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1 Lessons from a Life

Though we often hear that biographies of “great men” provide a fine education in the arts of living, it’s not easy to come up with a description for greatness. We could, I suppose, try to measure it by tallying up the official honors—but that’s hardly foolproof. When Claude Monet was asked why he wasn’t a man laden with medals and ribbons, his response was a hearty and innocent laugh.

The fact is, human beings sort each other out, fairly or not, on the basis of what they accomplish in life; and whatever lessons we draw from our acquaintance with others depends on what we see of them, and when. Though chance has a lot to do with that, there is no life, no matter how conspicuous or humble, that can’t teach us something—at the very least, about the compassion we should bring to watching other lives unfold.

To help us find our way, our moralizers often resort to examples from histories of “the famous,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, though for reckoning with modern life, it’s hard to find much inspiration from what we know of some in the usual pantheon, the likes of Themistocles or Epaminondas. Even Plutarch, after all, did not look at them carefully, and his book of exemplary Lives includes several where the personal conduct fell a bit short (were I to write at any length about Plutarch himself, I’d question his fondness for Alcibiades, and also his astounding misjudgment of both Aristotle and Phidias, though these were common errors in his time). For famous men to chronicle and praise, Plutarch had plenty to choose from; though the real triumphs of the Hellenistic world lay in the realms of philosophy and art, our Charonean guide paid scant attention to such pursuits; and for that reason we can lose sight, in his company, of the age’s two best embodiments of the humanist ideal. For splendid condensations of those insights, Aristotle should be our source, despite his adulation for Philip of Macedon, who repaid Aristotle by saddling him with tutoring the prince of the realm. And, in the evolution of Greek sculpture, Phidias—until he slid into excesses with ivory and gold—is still perhaps the only master who can be said to have reached the absolute limits of his art, a level of excellence that may never be surpassed. Even so, our wonderful Stagyrite rates only fleeting mention in Plutarch’s chronicle of Alexander, who went tearing like a madman through the Orient. Plutarch does offer a few more words about the Maestro of Marble in another place, in connection with his friend the great orator Pericles, a relationship that didn’t save Phidias from dying in prison. Neither of these two—Aristotle the philosopher, Phidias the artist—qualifies for the Lives pantheon. It’s easier, after all, to chronicle the exploits of soldiers.

I hope the reader will excuse me if I start by indulging myself like this—in seeking, perhaps in vain, to write sincerely and usefully about what I have felt, what I have seen, and what I have loved, about another great artist, who is with us no more.

It’s likely that in all the variety of human experience, a careful inquiry would turn up many more great lives that we might suppose. The troubles reside in how we make those judgments, the difficulty in deciding what really matters, and what doesn’t.

Even so, no drama moves me more deeply than a human life dedicated completely to the service of some high ideal, a life of unquenchable enthusiasm, tempered and guided by a sustained force of will. When detractors of such people rail about the importance of being “well-rounded,” we should remember how, over a span of centuries, one widely-sanctioned model of temperament has eventually given way to some other, often against the resistance of some prevailing atavism. Through all of that, however, our youthful dream, that all this learning and doing that fills our lives will take us somewhere in the direction of the Infinite, never ceases, never yields, through all the contortions of fate, all the obstructions and the outcomes, all the rude surprises that time and nature can inflict on us—the raw material from which we somehow contrive the “unity” of who we are.

To make up our mind about a painter, perhaps we should do nothing more than gaze at the work. If we find ourselves face to face with a recognition that taste is ultimately an individual matter, that’s as far as we can go. Though we try to be social and civil creatures, we also try to affirm our own personality in the process—by which we usually mean a set of contrarian views to which we unsteadily ascribe. This is a problem par excellence, subtending our joy and misery as we live in the world. In our daily experience we come back to this basic question again and again; and if we have made any progress with it as a nation, it might be only that we no longer hang people for saying “yes” or “no” to some prevailing doctrine.

On matters of art, where sheer feeling matters so much, we cannot dismiss judgments that seem to arise purely from our being human. It’s a fact of life that worldly experience transforms our mood, our temperament; and for comprehending these shifts and changes, the artist can match the savant or even surpass him, lifting us out of mundane and mechanical modes of seeing and knowing, leading us to apogees of insight. To put it another way: great art arises from a rare and dynamic rapport between one special sort of human being, the motions and surprises of daily experience, and the infinite heavens above. The better the art is at evoking and sounding all the nuances of human response, and the more deeply the artist immerses himself in this supreme enterprise—so valuable to others on this worldly journey—the closer we all come to doing something truly beautiful, in this drift through the eternities.

And so, dear reader, I’ll take the risk of offering you these thoughts about Claude Monet. His legacy is a sublime moment for the arts and for life itself, as plenty of good critics have said already. What I am looking for here is the human being behind all the work, the man who, having dedicated himself to following the highest aspirations, dared to face the darkest mysteries of life, to gather them up and shape them into something exquisite and complete, driven by an urgency and a will that nothing could turn aside. As Heaven is my witness, there is nothing ordinary about his achievement. And that is what moves me to add a few touches here to the Monet self-portrait, to make clear, as much as I can, the truth about the man who brought so much honor to his times, to his country, to life on this earth.

It wasn’t an easy decision for me to venture these observations about the play of sunlight that characterizes the Nymphéas paintings in the Jardin d’Eau series. As I am neither a painter nor an art critic nor a poet, the most plausible claim I can make is that I might speak for a broad and anonymous public, the people of France for whom these works were completed, and to whom they were given by Monet himself. Because this is a special honor for us all, I will try to be worthy of it here by bearing in mind how this gift was offered: in other words, to represent an emotional openness to universal energies, to fresh insights that help us join in a better understanding of ourselves and the world. This is not just evolution of an aesthetic sort, but rather something deeper and more general in the development of our species; for every improvement in our faculties has a corresponding effect on the evolution of the whole organism.

So “glorifying” Monet is really not my purpose in troubling anyone who takes a chance on this book. All too well, Monet knew what the incense of adulation smells like; in its heady odor he took no pleasure—and now that he is gone, he is beyond all such worldly fussing about what he accomplished. But because Monet did live, he left us something of himself that we must see clearly for the sake—and also for the dignity—of our own cultural future. That is what I am after. I said before that from every human life some lesson can be drawn; what does Monet’s own life tell us? Much about art, of course; but also much about humanity, for all art, like knowledge itself, leads ultimately to expressions of feeling.

Monet was a great lyric artist, and as such he was a man of action. When conjoined, however, these virtues do not guarantee outpourings of admiration from one’s contemporaries. In fact, nothing does a better job of antagonizing the multitudes today than fresh ideas wholeheartedly carried out. Monet was certainly not a man of doctrines; one could say in fact that he shrouded himself in silence and let his bold, free, and passionate brushwork do his talking for him. Always confident in the rightness of his vision, he held ferociously to painting what he saw, and as he saw it, with no regard for atelier conventions that had governed the arts heretofore.

Assailed for all this with implacable violence, there were times when he doubted his own skills; but he never lost faith in his eye, and through valiant effort and ever-rising perseverance, he took dominion in a way that he himself had never thought possible, dying amid the radiance of incomparable success, a triumph that defies the common fate, oblivion. When centuries of time have drifted past this adventure, its glow will only be the brighter.

For the moment, let’s busy ourselves with preparing the way.


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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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