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6 Mortal Combat

Burial at Ornans by Courbet
Un Enterrement à Ornans (A Burial at Ornans) by Gustave Courbet.

Even now, after the half-century of struggle from which Nymphéas ultimately emerged, a few critics may still gather here and there to raise objections about the triumph of that work. That might seem surprising. Because I had the luck to play a small part in all this, as a spectator at a few skirmishes, I can recall the fierce struggles in which Monet, Degas, and others were engaged for their very survival, under withering fire from cohorts that seemed both blind and hostile to the light of day.

Consider that Faure, who turned down Le Lever du Soleil sur Vétheuil for fifty francs, was regaled with insults for buying other heretical canvases before. It’s easy to forget how savage this fight was, and how long it seemed that the opposition would win out over this band of innovators, who were insulted, scorned, treated with the utmost contempt by the recognized authorities, who also controlled the purse-strings for our absurd subventions of the arts. Only by a fluke, a set of weird circumstances, did Manet’s L’Olympia find its way into the Louvre.[1] It’s worth remembering that Courbet’s Un Enterrement à Ornans was for a long time hidden in an obscure corner where visitors to our great museum wouldn’t be able to find it. One day, passing with Monet in front of this immortal work, I said to him, “Well, after everything we’ve seen here, if I could walk out with one canvas, this would be it.”

“As for me,” he replied without hesitation, “I’d take L’Embarquement pour Cythère.”[2]

Pilgrimage to Cythera by Watteau
Pélerinage à l’Île de Cythère (Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera), also called L’Embarquement pour Cythère (The Embarkation for Cythera), by Jean-Antoine Watteau.

So it was that the key figure of the Impressionist school, attacked with such virulence by the critical establishment as an iconoclast in art, went on record as an enthusiast for the ethereal skies of Watteau, taking sides with him in this storm of disparagement. Only now are we realizing the deep grounds of that affinity.

To review quickly a few aspects of the controversy: in his well-documented book on Claude Monet, Gustave Geffroy offers a concise summary; and urging the reader to look at that, I will borrow just a few short quotations to suggest what Monet’s predicament was at this time. The outlandishness of these polemics requires firm documentation; because the new mode of painting has now triumphed, we might forget too quickly the invective that these young men were greeted with, when their only crime was seeking a heightened truthfulness in the representation of the natural world. At the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, followed by a sale of their work at the Hotel Drouot, Le Charivari, with no malicious intent, said “Both blurry and brutish, this kind of painting strikes us as both a celebration of ignorance and a denial of beauty and truth. We have had enough of faux eccentricity, as it is too easy to draw attention to oneself by being worse than anyone else has yet dared to be.”

That was just an opening shot. Prices had to be set ridiculously low; the review in Le Figaro also didn’t help to boost them: “We have here in color an indistinctness of the sort that Wagner puts in his music. The impression which these ‘Impressionists’ produce is like a cat walking on a piano keyboard, or a monkey on the loose with a paint-box.” Also from Le Figaro, here is Monsieur Albert Wolff’s critique of the final Impressionist show, in 1876:

“Rue Le Peletier is on a losing streak: after the fire at L’Opéra, the neighborhood has been hit with another disaster. At Durand-Ruel’s gallery a new exhibition has opened that is supposedly a show of paintings. Intrigued by the banners outside, clueless pedestrians drift in, where they come face to face with something awful. Five or six Bedlamites (one of them is a woman), poor devils crazed with ambition, have come together here to show their works…. With canvases, paint-tubes, and brushes, they slop a few colors together at random and put a signature on it. It’s like what we see at Ville-Evrard,[3] where local lunatics gather pebbles along the road and dream they’re finding diamonds.”

After explaining that it’s pointless to try to discuss “either drawing or color” with Degas, this same Albert Wolff continues: “And this pile of vulgarity is shown to the public with no regard for the inevitable consequences: yesterday some sad sack who had just left the exhibition was arrested on Rue Le Peletier for biting passers-by…. The members of this club, knowing full well that their complete lack of any artistic training stops them from ever crossing the abyss between themselves and art,” and so on. I’m sorry to say that I have to count Monsieur Huysmans among this embarrassing crew, for in 1880 he advised Monet and his friends to consult one Dr. Charcot, “noted for experiments on color-perception among the insane at the Salpétière[4] and people suffering from diseases of the nervous system.” By this time Monet had already done some of his best work. Huysmans eventually redeemed himself, however, by supporting the fund-drive to bring L’Olympia into the Louvre.

And finally, here are some choice words from Monsieur Roger Ballu, who in 1877 held the post of Inspecteur des Beaux-Arts[5]: “Monsieurs Claude Monet and Cézanne, pleased to show us what they can do, are exhibiting thirty paintings by the former, fourteen by the latter. These are both laughable and lamentable. They reveal basic ignorance about drawing, composition, and color. When children play with paper and paint, they do better work than this.”

After such eruptions as these, a few people did rally for the defense; but it took time for them to meld into a phalanx with which Philistines in the realms of contemporary culture would have to reckon. Castagnary[6] joined up as early as 1876, though his words were guarded: “I saw the dawn break for this return to simple honesty,” he wrote in Le Siècle, “but I did not believe that things would progress so quickly. It is unmistakable, however, bursting upon us this year. Youth is on the move; and the multitudes, perhaps unaware of what they are doing, are taking their side. These are pictures of the natural world, done with the sole purpose of being true, pictures which allure…. Certainly the Impressionists have played a part in this movement…. For these painters the open air is a godsend; their rediscovery of bright color and their rejection of darkness is a veritable act of faith.”

No less qualified, Burty[7] did excellent work in writing the Salon catalogue of 1875, but did express “reservations about the coarseness of the brush-work, the summary execution of the drawing, the preciousness in some of the details.” You couldn’t defend the Impressionists—or rather, you didn’t dare to—without discriminations like these, to keep readers calm.

All of this helped to lead these fine young artists into a mess of financial trouble, so sadly clear in this letter from Édouard Manet to Théodore Duret[8] in 1875:

My dear Duret:

I went to see Monet yesterday. I found him dejected, truly at rock bottom. He asked me to help him find someone who would take any ten or twenty pictures he liked at a hundred francs apiece. Do you want to join me in helping him—say, five hundred francs each?

Of course we need to assure that nobody—himself above all—knows that we are the ones doing this. I tried to think of a dealer, or some collector or other, but I see a prospect of being turned down.

It’s sad for us to know this situation, and to come away with a real bargain despite our distaste for doing so; nonetheless, we would be helping a man with talent.

Please let me know as soon as possible, or tell me when I should visit you.

As ever,

E. Manet

A credit to everyone concerned, this letter needs no further comment. Besides, with regard to friendship there is no shortage of evidence, precious to Monet in times of self-doubt, and also in times of success. Consider this letter from Octave Mirbeau,[9] which probably dates from between 1885 and 1890:

Look, let’s think a little about this. You feel lost because the snow has melted instead of lingering on the ground as you would have liked. That’s childish. You should have only one thing on your mind: your art. Are you moving ahead with that, or are you letting yourself slide? Those are the only two questions that you should be asking yourself. And I’ll tell you the answers, my friend, and believe me: for the past three years you’ve made gigantic strides. You have made discoveries; your art has expanded, taking on everything imaginable. You are the only artist in our time who has given painting dimensions that it has never had before. And your vision is broadening still. You are at the height of your powers, stronger and subtler than you have ever been, the one whose legacy will last longest after he is gone. And you tell me that you’re foutu? When you were telling me just the other day, about that figure you were doing in full sunlight: “That’s something I’ve never done before, a thrill that my work hasn’t achieved before.” And now you’re foutu? You’re talking nonsense, my dear Monet; and it’s sad that a man of your age, extraordinary as you are and unique in your gifts, is driveling out such stupidities. And I am not alone in thinking this. It’s the view of everyone who follows your work and loves you. “With every landscape,” they say, “this devil of a Monet gives us something new. Even more depth, more insight, finer execution.” And that’s the simple truth. It’s also true that you’re experiencing, without being aware of it, a problem that’s basically physical and a matter of self-perception, for most physical illnesses have their impact on the mind. Get beyond this malady and the rest will take care of itself. Every man of your age has passed through it; it happens to us all.

Because he died too soon, Édouard Manet died poor; Monet, as he lived on, grew rich. When he offered those five hundred francs to help his friend, Manet was probably contributing everything he had on hand. Later, when Monet was finally able to sell his works, he lavished his own help in every direction. Two generous hearts, each worthy of the other.

“And what did you get out of it?” Durand-Ruel was eventually asked. His reply: “It turned out perfectly. One painting that I recall having bought for one hundred and ten francs later went for seventy thousand at a public sale. Another one that I bought for fifty francs was resold I don’t know how many times, each of its owners eventually giving up on it; it went for more than one hundred and ten thousand francs not long ago.”

To me such an increase in value seems significant—but I’ll admit that it would have mattered little to Monet himself, if the market price wasn’t matched by sincere enthusiasm for the work he had done. I don’t forget that the public can be wrong—even the “enlightened” people who inflict on us, in the Grand Salle of the Louvre, the Apothéose d’Homère, the Jeanne d’Arc and La Sultane[10], there beside the Monet self-portrait, L’Olympia, L’Enterrement à Ornans, and so many other true masterpieces. But we can wait for public tastes to catch up, to develop, naturally and inevitably, a new way of seeing, an openness to the spectacle of change and nuance in the natural world. For reality is governed by laws, not by fantasies that have held sway in our minds for much too long; and the greatest of these laws is this constant motion, stage by stage, towards order and unity—and in this process, every insight into these deep harmonies, if only for a moment, is to be cherished.

  1. Actually it was Clemenceau himself, when he became Prime Minister in 1906, who ordered the transfer of Manet’s Olympia into the Louvre from its place of relative exile (with other modern works) in the Palais de Luxembourg, overcoming strong objections from the Institut de France. In 1890, representing Var in the Chamber of Deputies, Clemenceau had been a conspicuous figure in the subscription campaign, led by Monet, to acquire the painting as a national treasure.
  2. In the Louvre, a work by Jean-Antoine Watteau from 1717.
  3. In 1875, an asylum at Ville Evrard à Neuilly-sur-Marne, east of Paris, was established for mentally-ill patients classified as harmless.
  4. A famous teaching hospital in Paris, dating back to the 17th century.
  5. Clemenceau has his recollections scrambled here: Roger Ballu was only 25 years old in 1877; he became Inspecteur Général des Beaux-Arts in 1883. The son of a famous architect, he spent most of his career as a mid-level politician.
  6. A liberal politician and prolific journalist as well as an art critic, Jules-Antoine Castagnary, a close friend of Courbet, was one of the early champions of Impressionism.
  7. Philippe Burty (1830–1890), a friend and champion of Delacroix and Courbet, was a frequent contributor to the influential Gazette des Beaux-Arts.
  8. Like Clemenceau himself, Duret was a fiercely combative politician, as well as an internationally-known art critic who strongly supported the Impressionists.
  9. Largely unknown in the United States, Mirbeau remains famous in France as a novelist, dramatist, passionate political commentator, and champion of many innovative artists in Monet’s lifetime.
  10. Apothéose d’Homère and Jeanne d’Arc au Sacre du Roi Charles VII are both by Ingres, whose work represented for Clemenceau an established high-Romantic pomposity that Impressionism resisted. La Sultane could allude to a more modest painting by Barbault, also in the Louvre—but Clemenceau might be thinking here of some other Oriental-themed work by Ingres, a harem scene or Odalisque showcased and still popular at that time in the museum’s galleries.


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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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