Monet on Election Day
Tuesday, November 3, 2020
At Giverny, during World War I, Monet could hear the gunshots from the front, which was fifty kilometers away. His eldest son died of illness in 1914, and his second son and his stepson were both in the army. Monet did not think especially well of himself for continuing to paint, but he did think it was what he could do. He wrote in a letter in December of 1914:
Yesterday I resumed work… it’s the best way to avoid thinking in these sad times. All the same I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying for us.
During the years of war, Monet made many of his most beautiful and abstract paintings, the great water lily works that go on helping other artists year in and year out.
Immediately after the peace, Monet wrote to Georges Clemenceau, who was a good friend, offering to give some of the water lily paintings to the French state as a monument for peace.
Therefore, we know what he had been hoping for as he painted.
What he had harbored, and made a harbor for.
Across the street from our house, at the Beulah Shoesmith school, people are walking in and out to vote. On Hyde Park Boulevard, the ambulances are running with their sirens back and forth to the hospital. In our backyard, the striped maple is a yellow of yellows.
We are all waiting through today and tonight and this week. And then we will be waiting through a difficult winter where many are sick.
May our waiting, too, find ways to harbor peace.
Looking Forward Monet
Sunday, October 4, 2020
Tomorrow, Monday, I’m going to virtually ‘walk’ with people through the last gallery of the beautiful Monet in Chicago show at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have some dozens of close pictures to show of the eight late water lily paintings in that wonderful room. It’s a free public program and quite a lot of people have registered and, in the odd way we live now, I’ll meet each of them in the ether between my screen and theirs.
Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1919, private collection. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.
There will be much to say about Monet and the twenty years he spent painting the water lily pond that he made at Giverny.
And there will be time to look quietly at some of the beautiful moments in a few paintings.
It has been an incredibly tumultuous week in the news. More and more people are sick. The president is in the hospital. 209,000 people have died.
It seems important to be still with that.
Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, c. 1917-1920, private collection. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.
Monet painted the water lilies all the way through World War I, a war in which both his son and his stepson served at the front.
In this entry, I am showing two groups of details, each group is from a late painting, both of these paintings are held in private collections. The paintings have a very peculiar relationship to time and to the future, which I do not yet understand.
What I am thinking about now is that this is the 94th entry in this project, and it is the first entry since I began that does not look back at a moment when I did see a painting, but looks forward to the next day, when I will be thinking about paintings with other people, in the present.
Anything you see in a museum was made in the past. But I have seen Monet in Chicago twice in the last few weeks, and have spent new hours with paintings I had spent many hours with before. I have learned something new about seeing Monet and I have the chance to anticipate bringing that news to people far away.
Monet believed the paint would dry. And that later someone would see it. Perhaps he could not have imagined us, but the touch of the future is there.
Thursday, June 11, 2020
Yesterday and today, in our extended family, as for many families, our children graduated. Our children and their cousins left behind nursery school, second grade, kindergarten, sixth grade, a year of daycare, and the fourth grade in a planned home school. Their teachers and families made a moving effort to mark these changes which this year do not seem as visible, as tangible, as usual.
Thinking about graduation, and gradual movement, my mind went to Claude Monet, who was one of the first painters I loved, and whose paintings our children love to look at. I wanted to make this postcard for our children who are graduating.
For a while, Claude Monet lived in cities and traveled around a lot, but eventually Claude Monet lived in the country. He had a house and a garden in Giverny, and this painting was painted in his garden. In a marshy area, he made a pond and over time the pond got more and more beautiful.
He planted water lilies and other plants. He admired Japanese gardens and brought in plants from Japan, and actually had to fight with his neighbors and the village government to be allowed to plant what they called “foreign” plants. He built this bridge which was designed to look like the Japanese bridges he admired.
Claude Monet painted surrounded by children. There were eight children in the household he made together with Alice Hoschedé. He painted outdoors a lot, and the children would come with him.
He was interested in trying to get paintings to show certain times of day, certain qualities of weather and effects of light, not the way a place usually looked, but the way it looked, say, on a sunny day in July around one o’clock in the afternoon.
When he went to paint outside, he would often set up a whole series of canvases. He would work on one at ten o’clock that showed the way the light looked around then, and, when the light shifted, he would move on to the next canvas and work on the eleven o’clock one, and when noon came, he would move on to the next painting. Part of what is beautiful and still surprising in his paintings is the way that you can really see time in them.
Usually, when we, your parents and teachers, celebrate the moment where you are moving on to the next painting, you know this is happening because of the world around you – because you are crossing the street to the bigger school, because you are hugging your friends, because your teachers are handing you folders with all the work and art that you have made, and you are hanging your work up around the house.
When we are not in the world in the usual way, it can be hard to feel that a change is really happening.
I imagine that Claude Monet watched the faces of his children with the same kind of attention that he watched the water lilies in his garden, and the same kind of attention that your parents and teachers and grandparents watch you with.
In the year this painting was painted, 1899-1900, Monet painted the water lilies eighteen times. Over many years, he drew and painted the surface of the water with the water lilies reflected in it so often he stopped counting. He went to look at them every day, year after year. He knew so much about the way the light and the water moved together, the way the plants grew and filled out the pond, the way the bridge weathered.
Amazingly, even on the screen, we can see it. We can see the changing light in your faces. It is gradual, but it is clear. You have grown like plants, and you are as much part of the world as the gardens you draw and tend and the bridges you will build. You really have graduated.
For Sylvia, Tobias, Lillian, Hazel, Zinnia, Sage and Avi.
Les Débâcles, first
Monday, February 23, 2015
débâcle: the violent flood that follows when the river ice melts in spring
In the winter of 1879-1880 the weather was unusually stormy and cold. All along the Seine there were record quantities of snow and ice. That winter, Claude Monet was at Vétheuil, a village near Argenteuil and to the northwest of Paris. Monet was living in straitened circumstances with his children; his beloved wife Camille had died earlier that year, in September. The remaining Monets were sharing a household with Alice Hoschedé and her children. The winter was so fierce that even at Christmas it was impossible for them to be joined by Alice Hoschedé’s husband, Ernest, who had been one of Monet’s important supporters and collectors. Ernest Hoschedé was suffering through his own difficult period; he had gone bankrupt two years before, and his entire Impressionist collection had been sold at disastrously low prices. It is not entirely clear how the merging and transformation of the Hoschedé and Monet households took place, but this grim winter was to prove a turning point both in Monet’s life and in his work as a painter.
I have been reading about that winter, and the paintings Monet made then, for nearly a year. Reading very slowly, chiefly in one catalogue called Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point. The catalogue caught my attention in a used bookstore here in Cambridge, in part because the show that occasioned it was held at the University of Michigan Art Museum in Ann Arbor, where I am from, and in part because the subject of the paintings is winter. My father died in Ann Arbor in early February of 2013, during a bitterly snowy fortnight. This February, two years later, I am again confronted by mourning and by snow. Although I have been thinking about these confluences for many months, I am not making any progress on drawing them together as an essay. So I have decided to try writing a series of broken pieces instead.
During the winter of 1879-1880, Monet painted a series of canvases of the snowbound river and of the eventual catastrophic breakup of the ice. The series of paintings, called Les Débâcles, take their name from the river floods that followed the thaw in early January of that year. Until this point, much of Monet’s work had been of urban landscapes. There had also been portraits and still lifes; the work depicted or implied the presence of people. But this winter, he painted landscape alone, deliberately removing the boats and industry which photographs from the time show to have been part of the landscape at Vétheuil. Instead, the viewer of the painting is alone in nature; the subject of the pictures is the terrible majesty of winter and its devastations.
Saturday, June 28, 2014
The studio was recommended to Delacroix by the restorer and color merchant Etienne Haro, who knew that the artist, unwell in his later years, needed to be within walking distance of St.-Sulpice, where he had undertaken a last sequence of great murals.
When he was young, Delacroix once said to his friend Charles Baudelaire, he could only work if he knew he had somewhere to be that evening, a ball, music, but as he grew older, the discipline of work grew in him and he worked indefatigably. He had visitors, but not so very many, and he kept his last illness private. Even a good friend like Baudelaire was shocked by the news of his death and wrote sorrowfully of how they would no longer find him in that grand square space "where reigned, in spite of our rigid climate, an equatorial temperature."1
A study in hot and cold, Delacroix as a personality and an artist was in continual motion between shade and gleam. He was revered for his color sense, both daring and precise, and the palettes now on display at the Musée Delacroix make his color sense dramatically visible.
Here you can see, unusually, not a rainbow or color wheel, but hot colors intermingled with cold ones, and dark contrasts grouped together with corresponding brights. The artist mixed his shades in advance and kept careful notes of each one’s composition. In Les Palettes de Delacroix (1930), Léon Piot noted that when Delacroix was ill, he would have his palette brought to his bed and spend the day there mixing colors. Baudelaire wrote, “I have never seen a palette as minutely and delicately prepared as that of Delacroix. It resembled a bouquet of flowers, knowingly arranged.”2 On its website, the Musée Delacroix points out that as time went on the artist, “fragmented more and more the tones, focusing less and less on real color as opposed to shadows, halftones, and reflections.”
Baudelaire evidently felt sympathetic to, and recognized by, the atmosphere created by Delacroix’s color. “It seems that such color thinks for itself, independently of the object it clothes,” Baudelaire is said to have said, “The effect of the whole is almost musical.”3
was said to have been given by Delacroix to Henri Fatin-Latour, a great admirer of Delacroix. Fatin-Latour, angered by the lack of official commemoration of the master’s death, painted an Hommage à Delacroix.
The group portrait includes Fatin-Latour himself (in white blouse), James McNeill Whistler (standing center,) Edouard Manet (standing immediately to the right of the portrait of Delacroix) and Baudelaire (seated right corner.)
Six years later, Fatin-Latour painted a similar group portrait, called A Studio at Batignolles that, with its depictions of Manet, Renoir, Zola, Bazille, and Monet, stands as both manifesto for and document of the Impressionist movement in something like the manner of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence:
The palette that may have belonged to both Delacroix and Fatin-Latour was eventually donated to the Musée Delacroix by the granddaughter of Léon Riesener, and the Riesener family, through its friendship with the Morisot sisters, provided another, personal, conduit by which the palette of Delacroix was transmitted to the Impressionists.
This summer, the Musée Delacroix has an exhibition of works that show the influence of Shakespeare on Delacroix. Like Berlioz, Delacroix was greatly moved by the force of drama in the works of Shakespeare and there are wonderful etchings of instants of great intensity from Hamlet (Hamlet on the terrace approached by his father’s ghost, the moment before the stabbing of Polonius, the moment “up, sword” of deciding not to kill Claudius at prayer). There is also an oil sketch of Léon Riesener, a cousin and confidante of the painter, himself a painter, and a legatee of Delacroix’s.
This portrait shows a broad and sympathetic face, tones all of brown and white. In the background and upside down are discernible sketches for another picture, Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery with the skull of Yorick.
Bequeathal, and legacy were vexed issues for Delacroix, who, says Baudelaire, was increasingly preoccupied with which of his contributions would endure.
Walter Benjamin notes the aptness of Léon Daudet’s phrase for Baudelaire. Daudet writes that Baudelaire had a “trap-door disposition, which is also that of Prince Hamlet.”4 I take this to mean a theatrical, or a magician’s, feeling for circumstances and their manipulation. Appearances and disappearances, sudden dispersals, going within to get out. There seems to be something of Delacroix in the phrase, too.
Another inheritor of Delacroix was Berthe Morisot, who, in an early summer of her training as a painter was working side-by-side with her sister in the town of Beuzeval in Normandy. Their father had rented for them a mill belonging to Léon Riesener, and the Morisot sisters were soon close to, and much encouraged by, the whole Riesener family. In her notebook, Berthe Morisot recorded an anecdote they related: “Delacroix composed his palette with such precision that he could have it prepared each morning by Jenny, his maid, while he was painting his Apollo ceiling or rather while he had Andrieux paint it as he remained below. One day, he called out to him to use a No. 2 pink and Andrieux thought he would catch him out with a No. 3. ‘No, no, exclaimed Delacroix, I said a No.2.’ That is absolutely the sensation of a musician.”5
I see two ways out of this series of reflections: one is to try to see further inside the man, the other to try to see further into the legacy of his works. These efforts do not amount to the same thing, but perhaps could be displayed immediately next to each other.
Walter Benjamin, whose interest in Delacroix grew in part from Benjamin’s profound relationship to the works of Baudelaire, notes that Delacroix was interested in photography, and that his paintings “escape the competition with photography, not only because of the impact of their colors, but also (in those days there was no instant photography) because of the stormy agitation of their subject matter. And so a benevolent interest in photography was possible for him.”6 The ever more profound and fragmentary sense of color, and the idea of creating motion through the juxtaposition of contrasting colors, these went on being a significant part of how painting responded to photography through the rest of the 19th century.
Baudelaire said that his friend Delacroix was a peculiar combination of the “sauvage,” and the “homme du monde.” He was, writes the poet, “passionately enamored of passion, and coldly determined to seek out the means of expressing passion in the most visible manner.”7 In his austere seclusion he would, Baudelaire wrote, find the colors in which to bathe his scenes so that they had their own life. “As a dream is placed in the colored atmosphere proper to it, so a conception, become a composition, must moves in a colored milieu particular to it.”8
1 Baudelaire, Critque d’art, “Eugene Delacroix, son oeuvre et sa vie,” p421, translations mine.
2 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p408
3 from Ernest Seillière, Baudelaire, (Paris, 1931) cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, edited Tiedemann, translated Eiland and McLaughlin, (Cambridge, 1999) p277.
4 Daudet, Les Pélerins d’Emmaus, Paris, 1928, p101, cited in Benjamin, Arcades Project, p265.
5 Morisot, Notebook, 1885, 1887-8, p12-13, cited in Marianne Delafond and Caroline Genet-Bondeville, Berthe Morisot or Reasoned Audacity, Paris, 2011, p16
6 Benjamin, Arcades Project, p678.
7 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p418, p406.
8 Baudelaire, p408.
Turner before Monet
Sunday, December 29, 2013
In Cleveland for the holidays, M. and I walked through the galleries of the art museum, and stumbled upon Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834.
If I’d seen it before, I’d entirely forgotten. A painting of great power and intricacy.
Turner one of those rare colorists who seems, to me, to have control within the color – especially here of red that really burns at the heart of the painting and of the expanding cloud of yellow and white.
The color has shape and density, symmetry and modulation. It is not so much that the painting seems to have a geometry as that the color, within itself, does.
Monet knew Turner’s paintings and his admiration for them was part of his decision to go to London to do his three late series. One would like to be sure that he had had adequate time with this particular picture, which seems to have a project related in an important way to his own. Monet set the Houses of Parliament, the Thames before them, and the air above them in such a way that each could be transmuted into the others. Turner and those with him along the banks of the Thames that night saw this happen.
The night of the great fire, October 16, 1834, Turner worked all night, up and down the banks of the Thames sketching rapidly in watercolor, which was his habit. One of these sketches is reproduced in a beautiful called Turner: Les Carnets de Dessins with text by William Gaunt. Turner’s watercolors, the most wonderful I have ever seen, were his private work, and were not brought before the public until well into the 20th century. Thus Monet, hurrying up and down the sides of the Thames desperate to catch his evanescent effects, never knew how close a ghostly colleague he had.
Monet at Work
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
I hadn’t appreciated what it meant to Monet to work in a series. I knew the haystacks and the cathedrals and the water lilies showed different times of day – that you could see the morning in the yellow light along one edge of a bridge or doorframe and the evening in the lavender along the other – but I hadn’t really thought through how Monet would then actually have to work on them. I assumed, I think, that he began, say on a morning painting of haystacks, finished that one and then moved on to one of the afternoon. But he was painting actual haystacks and of course the effects he was interested in were only visible for perhaps an hour, or much less on any given day. He had to work on the whole series at once, and he switched from canvas to canvas as the light changed.
This is an extraordinary feat of concentration, like playing simultaneous chess games. Although the paintings in a series all had cathedrals in them each one was different in cast, in the range of color and emotion. Imagine working simultaneously on ten essays and switching every hour. Watching Monet, surrounded by his canvases, made a vivid impression, and he and his friends left wonderful glimpses of what he was like at work.
Monet apparently began working in series as early as 1885, when he went back to locations where he had painted with Boudin, Jongkind and Courbet. Guy de Maupassant, who had that year published his second novel, Bel Ami, remembered watching Monet at work at Entretat:
I often followed Claude Monet in search of impressions. He was no longer a painter, in truth, but a hunter. He proceeded, followed by children [possibly his own and Mme Hoschedé’s] who carried his canvases, five or six canvases representing the same subject at different times of day and with different effects. He took them up and put them aside in turn, according to the changes in the sky. Before his subject, the painter lay in wait for the sun and shadows, capturing in a few brush strokes 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 which, 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…. (1)
There were some further ways in which Monet conceived of ‘working in a series.’ Although he was wary of talking about studio work, far from the plein air that was the Impressionists’ rallying cry, still the series were finished in the studio. To feel balanced and deep, a picture needed the period of further consideration possible in the studio. There, too, he worked on what might be called their “seriesness,” laboring to distinguish each from the others and to assemble a set of impressions and effects of light that made sense as a group. This meant that none of them were finished until all of them were finished.
The group often referred to as the fundamental series is those of the haystacks, perhaps because the method was there worked out completely, or because Monet intended to show them as a group, and did, with Durand-Ruel, in 1891. He had apparently thought he would have just two canvases – one was to show sunlight and the other gray weather. But, as he worked, the effects he wanted to catch, those that demonstrated what he called “instantaneity,” multiplied, and in the end he showed fifteen pictures. These were a financial success, the dealer was able to sell them for between 3,000 and 4,000 francs.
Monet was then fifty-one; Impressionism had won its initial battles, but it was still not easy to make a living. The idea to work in series emerged as Monet was beginning to be a successful artist, and the success of the series themselves helped him to continue working in this unusual way. It required a substantial outlay for him to get the canvas and materials to begin so many pictures at once, and then he continued working on them for years before the group could be ready for sale. As he wrote to his wife Alice Monet from London, “I have something like sixty-five canvases covered with colors…What a bill I’m going to have at Lechertier!” (2)
The London series (those of Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament, done between 1899 and 1904) are the culmination of the method. As he matured, Monet chased increasingly fugitive effects. “I adore London,” he told the dealer René Gimpel, “it’s a mass, an ensemble, and it’s so simple. Then in London, above all what I love is the fog.” On another occasion he said, “without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it is magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak.” In 1901, he wrote to Alice, “I can’t tell you about this fantastic day. What marvelous things, but only lasting five minutes, it’s enough to drive you crazy. No, there’s no land more extraordinary for a painter.” (3)
A lovely exhibition catalog for the show Monet in London with text by Grace Seiberling points out that this adored fog was the result of heavy pollution. Monet sometimes let the industrial browns and greens go, but he saw it all, as he explained to an interviewer, also in 1901:
The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs…. Objects change in appearance in a London fog quicker than in any other atmosphere, and the difficulty is to get every change down on canvas. (4)
He was beset by difficulties. His friend Sargent would come to visit him at the Savoy Hotel, where Monet stayed in part because of the balconies directly over the Thames. There, Sargent said he “found him surrounded by some ninety canvases – each one the record of a momentary effect of light over the Thames. When the effect was repeated and an opportunity occurred for finishing the picture, the effect had generally passed away before the particular canvas could be found.” The situation was almost ridiculous. He would sit among his hundred canvases, an elusive effect would appear there before him over the river and he would search, he told the Duc de Trevise, “feverishly,” among the leaning paintings for one that matched the effect. In the end, he would “choose one of them that didn’t differ too much from what I saw,” and then, “despite everything, I altered it completely. When my work was finished, I would notice, in moving among my canvases that I had overlooked precisely the one that would have suited me best and which I had at hand. How stupid!” (5)
His friends and his wife became familiar with the anxious state of waiting for a longed-for effect to return. And then, these effects, even the sun itself, moved with time, and might well appear in a different part of the sky. “Around 4 o’clock,” he wrote in a letter, “the sun finally showed itself from time to time and I was thrilled for the motifs at the hospital, but there I was completely disappointed; a few days without seeing it, the sun, and it appears a kilometer from my motif; there is no longer any hope on that front, and I’m really distressed about it! It would have been so beautiful to do!” (6)
He hurled himself into work, faulting himself for only having the energy to work eleven hours at a stretch. He took his canvases home to the Savoy and studied them until he went to sleep. One couldn’t be an artist, he told an interviewer later, “if one doesn’t have his painting in his head before executing.” (7)
This interview was quoted by Gustave Geffroy in his book about Monet and his work, published in 1922. Geffroy had himself been to see Monet working in London in February of 1900; he had arrived with Monet’s old friend Georges Clemenceau; they found Monet at work on the balcony:
From time to time, he stopped. “The sun isn’t there any longer,” he would say….All of a sudden Claude Monet would seize his palette and brushes. “The sun has come back,” he said. He was at that moment the only one to know it.
The others on the balcony looked intently for the change Monet had seen, but could not find it.
We still only saw an expanse of woolly gray, some confused forms, the bridges as if suspended in the void, smoke that quickly disappeared, and some swelling waves of the Thames, visible close to the bank. We applied ourselves to see better, to penetrate this mystery, and, indeed, we ended up by distinguishing we didn’t know what mysterious and distant gleam, which seemed to be trying to penetrate this immobile world. Little by little, things were illuminated with a gleam, and it was delicious to see, feebly illuminated by an invisible sun, like an ancient star, this grandiose landscape that then delivered its secrets. (8)
(1) Guy de Maupassant, La vie d’un paysagiste, Le Gil Blas, Sept 28, 1886, quoted in Rewald, p517.
(2) Monet’s letters are designated by the numbers given them in Daniel Wildenstein’s catalog raisonné, this one is w.1532]
(3) Quotes from René Gimpel are from Diary of a Picture Dealer, p73 and p129, quoted in Monet in London, exhibition at the High Museum of Art, text by Grace Seiberling, p55. Letter to Alice of 1901 is w. 1593, quoted in Seiberling, p58.
(4) E. Bullet, “MacMonnies, the sculptor, working hard as a painter,” The Eagle (Brooklyn) 8 September 1901, quoted in Seiberling, p62.
(5) Charteris, John Singer Sargent, p126, and Duc de Trévise, “Le Pélerinage de Giverny,” Revue de l’art ancient et modern 51 (1927), quoted in Seiberling, pp68-69.
(6) 24 March, 1900, w. 1537, quoted in Seiberling, p59.
(7) Interview with Marcel Pays, Excelsior, 26 January 1921, quoted Seiberling, p70.
(8) Geffroy, Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, 1922, quoted Seiberling, p64-65.
At Nadar's (but he was already gone)
Monday, November 11, 2013
Possibly it was somewhere in two decades of reading and rereading Susan Sontag’s On Photography that I absorbed a small but suggestive misimpression. In the midst of a passage on the relationship between photography and painting, she devotes a long footnote to Impressionism. This footnote begins, unexceptionably, “the large influence that photography exercised upon the Impressionists is a commonplace of art history.”[i]
Rereading the rest of the footnote I see, as is often the case with Sontag, that I have been thinking about what it contains for a long time without even remembering that she wrote it, and that I will probably now spend many more years arguing with myself about the details she’s included in what is for her a brief excursus.
Here is her summary of what the Impressionists found in photography: “The camera’s translation of reality into highly polarized areas of light and dark, the free or arbitrary cropping of the image in photographs, the indifference of photographers to making space, particularly background space, intelligible…” This was the “inspiration for the Impressionist painters’ professions of scientific interest in the properties of light, for their experiments in flattened perspective and unfamiliar angles and decentralized forms that are sliced off by the picture’s edge.” Sontag, magpie, quotationalist, admirer of Benjamin, points out that Stieglitz said of the Impressionists, “they depict life in scraps and fragments.”
And here is what led me astray, though, as I work this through, I’m beginning to think that the clarification of her small error of suggestion might actually affirm the rest of what she’s said. The footnote comes to the following too-irresistible conclusion: “A historical detail: the very first Impressionist exhibition, in April 1874, was held in Nadar’s photography studio on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.”
This information, too, is a commonplace of art history, and if I first saw it in Sontag I’ve since seen it referred to often enough that when I began to think of keeping this notebook I pictured an essay depicting the scene. It was to be an exciting set piece: one after another the soon-to-be-famous painters would enter the studio, so full of potential. There they are, gathering around the far-seeing Nadar, who loves their work, and says 'you must have the show here,' generously taking down his photographs. They hammer, they arrange curtains, they call out to one another. I knew that the name of the movement came from this first exhibition. Perhaps Nadar himself, watching them at work, had said something that suggested the name...
Not so, not quite so, at any rate, and in a way that matters. A recent, thorough biography of Nadar by the French writer Stéphanie de Saint Marc makes almost no mention of the Impressionists in general. The only one that Nadar really knew was Manet. The biographer says Manet inspired Nadar as a model. She has a heavy description of the famous photograph: Manet’s fine features and “romantically undulating chevelure” made a “counterpoint” with the hand “robust, almost peasantlike” seen in the picture’s foreground, on the back of a chair.[ii]
This friendship, though, doesn’t account for the presence of the Impressionists at Nadar’s studio because, as is well known, Manet resolutely did not show with his friends in the 1874 exhibition; he was still fighting it out with the official salon. (I’ve often taken a kind of, probably unfair, satisfaction in Manet’s absence from the show. His works seem to be obdurate where those of the other painters are fluid, though I do recognize that this is yet another of my difficulties with seeing Impressionism, as somehow what they saw in him led to what I see in them.)
In any case, I now hurried to John Rewald’s History of Impressionism to read the chapter on the April 1874 show. The painters formed themselves into a group, not at all impromptu, carefully thought out and argued over, with the financial structure of a joint-stock company (Pissarro’s idea,) and a deliberately un-school-like name: Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (Renoir’s idea.) Though the name Impressionism did arise from the show, it did so in a roundabout, emergent way, not because of a stroke of impressarial brilliance on the part of Nadar.
The name came about through an odd mixture of the offhand, the laudatory, and the vituperative. The catalog of the exhibition was edited by Renoir's brother, Edmond Renoir. Edmond Renoir remembered, in his unpublished recollections, that when he came to the group of pictures Monet had sent he was irritated by, "the monotony of his titles: Entrance of a Village, Leaving the Village, Morning in a Village...." Edmond Renoir objected and "the painter calmly told him: 'Why don't you just put Impression!'"[iii] A painting of Le Havre was called Impression, Sunrise, and critics, both the rare ones who liked the show, and the much more common ones who vied to outdo one another in piling up ridicule, seized the name “Impressionists,” which the painters themselves accepted as close enough.
They weren’t hanging around Nadar and excitedly studying his photographs; they simply needed a space. According to Rewald: “This presented itself in the form of the studios vacated by Nadar, who, according to Monet, lent them the premises without fee.”[iv] Nadar’s biographer confirms that at this period, though he no longer maintained a studio there, Nadar still sometimes sublet the premises. He was fairly friendly with the group of painters, whom he saw now and again at the café Guerbois, but, she says, he stayed “hermétique” with regard to their innovations. He was a fervent admirer of Daumier and Guys – both dear to Baudelaire – but never collected the painters who were to become even more fully the "painters of modern life," as Baudelaire had described Guys in the long essay in which he envisioned a kind of painting.
Baudelaire did write perceptively and admiringly about Manet, a figure with one foot in that earlier generation, and one reluctant foot in the Impressionist camp. But this earlier generation hardly threw themselves into promoting the new way of seeing made explicit in the pictures of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne. Nadar may have known that the artists were penniless – if he lent them the studio for no charge that was a helpful generosity in a time when few were helpful to them. What the gesture meant, though, wasn’t that the buoyant, insightful, commercially adept, scientifically inquisitive Nadar saw the future and passed the mantle on to his comrades. The show was in a place left empty by a great, declining photographer of the previous generation.
What I’ve been thinking about today is that it may be that the complicated relationship between Manet and the younger Impressionists, which has a strong bearing on the relationship between the movement of Impressionism and photography, could be expressed by these two now slightly refined facts: Manet was the friend of Nadar’s; the others got themselves named when they had a show in Nadar’s empty studio without Manet.
On Photography II
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:
Shape of path as it curves back:
Shape of hill crest, cypressed, below sky:
Step back to look at whole again:
Dark paint, just dashed on, group of trees:
Really dark, low dark hole, yellow grass across lower right corner:
Look again at dark paint just dashed on of upper tree:
Once having looked at these two dark areas, upper tree, lower hole, the whole right side of the picture has beautiful depth:
Now the interior looks quite different, rougher paint:
What would Pissarro have made of this fragmentary way of writing down the seeing of his picture? Would he know right away that, as happened in his own time, our new tools have changed the experience of sight? He was the great theoretician among the Impressionists, the one who articulated what they were after. But in all the letters to his son Lucien that are such a full statement of his thought I cannot find a single mention of photography.
He does, though, indicate how important the idea of the series was to his way of thinking. In a letter from the summer of 1895, he writes that he is sorry that Lucien has been delayed in getting to Paris for now he will miss seeing "the Monets. This is a great pity, for the Cathedrals are being much talked of, and highly praised, too, by Degas, Renoir, myself and others. I would have so liked you to see the whole series in a group, for I find in it the superb unity which I have been seeking for a long time." [June 1, 1895]