Perhaps I don’t really need to conclude?
The life of Claude Monet bears irrefutable witness to the nature of the man. I have said that every sort of worldly existence has lessons to teach; however, the more sublime it is, the less understood it will be by those multitudes who think and feel and express themselves in commonplace ways. For more cultivated minds the lessons can also be difficult to see, due to differences in temperament. Which is why I want to focus here on one simple philosophical premise.
I have been warned that merely as a word, “philosophy” can turn readers off. Perhaps that’s so—but why shouldn’t a reader, much like an art lover, accept the truth that being alive means learning to change? Philosophy, after all, can be thought of as generalizing based on verified generalizations. In our worldly experience there is nothing that cannot and should not contribute to our quest for a coherent description of reality, or of humanity in search of it.
In the case of Monet, who never wavered from his calling as an artist, what stands out for me is how the natural development of his consciousness translates into his style as a painter, and how that style resonates so wonderfully with the evolution of scientific knowledge, our understanding of the characteristics and dynamics of light as a form of energy. To put it crudely but accurately, “he was in the game.” His personal vision and his consequent aesthetic growth paralleled remarkably the confirmed facts that science was acquiring by means of experiment.
Such a coincidence is probably unique; in any case, it constitutes the most “theoretical” dimension of Monet’s career. His destiny, it seems, was to be artist and scientist at the same time. This wasn’t his agenda, for he had none except to be himself. Because the all-out labor of his life unfolded from no preconceived plan, he became one of the greatest masters of an art in which so many had achieved fame and distinction before. Nonetheless, in his self-awareness as an observer of nature he ventured into new territory, though it was perfectly possible for him to keep safely to ways of the past. He therefore broadened our emotional range; in other words, he benefited us all by taking a fresh leap in our heady and marvelous journey into the Infinite.
Therefore Monet was the kind of creative genius that we call a “poet”—a poet of lyric simplicity, and also a poet of action. I understand that such terms pulled from a lexicon seem more apt to clash than to conjoin in summarizing his personality. A “lyrical” temperament, which is to say a “super-imaginative” temperament, does not catch the fact that in his personal life he was a man of perfect simplicity. Among our great poets in verse and prose, neither Bossuet nor Victor Hugo are remembered as being simple in any real way, and neither of them was. And were they men of action? Not really: when Bossuet attacked Protestantism he wound up on the wrong side of the argument; and when Hugo joined the December 2 resistance against the coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte, that too was little more than a gesture. Men of constructive action? Perhaps they thought so—but I’ll venture that posterity will say otherwise.
I once heard Victor Hugo proclaim with a straight face that when he died he would rise up into the sun, and at Madame Drouet’s request he promised to take her with him. Holding his peace, Monet milled the sunlight mirrored in his jardin d’eau and recomposed it for the benefit of us all, for the enhancement of the human condition, in our humble and sublime place in the universe. And in so doing, this great craftsman—in his labor, his interpretive skill, and the conduct of his life, with unfailing energy and will, richly deserved to be called a poet of action when he went to his grave, heavy with years, his life’s work complete.
When our species had evolved to the point where human beings were able to think, the bard became an honored public role. Singing of man and the world from nothing but his own ignorance, he contrived what systematic study would later set right. Monet never concerned himself with pronouncements about the Absolute. He knew that art could never be more beautiful than the truth itself, because art cannot venture beyond the subjective. But to achieve a closer approximation of the truth, as risky as that might be, to intensify his own understanding and affirm his own life and will, he gave everything he had—and died thinking that he had not given enough.
It should be easy to see that this excursion into “philosophy” I propose to my readers is within the reach of everyone. To connect different aspects of one exemplary human being requires no excess of abstract thought. In fact, these final thoughts I am jotting down lead me to relive precious hours in the presence of inspiration, provided by a true paragon of noble effort. But once more I must keep in view the human drama at the heart of this phenomenal achievement. I am not peddling another theory of painting as an art. Monet’s style was a direct relationship between eye and brush, with no dogmas, no pretensions in the mix. He was a born painter, compelled by an irresistible drive to look ever deeper into the essence of the natural world, finding his way to insights that no one had paused to countenance before.
From beginning to end, Monet’s life can be understood as an ever-evolving, relentless performance of a sublime drama, a drama of human ingenuity. Wandering through the abundant mediocrity in the streets and stoas of his day, Diogenes was looking for one genuine and complete man, paying no heed even when Alexander came strutting into view. This rare exemplar whom the consummate Cynic sought in vain: have we at long last come close to finding him?
A human being in the fullest sense—why should such people be so scarce that when we encounter such a marvel we are expected to go limp with ecstasy? The higher a species has evolved, the more we should expect of it—isn’t that reasonable? But no—we collapse under piles of mindless eulogy, this constant give-and-take of ritualized praising. But nothing is more important than clear-headed, private thought about the adventure of one’s own life, to see everything, whether grand or petty, in its true proportions. Perhaps the Übermensch was only a madman’s fantasy; perhaps we can see his Untermenschen anywhere we look. But it is also possible that in spite of mankind’s inherent mediocrity in the cosmic scheme of things, ordinary people, by virtue of hard work, can come to exemplify some truly higher level of human existence. Why not begin by believing in the worth of that effort? Modern society can give us the wherewithal to become better than we are; it can also lure us into self-indulgence and sloth. It’s a safe bet that pandering to ignorant multitudes is an easier and more tempting recourse than keeping faith with what we know to be true, or with convictions rising firmly from within. What matters most in life can come only from ourselves, and it comes only with self-control.
With Monet the facts speak for themselves: his temperament was even enough to keep him centered on his extraordinary purpose—yet with madness enough to plunge him into it with all his intensity. Thus we see Monet as the man of action in the true sense, resolving to pour the best of himself into lives of his contemporaries, launching into this perilous adventure with fire in his heart, unrelenting even in times of self-doubt. His life does credit to us all. Nonetheless, where do these dullards come from, chiding him for being so sure of himself, so firm in his convictions, in the face of opposition? Why is it that so often in all this crazy scrambling, even those with iron resolve can feel so tormented about themselves and public opinion? Human beings are what they are, a chaos of good and bad moments in self-understanding, letting us think too well of ourselves and risk thinking too ill of others. From all of that comes a lot of talk, to very little effect. For any chance at success, the one surest thing one can do is try, personally and at all costs, to rid one’s own mind of causes for failure.
Intoxicated with ocean vistas along the quays at Le Havre, the young Monet surely wasn’t giving himself pep-talks; but we have only to look at his work from those early years to see that in his gaze at the world, with his eyes piercing and alive like vibrant arrows, the chimes of his own future were already sounding, and that anything short of complete success would bring him no peace. Very soon, even the lines of his face would firm into the visage of an active and daring soul. Never at rest, his eyes sought for challenge, and always they found it, giddy in a hope that everything in him could be rallied to the cause, even if the effort shattered him.
But that shattering never happened. Moreover, what hasn’t been understood—what Monet himself never dreamed, and what only a few people can now recognize about him—is that in such an adventure there is no “defeat” that isn’t part of the success. First-hand I saw marvelous episodes of this drama unfold—and if readers don’t find them interesting, I hope they’ll grant me the pleasure of telling them to myself on the pretense of telling others. Graceful deeds, rewarding in themselves, gain nothing from ceremonies of adulation; and because for true idealists life is a struggle, victories festooned with triumph and vainglory can sometimes lead to decadence. Monet went to his grave doubting himself—doesn’t that tell us something about how he himself conceived of success?
I see him as an example of the simplest, finest sort of human life; and in writing about him I have wanted to showcase the matchless importance of the plainest truth. The man had no use for publicity; he never sought the cheap thrills of fame. Devoted to sunlight, he gave himself abjectly to the joy of throwing open his windows and seeing—to catch and transmogrify the excitement in the outside world, to ravish his canvases, as it were, with the sheer ecstasy of color.
The world goes on its way in spite of human pronouncements. As creatures on this planet, we respond and grow in accordance with the ebb and flow of natural forces and harmonies all around us. As an artist, Monet understood that fact intuitively, and that such knowledge kept him aloof from the conventions and sophistries of this école and that, in their labor to make the world play by rules commensurate with our own limited understanding, to fit better with our capacity to say things in words, as if the eye weren’t obedient to laws and powers beyond our own. As the cultivation of emotional life, art engages with the enhancement of perception. That was Monet’s project, leading him into his search for new strategies, an intensity pushed further and further in representing the phenomena of light—and in consequence, a heightened awareness for us all as creatures of feeling and thought.
From those very first experiments at Le Havre, this artist, haunted by the dynamics of color, was reaching for the intangible, which we can never apprehend as more than a trace of the endless motions of the universe. If that intent was beyond his reach, it was certainly his right to keep trying; and because he resolved never to accept defeat, we shouldn’t wonder that in excruciating times when self-doubt could not be kept in check, when the fair winds of safe passage seemed to die or shift away, his fears of inadequacy brought from him cries of rage, causing him to tear up canvases that his hard work had brought so far. Indeed Monet knew what it was to lose faith in himself; but in the face of each crisis he soon gathered himself again and pressed on, without pause, on his journey beyond the horizon.
Do we really know what to say of such a man, who feels so compelled to give all to keep alive, in the depths of his heart, his own capacity for hope? In a life or death struggle to realize the fairest of his dreams, he translated onto his palette his very heartbeat, the restlessness of his eye. This is what our ideals demand of us, raising us up, setting us on dangerous pathways in a headlong race into the unknown.
Where then can we find a valid way to compare the aspirations of such great imaginative people, and their quarrels with convention? Sooner or later it all comes down to a few ephemeral acts, when we try to catch and showcase such moments in our lives, amid these storms of eternal change. When and how did such questions occur to Monet? I have said that theories played no part in his work. By his very nature he was intoxicated with the light of every day, every circuit of the sun around the earth. With no care for convention he sought to paint what he saw. Thus he found his way to innovations in style, to breakthroughs in technique that could have wrecked his career and that proved to be his salvation. He became the master of a mode in which his own experiments with oil and brush matched the enchantments of color in the world before his eyes. Culminating so happily with the Nymphéas, this triumphant rising of his own capacity to see owed everything to the ceaseless struggle within him: to keep at bay that abiding fear, the uncertainty as to whether his calling was mere madness or a genuine gift.
“They will call me crazy,” he used to say. Despite those remarks he never let go of his purpose—still, he didn’t dare to release the Nymphéas while he was alive, and there is a lesson in that, about him. And also about us.
This dazzling conquest of light, the sublime music in these landscapes of the Nymphéas, can seem abrupt, sudden in their creation and their effect, though many long years of work went into their making. They required of Monet nothing less than complete accord between his masterful eye and his supremely able hand. As if scorched by fires of sunlit truth, his bold and brilliant eye, so roused by the miracle of the world that every single brush-stroke was tantamount to putting one’s whole career on the line as death came nearer; the hand, in full possession of its artistic skill and responsive to each impulse, yet also mollifying, ordering, connecting, transforming it all into natural sequence and forms. For every stroke of Monet’s brush, “final” as each might seem, is also an experience in time, an instant of transition, guiding us from the moment just now ended into the moment to come.
Days of dizzying fury; days of calm, days of unshakeable resolve. And above all, the unceasing anxiety of a man obsessed with one purpose, fearing nothing so much as falling short in its realization; the kind of fear that comes with the highest hopes. Our wary fellow citizens pursue dreams of their own, of course; but those dreams never soar so high.
Every one of Monet’s paintings bears clear witness to what he tried to achieve, and sometimes his own lively and genial commentary has been a help. But criticism never caught him without a comeback, and a gruff tone or a trenchant mot showed well enough that this man of kindness and laughter had put too much of himself into his art to speak of it with an air of detachment. His intent was to study nature wherever the chase led him, in every aspect and as closely as he could—easy to sum up in this way, though ambitious in the extreme. Neolithic artists in caves had the same purpose, and we should remember that some of them, working with primitive media, were remarkably good at it. On the masters we know and celebrate in the history of painting we have critiques aplenty. They all dedicated themselves valiantly to their work, and in their legacy we see moments of super-human energy and spirit. Thank heavens for that; to recognize the genius of Monet there is no need to demean anyone else. Coming at the right moment, he took us farther along a path where so many other great artists had ventured before.
Luckily there is no need to belabor this point. Fixated on the movement of the human form, Greece in its Golden Age fulfilled its destiny with generations of sculptors whose work will probably never be surpassed, though what we know of Hellenic and Hellenistic painting, from what we can see of it in extant work from Egypt and the frescoes of Pompeii, never surpasses the middling. The advent of religious painting in our Middle Ages, bolstered by the upheavals in Renaissance art, centering on mankind and oblivious or hostile to nature, opened the arts to polytheistic subjects and to Christian mythology, a thematic revolution and a landmark in the history of the West. The story is right there in our museums; one has only to pay them a visit.
As for Monet, I try to accept him as he offers himself, as an artist of his time and in this country. About the bygone masters of his art he felt no envy and offered no critique—they enthralled him, but he didn’t squander his time and energy raving about them. They found in the world what he saw himself, but at a different moment in the history of our ability to perceive. They worked in accord with their own times, respecting traditions and conventions from which they felt no need to detach. In a sense, Monet set out to follow their example closely—but also to risk doing better.
Burdened by preconceptions essential to the rise of human intelligence, artists in ancient times were late in recognizing the role of nature in the cultivation of consciousness. Monet sought mastery of our capacity to feel because feeling had mastered him; it was win or lose, and fate would decide. And because the outcome of any such struggle benefits the vanquished along with the victor, we can take pride in this one man’s mighty struggle won for the good of us all. Honneur aux hommes de bon volonté!
- A famous actress and courtesan, Juliette Drouet had a long and tempestuous relationship with Victor Hugo, commencing in 1833 and ending with her death fifty years later. ↵