Art Criticism

Monet
The Seine and The Sea
National Galleries of Scotland

If you say the name Monet, what do you think of? Water lilies dissolving in light, a garden at Giverny basking beneath a soft French summer sun, huge queues at the Royal Academy of ladies- who-lunch and paintings circles up from Surrey for the day walking away with Monet carrier bags full of posters and place mats covered with shimmering haystacks and How-to-paint books. For Monet is the quintessential Impressionist. What was once considered so radical that it was rejected by academic artists and hostile critics alike – along with the work of other painters who were then exhibiting at the Impressionist exhibitions – as the possible results of Daltonism (the inability to distinguish between red and green) has now become the best loved and most accessible of all art movements. It is, therefore, hard to experience Impressionism now as it was experienced in the late 19th century, as radical, disturbing and new. To imagine what a stir it caused. To see how revolutionary it was to understand light and colour as form and the small villages and orchards, the costal fishing ports that formed the subject matter of these artists as workaday and not simply as mirrored through the soft-tinted glow of nostalgia.

Monet Gare Saint Lazare 1877
Gare Saint Lazare, 1877

In 1878 Monet left Paris for the village of Vétheuil, where, for largely economic reasons, he decided to settle with his own and the Hoschedé family with whom the Monets had become close. Fresh from painting the modernity of the capital – the station of Gare St-Lazare with its railways engines and billowing clouds of smoke – he was to embark, over the next few years, on reworking the older traditions of French landscape as represented by a previous generation of French painters such as Corot, Courbet and Millet. In many ways it was a retrograde step. From the excitement, the gritty urbanity of the modern city, Monet seems to have been content to paint what was comparatively safe in the rural backwater of Vétheuil with its slow curling river, it medieval church, its orchards and tapestry of poppies dotting the surrounding fields in mid-summer, which are so much an emblem of traditional French landscapes. After the Franco-Prussian War, the fratricide of the Paris Commune and the humiliating cession of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany the abiding cultural atmosphere in France was conservative. The state’s purchases from the annual Salons favoured, in the field of painting, images of a timeless French countryside, a place of peace and tranquillity not a country under the threat of invasion, civil war and rural depopulation. Painting tended to be formulaic with little room for personal expression. And as the prosperous 1870s gave way to the more uncertain economy of the 1880s, Monet’s career, like that of other painters was affected financially. When he moved to Vétheuil Monet not only had two children and an invalid wife to support, but it seems his fortunes, in ways that are not quite clear, became linked with the Hoschedé family. (He was later to marry Alice after her estrangement from Ernest Hoschedé and the death of his own wife, Camille.) To some extent Monet was, therefore, forced to paint what the market demanded.

The years between 1878 and 1883 roughly divide into two periods, the first in Vétheuil where the river and village landscapes painted between 1879 and 1880 seem to result in a period of retrenchment and the bolder more experimental work of the seascapes and costal motifs he painted in 1881 through to early 1883. Always keen on maintaining and establishing his individuality as an artist this period necessitated degrees of both contradiction and compromise. When he moved to Vétheuil he was thirty-eight. The 1860s had been characterised by the ambitions and false starts of a talented young artist trying to find his voice. It was his fellow Norman Eugène Boudin and the Dutch Johan-Barthold Jongkind who had introduced him to working en plein air, encouraging him to become aware of the changes in weather and its ‘effets’, while Manet’s influence persuaded him of the importance of personal expression that was to become a hallmark of modernity. The view that Monet, himself, encouraged, of an artist who worked primarily out of doors, was to a large extent a myth and a deceit as his canvases were increasingly reworked and retouched away from the subject. In essence this exhibition asks, as no doubt Monet asked himself, what was the essence of landscape painting, how could one order paint in a manner that was both descriptive yet invigorating, describe weather in a way that felt as if one was actually experiencing it?

Monet Poppy Field near Vetheuil 1879
Poppy Field near Vetheuil, 1879

The paintings that Monet mostly produced at Vétheuil are what we think of as the quintessence of Impressionism; apple trees in blossom, poppy fields shimmering in the late afternoon heat, light on water; the summer idyll. But more often than not it is his winter paintings, the village covered with snow or the brown tones of slush in The Road into Vétheuil, Winter 1879, that are among the most interesting works; less gorgeous, less seductive and predictable than those of summer. His habit of painting the same views both in summer and winter was to be developed in his more famous series of haystacks and Rouen Cathedral executed in different lights.

After the death of Camille the bleakness of his own life was reflected in one of the harshest winters on record when the Seine froze and great blocks of ice crashed down the river which such force that it woke the Monet family from sleep. The limited palette of cool blues, greys and soft green he uses to convey the ice floes creates a sombre chilling effect that moves away from faithful representation towards the greater abstraction achieved in later years. For Monet the need to cultivate his own sense of looking was paramount and when he pushed it to its limits the commercial results were often disastrous. He never sold, perhaps his finest painting of this period, Vétheuil in the Fog, 1879, where the ghostly bleached church seen from across the river seems to dissolve in the pearly light.

Although Monet would not have used the word, it is this sublime quality that he is reaching towards, a way of expressing something of the nature of human feebleness in the face of nature. This can be seen most dramatically in the paintings of sunsets over the rocky coastline of Etretat when the world has been reduced to its primal elements of rock, water and fiery sun, more Expressionistic in mode than Impressionistic. One of his most dramatic paintings is The Manneporte, Etretat, 1883, a great arch of rock surrounded by a boiling dark green and pearly sea, where two tiny figures such as those beloved by the German Romantics, appear dwarfed by the elements as they stare out to the distant horizon. During his stay at Fécamp, on the coast between March and April 1881, he painted three canvases of heavy breakers crashing onto the beach. Of these Rough Sea, 1881, is the most dramatic in its shift from representation to virtual abstract expressionism. Here the whole painting is filled with nothing but the curled strokes of blue, white and green waves beneath a heavy slate grey sky. It is these paintings that point the direction that Monet would eventually take, where paint and vision would seem to meld into one experience. It is these works that prefigure the shifts of light, that dissolution of looking which reaches it apotheosis in the later water lilies and are the paintings that elevate Monet from simply being a painter of 19th century pastoral scenes to a true precursor of modernism.

Monet Rough Sea 1881
Rough Sea, 1881

This is possibly the most prestigious exhibition ever held in Scotland. It is a large show, in many ways, perhaps, too big, including a number of extraneous paintings. The title is The Seine and The Sea, so it seems unnecessary to confuse and dilute these themes with paintings of still lives or vases of flowers just because they happen to have been painted during this period. Over explanatory, also, is the inclusion of the occasional work by precursors such as Courbet or Corot. It is also lacks aesthetic sensibility to hang information boards among the paintings rather than at the beginning of the galleries, for they interfere with the coherent flow of ideas and themes suggested by the work itself. For the paintings, both the weak and the strong, are enough for anyone with eyes and a catalogue in hand to understand something of the struggles and shifts through which Monet passed. This relatively short period has been largely overshadowed by the rest of Monet’s creative life at Giverny. This exhibition places as centrally important these transitional years in Vétheuil. Here Monet pitted himself against his immediate precursors in a way that enabled him to break through the problems thrown up in the execution of this relatively traditional body of landscape paintings to create the truly innovative works produced at Giverny and establish himself as one of the great modern masters.

Monet The Seine and The Sea at the National Galleries of Scotland from 6 August 2003 to 26 October 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image 1: National Gallery, London
Image 2: Foundation Collection E.G. Bührle
Image 3: National Gallery of Canada

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