10. Legacy of Claude Monet's Impressionism

(1) Origins and Influences (2) Early History (3) Impressionist Edouard Manet (4) Impressionist Claude Monet
(5) Impressionists Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne (6) Monet & Pissarro in London
(7) Impressionist Painting Developments (8) Impressionist Exhibitions (9) Group Splits (10) Legacy

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"Nympheas" (1915)
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
By Claude Monet.

Legacy of Claude Monet's Impressionism

But we should now examine Monet's fundamental destiny, his special importance and the responsibilities that devolve upon him. We cannot of course be satisfied with characterising Impressionism simply by a series of technical data: plein-airism, absence of light and shade and local tone, division of colour and systematic use of complementaries. These things are to be found spread among modes of expression of numerous earlier French and foreign schools. The Impressionists were able to gather up these previously rare elements and organise their use so as to express themselves in a particular, unique and original way. The human element is no less important. Impressionism seems to have been born of the need for freedom, of an enormous zest for life, and also in the search for basic transformation of painting from the point of view of its meaning.

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Impressionist painters want to move quickly and move ahead, to test out strong and urgent sensations, and they do this instinctively because in their case, and particularly in the case of Monet, instinct plays an essential part; they resort to light and movement. But over and above these two elements it is the live, violent feeling that they strive to capture and express. Against the ideal span of time which the Renaissance painters sought to express through permanence, they assert an active and dynamic quality in such a way that experiencing the sensation allows all to seize on it and live through it. Thus the Impressionists are in a sense realists. They produce in painting one of the immediate fundamental ideas of our consciousness and Zola was able to feel close to them in their beginnings.

Each according to his temperament goes on to choose the road best suited to his hypothesis. Only one is to have the courage and determination to pursue his research into sensation right to the end. Monet spares nothing to capture it, and stage by stage gets near to it then succeeds in identifying himself with it at the risk of shattering the traditional image of things. For more, please see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.

Sometimes Monet is reproached for his virtuosity, his absence of preconceived system or that he inclines his craft to the dictates of his heart in his pains to maintain the integrity and purity of sensation. In Normandy, for example, he does not hesitate to give his canvases the chalky appearance which is indicated by the subject under contemplation. His craftsmanship is never systematic, whether he is showing fields of grass, or hedgerows, at Poissy or at Giverny; rocks and the sea at Varengeville or at Etretat; and snow and ice which he goes as far as Norway (1895) to study. For each texture he finds a pictorial equivalent. To translate each material, his hand invents a special method of putting on paint while still preserving style. Sometimes he uses light, fragmented strokes, sometimes he leaves long slow strokes or zebra stripes on the canvas; then brisk fluttering butterfly strokes make a place for coloured masses ("Cliffs at Pourville," 1882). If the subject strikes him with violent feelings of colour, he submits to them ("La Manneporte" and "Etretat," 1886). The shivering foliage is translated by a long, fidgety stroke, or, on the contrary, lithe and reduced to a blotch ("Poplars at Giverny" and "Sunrise," 1888). The canvases he paints in 1888, at Juan-les-Pins and Cap-Martin, show how he is able to subject his art to the demands of the place, even to its geology. During a stay at Bordighera on the Italian Riviera, his painting suddenly bursts into flame and becomes flamboyant. Having discovered this region with Renoir, he returns later alone to preserve the sensation without any other influence which might affect the intensity of his impressions. He confides to Paul Durand-Ruel, "This will bring howls from the enemies of blue and pink because it is exactly that brilliance, that entrancing light that I am so particular about reproducing. Those who have not seen this country, or have not seen it properly, I am sure will shout about improbability even though I am certainly well below the tones: everything is dove and flame coloured".


The disposition of a place, the character of a chosen setting, reveal it to him. From London (1901) and Venice (1908) he brings back a series of daring canvases in which the Houses of Parliament, bridges, palaces and churches melt into coloured powders. The phenomenon of light is developed so far that reality becomes transformed. There were other works painted in series: Haystacks (1891), Poplars (1892), Cathedrals (1895), Cliffs and Mornings on the Seine (1898) and "Le Bassin des Nympheas (water lilies)" (1900). These celebrated series are like studies that press home the Impressionists' technical research and experiments into experienced sensation. But in each canvas taken separately, Monet constantly proves his inventiveness by meeting the particular needs of the subject. The systematic character of the project, however, is brilliant.

Monet seems to want to reassure himself that his reasoning is well founded. Might this research into sensation not be too easy-going, too skin-deep, as the critics have said? Might he not have been too liberal in "letting the eye live its own life"? Does it open big enough perspectives on man? Monet's passion for work is the sole reply. Without let-up he returns incessantly to the same theme and yet achieves variety. From one canvas to another he varies the angle of view and modifies the underlying plastic geometry. His eyesight may be declining, his age making itself felt, but he succeeds in expressing the passing of time by movement, in portraying in his painting the equivalent of sensation at the time it is actually experienced.

Tension exasperates him. To translate the abundant fruits of his perception, he resorts to instant change in method. He paints in clots, commas, dots, juxtaposed blotches or zebra stripes as the case may be. His subject matter is sometimes shiny, sometimes dull, sometimes heaped up and in the form of depth. The light seems to come from the very inside of the colour and is diffused through it. This painting was quite outside the accepted rules, inflicting a sort of visual torture on those looking at it. It became all the more provoking when one only wanted to see in it an effect of nature, a vibration of the atmosphere, whereas it was trying to resolve through these quite a different problem. Thus these series must be taken as a sort of exercise in which Monet measures his strength, his power of resistance and the force and accuracy of his analysis. They prepare him for the famous Nympheas suite which is to become his masterpiece. He comes across the theme in 1899 but it is not until 1916 - well after Post-Impressionist Painting has come and gone - that he undertakes the great decorative work which is now in the Orangery Museum. He devotes all his strength to it. On his death on 26 December 1924 it was his last thought, his last preoccupation.

Important works by Monet include: Women in the Garden (1867, Musee d'Orsay); La Grenouillere (1869, Metropolitan Museum, NY); The Beach at Trouville (1870, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford); Impression, Sunrise (1873, Musee Marmottan); Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (1873, Musee d'Orsay); Gare Sainte-Lazare (1877, Musee d'Orsay); the series of Water Lilies (Nymphéas) (1897-1926) in various museums; and The Water Lily Pond: Green Harmony (1899) Musee d'Orsay.


Failing Eyesight and Final Painting Project

With the success that he had achieved, Monet had been able to enlarge his property at Giverny, diverting the little stream of the Epte and laying it out into ponds in a fairy-land garden. This garden, transformed again and again as he wished, was to be his sole comfort when fate struck him the cruel blows of the death of his second wife in 1911 and of his son Jean in 1914. Like Degas, he had suffered with his eyes, undergone operations and been blind for a time. Finally in 1922 a double cataract altered his vision. But this did not prevent him from undertaking a fabulously ambitious task. It was such an ambitious work, so impervious despite its outward appearance, that for a long time it was not understood. To some it was a masterpiece, to others something to be looked down upon, if not scorned.

Ordered for the State by Georges Clemenceau, the Nympheas consist of some eighty yards of painting in a circular form. The theme appears to be ponds decked out with water-lilies. In fact these works are basically a meditation on time span, an attempt at complete understanding of the world. Repeating an experiment which he had carried out in about 1910, Monet shortens the visual field of his subject, observes it from a closer point and thus draws out the flight of perspective. By this means he turns the whole world upside down and puts the lightest tones at the feet of the spectator who is usually used to finding them above his head. The elements of the landscape, branches and foliage, which also allow him to maintain a sense of height and depth, are intermingled with their reflections and absorbed by them. Thus it is difficult to know what is the exact situation. Materiality and weight of his elements are paired off so as to become lost with and in the reflection of light. Vertical and horizontal levels, opacity and transparency are no longer opposed clearly in the mind of the spectator, who suddenly finds himself in a world where the specific character of things, their weight, relief and where they are placed, is all mixed up in a fabulous mash. Finally the circular disposition of the works, sought by Monet himself, and scrupulously respected in their presentation in the Orangery Museum, increases even more this effect of a strange new world. As the Baroque architects discovered, a circular effect does not easily allow the spectator to realise his position and he tends rather to become lost. Thus confusion is accentuated; the eye, not finding a convenient place on which to rest, glides over the border and perceives a sort of passing of time. Instead of the usual frontal contemplation, it seems to be in the very bosom of nature, embracing a vast landscape which has no beginning and no end. The height of the frieze also upsets its position in relation to the phenomena represented. Between luminous worlds well-managed transitions avoid a sense of rupture. Everything is linked - dawn, noon, afternoon and twilight - to form a sort of continuity. Thus the spectator, with his basic perception turned upside down, his normal landmarks gone and his consciousness of the division of time now lost, feels himself carried away into a world where categories and orders of things are stumped off and then disappear. A liberating impression spreads. The world dematerialises and is changed before our eyes. It becomes a fluid, a liberation of energy. Only the light spreads across this world stripped of restraint imposed by the human condition. It demands that the spectator mingle with it, the only way of accommodating oneself to its calm, active impulsion. In an instant the fusion of man and the elements is accomplished and can be experienced. Beyond the light, which has become the central character, the very mechanism of life is reached.

Certainly Monet was not able to foresee the moral that new generations were to draw from his work. Kandinsky, after contemplating a Monet exhibited in Russia in 1895, wrote (Regards en arriere): "Up till then I was only acquainted with naturalist art, and to be truthful, with that of Russia.. . and suddenly I found myself for the first time before a painting which, according to the catalogue, represented a haystack but which I did not recognise. This bothered and worried me very much. But I noticed with consternation that not only did it surprise me, but it imprinted itself indelibly on my memory and reshaped itself before my eyes in every detail. All this remained confused in my mind and I could not yet foresee the natural consequences of this discovery. But what did emerge clearly was the incredible strength, unknown to me, of a palette which exceeded all my dreams. The painting appeared to me to be endowed with a fabulous power."

NOTE: For an explanation of how Monet's Impressionist art led to abstraction, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).

We know later what this interrogation of the subject, this implication of its exacting demands, was to engender. Some years later another painter, a divisionist in his early days, meditated on light and colour. Robert Delaunay studies the theories of Chevreul and from them derives the term "simultaneous contrast". From 1912 onwards, in his celebrated" windows" and "circular forms" he demonstrates two ideas stemming from Impressionist experiments. The first is that light in constant change "itself engenders shape independent of the presence of objects". The second is that "autonomous forms of light imply perception of movement". These two conceptions were to be the basis of his future development. Pierre Francastel wrote of his "Rythmes sans fin" of 1934: "It is, so to speak, an adventure of light rays through the atmosphere. Resurrecting this idea which was the basis of his great discoveries of 1912 ... he writes with a sort of lyrical poetry about sunshine and space. In fact at the end of his life Delaunay in some respects goes back to the Impressionists from whence he came. One day his "Rythmes sans fins..." will be likened to Monet's Nympheas."

Fernand Leger, in a lecture at the Wassiliev Academy in 1913, cites Impressionism as the starting point of contemporary painting. "The Impressionists, "the first to do so, rejected the absolute value of the subject in favour of considering only the relative value," he wrote. "This is the link which binds and explains all modern evolution .... "

These notions of movement, of translation of sensation, of the intensity of its perception and the instability of the world and its image, all are included in what the Impressionists did. They were to be taken up again by the young generation and interpreted in different ways, very often transformed to the point of being unrecognisable. But it seems that we may not yet have passed through, or only just passed through, the reign of sensation. If the Impressionists were ambitious enough to put it on canvas, the painters who succeeded them pressed home their efforts even farther. It is less a matter of standing at a fixed point before a landscape which is transformed hour by hour, as considering man himself as in motion across a landscape which is seen simultaneously from different points.

A recent exhibition of the last of Monet's Nympheas (water lilies), which up to then had been buried in his studio and thus were unknown, renewed appreciation of his work. If the promptness with which he captured the fleeting charms of light brought ecstasy to the spectator, or even more if his great series were appreciated, it must be admitted that his Nympheas remained something to be judged as spontaneous or unusual. This jumbled image of a disordered world was not understood. But in the meantime science came to our aid in providing a better understanding of it. What for a long time had seemed delirious, perhaps even the result of some anomaly of eyesight, became credible in the light of the latest theoretical work in physics. Monet's poetic vision suddenly seemed plausible. Modern physics made us familiar with the notion that matter no longer is inert but a sort of condensation of energy, with endless networks and always in motion. Thus, while the painter attempted to achieve fusion of the elements, a complete understanding of the world, his flashes of intuition reached what later was proved to be reality. Once more poetry took its place alongside science. And, again as the first, painting discovered a new manner of conceiving the world, perceiving it and then representing it.

The work of Monet, along with his closest disciple Camille Pissarro, the underestimated Alfred Sisley, the dedicated Degas, the virtuoso Renoir and the painstaking Cezanne, helped to create the first movement of Modern Art, and paved the way for Fauvism, Expressionism and the colour-sensitive compositions of Abstract Expressionism.

RETURN TO START: Impressionism: Origins and Influences.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of an excerpt from Impressionism, by Jacques Lassaigne (1966).

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