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9 Critique of the Critics

Before I finish, allow me to bring into this conversation a famous professional art critic, an admirer of Monet but also a rigorous metaphysician, who insists that in the Nymphéas the artist leads us down primrose paths into an abyss of Nothing.

The proposition that modern painting’s special interest in light begins with Corot, I will happily concede to Monsieur Louis Gillet, whose lovely short book Trois Variations sur Claude Monet[1] praises his eye as “the finest with regard to nuance,” and lauds him for his “prodigious skill as a colorist.” Fair enough: so where do we go from there?

First, Monsieur Gillet takes us back to fundamentals about Monet’s technique, reviewing the well-known “theory of color classification:”

“Simple colors are more intense than compound colors. Therefore, because violet is a combination of red and blue, do not mix the components on the palette or the canvas if you want the color to be strong with no loss of radiance. Instead place dabs of pure red and pure blue beside one another, allowing the mixture to be perceived as violet by the retina. This is ‘mélange optique.’”

Having covered that, our writer freely acknowledges that this ostensible secret is now in the ABC’s of every colorist, though he concedes that Monet deserves the credit for having brought it into practice. He holds that it opened for Monet a unique “poétique” that led him into “the deconstruction of light and color, to transform even shadows into colored locales, to see everything as suffused, as afloat on floods of air, showing us the world as a kind of dream play. Shapes grow indistinct; boundaries seem to waver in a pale and glimmering aura. Everything transforms into dazzle and glow. The reality we know seems to deliquesce, a dance of atoms” weaving “fabrics of illusion in the void. No painter has ever worked harder to deny the material world.” Isn’t that a lot to read into the strokes of an artist’s brush?

I hope Monsieur Gillet will allow me to play heretic here and look at things a bit more simply. First, anyone who knew Monet can attest that as an artist he never harbored a poétique or any other kind of theory that might dictate or constrict his style. What was revealed to his sight he took for truth, and he dedicated himself tirelessly to painting what he saw. Nothing less; nothing more; that was enough. Monet would never have accepted that any doctrine should make a difference in how he looked at the world and how he worked. That was his one rule, and I don’t think anyone ever knew him to have any other. To put it bluntly: it seems to me that this is the secret of all great painters. Each of them saw reality in his own way. This is what makes them individual talents, and when we look to their interpretation of nature, let’s not get off on the wrong foot by interpreting them with formulations they themselves wouldn’t have believed.

Though the point might seem trivial, I am stressing it here because Monet’s deconstruction of sunlight is by no means obtained as Monsieur Gillet would have us think, by mélange optique, juxtaposed dabs of color. I have looked as closely at the Nymphéas panels as anyone else; I have often observed in them strokes of almost pure color, applied here and there for vivid effect, passionately at times, yet never profligate. The rest comes entirely from Monet’s palette, and if Monsieur Gillet doesn’t believe me, I encourage him to go and look for himself.

So what is the problem here? It is simply the fact that no two people see the world in exactly the same way, and that all we can ask of an artist worthy of the name is an interpretation of the world accessible to human eyes with an average sort of training. Monet’s genius as an observer is that from less than one meter away from his own work, a mass of different colors and mingled tones, juxtaposing, superimposing, all in an expanse of hopeless complication, he could see and represent his subject as if he were much farther away. I cannot account for this, other than to imagine that his eye could shift in a flash from one viewpoint to the other. Without daring to explain how that happens, I’ll simply note the obvious: that these delicate, errant streaks of color, puzzling to us at first, take on form and significance as we step back, showing us movement and nuance in the most surprising ways. Somewhere down the line our children may have an explanation for this phenomenon; for the moment, why not relax and admire it?

For to enjoy Monet’s art in its fullness, we needn’t pause too long before this miraculous chaos of color, these bursting rockets thrown so boldly skyward, these arabesques that confound our notions about form and design amid the play of sunlight. As a coinage to describe all this, Monsieur Gillet’s poétique tells us nothing; surmiracle is what we have here, the revelation of our world as a place of spectacular enchantment, more beautiful and more knowable than any vision of reality we have seen before.[2]

In fact, at this point the marvels ramify, and the world opened to us by these brush-strokes becomes so much more than a fantasia; revealed to us emotionally, these alternative truths correspond to dimensions that we also encounter in the adventure of modern science. Referring to the “dance of the atoms” creating their “fabrics of illusion in the void,” Monsieur Gillet concludes that Monet’s art amounts to a “negation of materiality.” He has it backward: on a visit to Jean Perrin’s laboratory, he would see Brownian motion first-hand, as well as the contrails of atoms and electrons recorded on glass plates. Then, perhaps, he might be less doubtful about what he disparagingly calls the “atomic dance” and the “storm of jangled nerves that constitute visual experience,” allowing him to favor illusion over physical truth. Then he would understand the poudroiement, this all-out deconstruction that he admires in Monet’s work—but that moves him to doubt the existence of subjects so thoroughly scrutinized.

We can get beyond that. When we see Monet’s brush-tip breaking the natural world down to such elemental particles, it is enough to delight in these transfigurations, so much like those revealed in the modern sciences. I won’t pretend that Monet is showing us “the dance of the atoms”; I affirm only that he has helped us take a great step towards an emotional comprehension of reality through heightened awareness of the dispersions of natural light—in line with what physics has discovered about oscillations, frequencies, waves. If our scientific understanding of the universe changes again, Monet’s achievement, this progress for us all in our intuitive response to nature, will always merit our respect, no matter what the future brings.

Having taken issue with Monsieur Gillet on such matters of epistemology, I hasten to pay homage to him for his appreciation of Monet’s art, a commentary well suited to the achievement of Nymphéas. In a sense they belong together, representing marvelous possibilities in the act of seeing, the variety that meant so much to Monet. There is no point thinking of the water-lily panels as “mirages unrelated to anything beyond themselves.” Yes, I understand that mirage means a subjective experience, a trick of the light or the mind. But what business do we have inflicting the term on representations like these, that meet true standards of objectivity? Without batting an eye, this writer tells us that Monet “indulges in festivals of subjectivity showcasing the impoverishment of the real.” Should we say this about Creation itself? Jehovah, any thoughts on that?

As an outsider, I truly am disconcerted by heresies that Monsieur Gillet’s argument seems to lead to—out beyond what he intends—when he says that “there is not enough life in Monet’s subject matter.” I’d like to hold him for a few minutes in front of that self-portrait in the Louvre. Subsequently he says that “this hymn of Monet’s is one of the most beautiful we have to the omnipresent Nothingness.” So now we have Monet as the ultimate adventurer, making Something out of Nothing, like the Creator in Genesis? Monet is also reproached along the way for not being a pastoralist in the tradition of Virgil. I can accept that; I like Virgil, in the same way as I like Raphael and Leonardo. In other words I live in my own moment, not in theirs; and the insights that Monet gives to us are appropriate to what we have now learned about seeing, and also about how to see. I am not interested in the pointless business of sorting out the great poets. It is enough to rank them according to the values of their own age, and Monet is no more Homeric than he is Virgilian or Dante-esque; and any such likening we would soon come to regret. I’ll go so far as to say that the Nymphéas make me think of Shakespearean settings in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—but a thought like that does not really connect Monet to Shakespeare or vice versa. What they share at most is their evocation of realms somewhere between the dream and the waking world, taking us as far as we can go in experiencing both at once.

So my disagreement with Monsieur Gillet is about philosophy, not art. I very much admire his thoughts about the Nymphéas and his genial eloquence as a writer. But to this brutally reductive observation there can be no assent: “To admire the enchantment produced by sunlight and these veil-dances of the weather, to gaze at these skeins of deception, to overspread natural forms with marvels of façade—Monet never grew tired of this.” There is no valid way to connect Monet’s spontaneous and intuitive art with some kind of systematic inquiry into the metaphysics of the Unknown, and he would have rejected that suggestion outright. To the limits of his ability he dedicated himself representing things as they are.

Even so, I am happy to encourage readers to consult Monsieur Gillet’s skillful descriptions of Monet’s paintings. As an interpreter he is conscientious, describing what he can see—and he would have done better by thinking more about physics than metaphysics. But for him the revelation of hidden truths by the brushwork of Nymphéas can be only a set of surfaces concealing some “X” of which he can speak only as negation. I see that as insulting to Monet, when he can no longer speak for himself.

With those reservations aside, I can be grateful to Monsieur Gillet for his lyricism in describing L’Étang des Nymphéas, and his charming appreciations will help people understand these pictures. Sincere, forthright, and knowledgeable in his respect for Monet, he blends admiration and intellectual engagement with these paintings as thoroughly as he knows how. Of course I am doing the same thing here, with no concern for any disagreement with me that might be afoot. His conclusion is appealing, as he sums things up with reference to the Asian traditions of Tao—left a bit vague here, perhaps, but summarized as a search for the path, a Chinese conception of evolutionary process. Also I am delighted to close this chapter with his beautiful description of the Nymphéas as we encounter them on exhibition: “Stunning paintings free of border and form, like a wordless canticle… where without benefit of structure, without embellishment, story, fable or allegory, bodiless and faceless, and with only the powers of color, this is pure lyricism, an outpouring, a human heart open and innocent, a song of emotion.”

These lovely words, I dare say, would have pleased Monet, though once more I need to add that Monet neither expressed nor needed any theory to explain himself or his art. He was who he was, and couldn’t imagine being otherwise. With his strong and confirmed temperament, he felt alive only in his dedication to his values and his work. His commitment was organic, physical; there was no turning aside. As the most victorious of our vanquished heroes, Brutus said to his legions: “All of us must face the enemy; there is no saying who shall return.” Such calls for complete sacrifice Monet had no need to tell himself, or to hear. Pouring his energy into his art, his will, and his daily work, he lived that principle, with nothing less than everything he had.

  1. Paris: Librarie Plon, 1927.
  2. …again, with the exception of Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère [Clemenceau’s parenthesis].


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Claude Monet: The Water-Lilies and other writings on art Copyright © 2017 by Bruce F. Michelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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