Kandinsky saw Monet’s “Haystack” in Moscow in 1895, he was both disturbed by it and haunted by it, saying, “I had the impression that here painting itself comes into the foreground; I wondered if it would not be possible to go further in this direction.”
Monet was largely ignored by the avant-garde during his late period, but new modes of perception have allowed his paintings to seem freshly relevant.
Monet’s waterlily gift to the French nation, his Grandes Décorations, opened at the Orangerie in 1927, but was little celebrated until the 1950s. Although it went against his wishes, several other shows were installed in the space during this time, including an exhibition of Flemish carpets, which were literally hung over the canvases. Taste eventually caught up with his late work, with abstract artists claiming his aesthetic sensibility as their own. Clement Greenberg praised Monet’s late period in 1957, reforming his earlier critical views. “In the end he found what he was looking for, which was not so much a new principle as a more comprehensive one: and it lay not in Nature, but in the essence of art itself, in its ‘abstractness.’ That he himself could not consciously recognize or accept ‘abstractness’…makes no difference: it is there, plain to see in the paintings of his old age.” Marc Chagall also wrote of his interest in Monet, asking himself, in 1947, “Where do the sources of color lie? And I said, Monet. Today, Monet is the Michelangelo of our epoch for me.”
Color Field painter Morris Louis was one of the many who adopted the series process that began with Monet’s Haystacks. Thierry Dufrêne claims in his essay “Monet and Abstract Impressionism in the 1950s and 1960s” that Louis’ Veils series were responses to questions posed by Monet. “Louis achieves a more radical transformation, enabling him to remain faithful to Monet without figuration: he made atmosphere itself into an object, with internal differentiations, limits and contours.”
Greenberg, in discussing Clyfford Still’s relationship with color, wrote, “Late Impressionism was the precedent here, and as in the late Monet, the suppression of value contrasts created a new kind of openness. The picture no longer divided itself into shapes or even patches, but into zones and areas and fields of colour.” We have a premonition of abstraction when looking at Monet’s later works, just as we often see Cézanne as a precursor Cubism.
Monet said he wished he had been born blind, then experienced sight suddenly so that he could naïvely see the world as shapes and colors. What could be more abstract than this? He advised, “Try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you.”