Earlier this summer, I watched the movie Monet and I on the plane back from Europe. The following day, at a routine vision appointment, I was told I had typical California sun damage AND cataract on both eyes.
The drama queen in me immediately thought about Monet and how cataract actually plagued his life, altered his perception of colors and pushed him slowly but surely towards the abstraction visible in his Grandes Décorations (1914-1926) at L’Orangerie.
But let’s face it, cataract is no big deal nowadays. I won’t need the routine operation for another 10-15 years so what did I do? I got some cool glasses instead. Then I got a nasty inflammation on my sun damage areas and got to wear my cool frames a lot! This made me think about how much I rely on my eyes. And just like that, I was back thinking of Monet.
Despite extreme poverty early on in his career, Monet powered through as a prolific artist. He also had a very long life – dying at 86 – meaning that you stand a good chance to study a Monet in most museums. Getting to look at one of his 247 Nymphéas with few people in front of you is another story…
I am somewhat glad he still pulls the crowd though: it’s testament that these paintings are not just pretty flowers and water reflections. Each Nymphéa scattered across the museums of the world resonates with people; each contributes a few words of the healing message Monet wanted to convey to a world in shock during/after WWI. The more Nymphéas you experience, the closer you are to feel the “unifying gesture¹” intended by Monet when he painted these works nowadays disseminated across world museums like flowered altars.
A hundred years later, world tourists act reverently in view of the cool blues, fresh greens and violet harmonies of the Nymphéas.
That they’ve become a universal language for fortitude is undeniable and I think it’s also because of how very personal these late works are. As if Monet had addressed his ageing self and the cumulative sadness of his long life as he was forced to deal with losing his eyesight.
Early years: No money to paint light
Going back in time, young Monet was part of a group soon to be called the Impressionists due to Monet himself presenting his Impression, Sunrise in 1872 to the harsh reception of critics. The Impressionist technique was deemed sketchy, “a mere impression”. Except that capturing “a fugitive moment” was exactly what Monet intended. As he said, his interest lied in painting “what exists between the motif and me”.
This was radically new compared to the meticulous approach of neoclassical art therefore Impressionism did not sell well. Critics objected to small areas of bare canvas being left visible, too thinly painted or unfinished.
Even though these capture the dancing sunlight effects through trees and sparkly water reflections, Monet’s threadbare technique may also have been a necessity. Penniless, he was constantly begging for funds to buy painting supplies. But he never gave up and eventually success came.
Later years: All The Light We Cannot See
Reading the late John Berger’s Portraits on Monet, Berger describes an impression as “what is left behind because the scene has disappeared or changed”. It “survives alone”.
This is as true of Monet’s Impressionist paintings as it is of Monet himself, an acclaimed artist in his later years but sad survivor to all his Impressionist peers.
Monet survived hardship and the death of his beloved wife Camille when he was 39. He eventually became well established in his Giverny property. In his 60’s, working relentlessly to custom-build his Japanese garden, he’s faced with a failing eyesight due to bilateral age-related cataracts.
When your life is all about seeing colors, observing light effects and capturing them in paintings, how can you possibly react?? Monet did not stop painting as this was his life. Instead as his eyesight became more and more of a handicap, he went big!
The Grandes Decorations are two multi-panel Nymphéas series painted by Monet as a bequest to the French Government to celebrate the end of WWI.
They were permanently installed in two dedicated oval rooms at L’Orangerie in Paris shortly after Monet’s death. They are much more than legacy works. They are the work of a titan struggling to see after a cataract operation left him temporarily blind from one eye and who then rejoiced when glasses from Germany gave him some correction, allowing him to see green, then red…and a faint blue.
As I stood in those rooms in L’Orangerie and in front of the Nymphéas at Chichu Museum in Naoshima earlier this year, the striking paradox is between the monumental expanse of motifs on the walls and the actual myopic patch of waterlily pond that Monet was concentrating on.
When he could see, Monet travelled on a shoe string and painted from Nature en plein air, giving us these freshly colored landscapes outside Paris, the South of France or London. It was all about painting the “impression”, the “fugitive moment” as Monet refused to paint from memory.
At the end of his life with the Grandes Décorations, Monet abandoned the horizon line and re-centred on a much more introspective journey.
What Monet painted was mostly the breadth of his memories, and not so much the waterlilies he could still see. It’s as if Monet found solace pouring in all his visual memories before they faded completely with his eyesight (and his own death).
To this effect, the heavy texture of these Nymphéas paintings shows encrusted areas as if “the painted lily pond was to be a pond that remembered all²”.
They are an “almost desperate wish to save all²” – be it Monet’s personal memories but also, by extension, the viewers’ own. Remember, these Grandes Décorations were part of this healing and “unifying gesture” that Monet planned with his friend Clémenceau as a gift to France…
But was Monet choosing to paint big a conscious decision to absorb himself in the action of painting?
Was he numbing the shortcomings of his impaired vision on the world at large as he widened and loosened his brushstrokes on canvas?
As Monet concentrated on the impression printed to memory behind his eyes, the light effects became devoid of horizon as if they too lacked a source; sky and clouds seem trapped in plants and water reflections as seen inThe Water Lilies: The Clouds.
As such, Monet started the slow journey towards abstraction which would inspire Abstract Expressionists, particularly Rothko’s Color Fields.
And this makes sense as Monet’s late works are “no longer with the instantaneous scene, as revealed in the light, but rather the slower dissolution of the scene by the light³”.
As his memories then engulfed Monet in his studio, an all-encompassing feeling keep reaching the viewers of today.
Some people talk of an almost religious experience because these paintings force you to reflection and introspection. So let me leave you with John Berger’s writing, another almost religious experience, at least for me…
“You cannot enter an Impressionist painting; instead it extracts your memories (…) what you receive is taken from what happens between you and it. No more within it. The memories extracted are often pleasurable (…) yet they are also anguished because each viewer remains alone. The viewers are as separate as the brushstrokes”.
John Berger, Portraits – John Berger on Artists, p.260
I can’t think of a tougher ordeal than losing vision. For Monet, whose life was all visual and color-full, the strength of character permeating his monumental last works is a lesson in how to face adversity. His colors speak of dignity and resolute calm.
They happened to be my mother-in-law’s favorite colors. She has very limited vision left and is ever so often on my mind as I keep making memories with my eyes, seizing every opportunity while I still can. Doing it for her and me both.
If you’re in Paris, go to Art Church and experience Monet’s Waterlilies at l’Orangerie in Paris.
A temporary exhibition on loan from Denver Art Museum of le Bassin de Nymphéas, 1904 is at the San Diego Museum of Art until January 21, 2018 while The Manneporte (Etretat), 1883 is at the Timken Museum, on loan from the MET Museum.
² John Berger, Portraits – John Berger on Artists, p.261
© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
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Monet’s eyes was interesting to read as usual, thank you! Now we want to see Ingrid’s eyes with your cool glasses 😉 Nathalie
You’re right, Nathalie! I forgot to put the picture 🤓
Loved it and totally identify with your comments . So sorry to hear about your cataract ! But love your optimism . Issues like this rush us to live more better and faster since we are aware that everything is temporal if not ephemerous. Keep on with your wonderful articles . Miss you !
Miss you too, Virginie! I hope you’re getting inspired in your new surroundings. The cataracts are no big deal, I think, and I am concentrating on one day at a time so 10-15 years seem to long an horizon. So like Monet, I take it out 😂
Thank you for reading, I hear you on the temporal and ephemeral, sometimes it’s super hard though, right? But better too busy than bored 😊
THANK YOU FOR THIS INSIGHT INTO MONET’S WORK. I SAW THIS EXHIBIT IN CHICAGO YEARS AGO AND I REMEMBER LOVING HIS LARGE CANVASSES IN HIS LATER LIFE. LOTS TO REFLECT ON. MICHELE
I am so glad you saw an exhibition of his larger works in Chicago. Breathtaking, aren’t they? And yes, their calming strength always help with reflection, introspection… what I love about Art: it always teaches me something!
Thank you for reading, Michelle!
There’s so much of interest in this to me.
A few years back I had problems with my eyes. Fluid pulling on the retina causing flashes in the visual field. By a coincidence it first occurred in early November, which in England is a time for fireworks. So I had the weird sensation of seeing for real flashes in the sky cut by inner flashes in my visual field.
You reference the beautiful novel by Anthony Doerr and it set me thinking. Especially H G Wells Country of the Blind. For most of us vision is about negotiating our world, but as you say it is also about the experience of beauty.
Also – I may be wrong here – Emily Dickinson had problems with her eyes [as well as other health issues] and it affected her writing. Partly because of the obvious but I think because she had synaesthesia she “saw” words and presumably this was impaired.
I think we had a discussion about this on the Impressionist Course run by Oxford Conted.
Dear Gerard, I am so glad this post resonated with you but what an experience this must have been for your eyes. Fireworks are great but your augmented reality experience must have been quite something!
I loved Anthony Doerr’s novel as well and could not stop thinking about my mother-in-law as I read it…HG Wells and Emily Dickinson, I need to tackle but time is scarce as Indian Art with Oxford starts next week…
Using our eyes to experience beauty is almost an obvious description of what we should all be able to do but indeed I find that it’s quite easy to forget the act of seeing, making our eyes a simple tool, taken for granted, almost utilitarian…This negates the almost multi-sensorial functions our eyes can have: to see where we’re going – sure, to extract beauty -sometimes- but also as a trigger to all the other senses we have and sometimes don’t use enough because our eyes can do so much for us. To that extent, I think I am almost envious of people with synaesthesia as although some of their senses are mixed up, they are also much more developed…Isn’t it sad that it usually takes losing one sense for the others to become more acutely aware? I wish schools had classes exclusively dedicated to one sense at a time so that all of us would become much more balanced overall…I’d better stop to go and smell the roses 🙂 Thank you for always getting me to think more, Gerard!
Cette fois j’écris en Français…Monet est pour moi source d’inspiration et de sérénité, nénuphars, eau, lumière et pont japonais..de beaux symboles de la vie.
et le livre de Bussy “Nymphéa noir” donne des descriptions tellement alléchantes de son jardin à Giverny que j’ai eu envie l’été dernier d’y planter mes pieds et mes yeux…Les yeux , en effet, sans eux que serait t’on!Comme je plains Rosemary et tous ceux qui deviennent aveugles même si parait t’,il les autres sens sont décuplés. Monet était un courageux qui a continué à peindre et de sa mémoire , sont nées des oeuvres incontournable avec son “impression bien à lui”ce moment fugitif dont tu parles et il est devenu un exemple.
Et pour toi il ne te reste plus qu’à vouer une confiance “aveugle” à celui qui va t’opérer, ma biche….On ne fait pas d’aveugles sans casser des yeux. – Citation Coluche…oups!!!!
Merci pour le commentaire en Français, ne jamais hésiter : anglais, français, espagnol, tout marche! Et Giverny, j’en rêve!
Les sens décuplés, le courage, et oui, Monet et Rosemary ont beaucoup en commun. Ma situation bénéficie de 100 ans de progrès médical donc je ne suis pas inquiète pour l’instant, on en reparlera quand le jour de l’opération arrivera 😂
Oh really sorry to know that your eyes are sick !
The eyes are certainly a precious good of life.
The surgeons are really performing, they will know how to heal you and then you will discover new exhibitions … and for us the joy of reading your comments !
Monet, a whole world of beautiful paintings !!
The series of paintings “Les Peupliers” evokes many things for me !!
He fought so that the trees would not be cut down before finishing his work and I tried to keep my majestic PEUPLIERS that have been part of my decor for more than thirty years !!!!
His painting “Les Coquelicots” remains my favorite … the flower of my childhood …
Thank you for your good wishes, my eyes will be fine. I don’t need the operation before 10-15 years. And the inflammation is now gone. I have not stopped looking 😉
Monet is a vast subject, so many themes, so many images we cannot forget…
Interesting blog piece. I absolutely adore Monet. I really wish his work got more attention. I love his style, the colours, the emotions, and the sounds of his paintings. For me all his paintings are a representation of his treasured moments. They are all very dream like. He really wanted to capture the whole moment and I truly feel that in his paintings. He is the only artist that I can hear the sound of the environment he has painted. That is very touching for me. There is this sense of calm and pleasure in his paintings. And I think he achieves sending this message of emotions and sounds across by focusing on lighting. Most People have experienced sun shining through the leaves, glistening on water, reflecting back and so on. We can associate with the meaning. For me his work is about reflection but not just on his experience but for the viewer too. Absolute pleasure seeing his paintings ❤❤❤
Thank you very much for taking the time to read and provide your very own lighting / éclairage on how Monet affects your senses.
The fact that Monet’s very visual and painterly rendering makes you hear the sounds that such a scene would make is, I think, fascinating. From a visual experience, you get another sense in motion and I think Monet would have been thrilled.
Kandinsky could hear colors due to synesthesia. To me, this is a gift..and maybe you have it too?
Thanks Ingrid dear for sharing so so much beauty !!
Thank you, Becky! Beauty surrounds us, if we look. It’s funny you say that with the art of Nam June Paik actually because his art is not beautiful straight away, just looking at it but then the concepts and ideas hit you and the wow factors come (at least for me 😉)
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