Understanding Monet's Impressionism
There are four basic concepts that Monet used over
and over to describe the fundamentals of his art. These are: motif, effect
(éffet), fairylike (feérique) and decoration. (More about Monet's theories of color and light.)
Monet, like most of his Impressionist colleagues, was absolutely committed to painting the facts. Not deviating from this basic tenet of Impressionism, Monet chose his subjects, or motifs, with care. It was commonplace during Monet's era for painters to take elements from different locales to compose a landscape. Monet, however, went to great lengths to place himself where he could see the lines of the landscape lock together into structural patterns. In order to find the right motif, Monet scaled sheer cliffs at Etretat, imposed on strangers on holiday to use their balcony to paint a flag-strewn street, and snuck past railway officials at the Gare Saint-Lazare. It was Monet's dedication to the purity of the motif that caused him to create gardens wherever he lived. By the time he lived and painted in Giverny, Monet employed six full-time gardeners to create the gardens that inspired his water lilies canvases.
The term effect (éffet) refers to a particular light condition. Earlier landscape painters had a limited range of effectsdawn, daylight, storm, or dusk in their repertoire. By contrast, Monet recognized hundreds of different effects. He carried his realism so far as to refuse to continue a painting as soon as the effect had changed, which could happen in a matter of minutes. In order to remain true to his vision, Monet needed to be able to analyze and transcribe his "impressions" at lightning speed. He also had to return many times to the same site to wait for the return of a particular effect in order to finish the painting. To overcome the challenge of capturing the evanescent effect, Monet eventually began to take several canvases to a single spot, working on them all in turn as one effect was replaced by the next. In this way, Monet was able to capture the most transient beauties in exacting detail.
Fairylike (feérique) was a word used by the Impressionists to describe the interaction of motif and effect, or subject and light, in a way that provoked wonder and enchantment. Later in his career, Monet experienced genuine observations that were charged with strange effects of light, creating a mirage-like atmosphere. This can be seen especially in his Rouen Cathedral paintings where the stone appears to be dissolving in colored mists and in his Thames canvases, where the water of the river appears to be on fire. These works celebrate something magical and yet at the same time realsomething that can be perceived and yet not understood. It was Monet's belief and experience that becoming truly open to perception could create a natural state of wonder. He felt this was the true purpose of his art.
Unlike its connotation in English as a type of frivolous embellishment, which most consider to be antithetical to "pure art", the term, decoration, was used by the French to denote several different qualities in art:
- ornamentationincluding stylization, repetition and flatness
- deliberate artificialityas seen in the art of the stage set
- mural ensemblesintended to create a mood in a room
Decorations must make sense regardless of where the viewer stands in the room, therefore the artist can't rely on traditional notions of perspective. In Monet's final masterpiece, Water Lilies, which he created as a mural in the Orangérie of the Tuileries, space seems to expand in all directions at once. In addition to this remarkable manipulation of perspective, Monet utilized the thick, irregular ridges of his brushstrokes to catch the reflected light in the room and enhance the glittering surface and tantalizing depth of the painted water.
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