Monday, September 1, 2008

"My God, What an Eye!"

Claude Monet, Poplar Trees, Evening, 1891

My students love Monet. There have been times when I've had to limit the number of papers on him. Monet's paintings in the Metropolitan Museum are the high point of many a field trip.
And who can really argue with them? These are lovely paintings full of color and soaked in light. This painting in particular is one of my favorites in the Met. Monet beautifully and convincingly recreates a very fleeting moment of sunlight. The setting sun brilliantly illuminates the trees in the background, while the trees lining a canal in foreground remain in shadow creating a kind of screen between us and the bright distance.

My students look at all this loveliness, and insist in paper after paper that these paintings are about some kind of spirituality. I'm afraid not. There's nothing the least bit spiritual anywhere in Impressionism or in this picture (unless you want to really stretch the whole spirit-as-metaphor business).
Monet's paintings are about seeing, and in a very literal and direct sense. He studied the new science of optics, everything from Newton's spectrum and color wheel to the theories of Fresnel. He was  acquainted with the new physics of light and color pioneered by Fresnel that described visual light as a series of wave lengths. Red was one wave length and green was another.  Monet discarded the traditional classical palette layout that arranged colors by tone (from white to black on the gray scale), and divided them between warm and cool.  Monet created a new palette based on the spectrum.  He banished black entirely from his palette.  The scientists described black not as a color itself, but as the absence of light and color.  Claude Monet was one of the first artists to take advantage of the wide range of brilliant colors made newly available by industrial manufacturing.  Bright colors were once very expensive, rare, difficult to make, and chemically unstable.  Ultramarine blue was once the most expensive of all pigments, made from imported and ground up lapis lazuli and very difficult to make.  Now the exact same color, identical in chemical content and even superior  in quality, could be made cheaply from coal tar.  New brilliant pigments made from cadmium, chromium, and titanium became available and were relatively inexpensive. 

This painting is about how a whole moment of evening light is made up by the colors of the spectrum.   Just as in the Boulevard des Capucines, everything in the painting is given the exact same attention and the same stroke of the brush.  Now, each stroke contains a separate color from the spectrum creating the warm lights and cool shadows of the early evening light.  The screen of poplars and their reflection in the water in the foreground create a beautifully simple framework on which to arrange these nuances of light and color.
Picasso once said of Monet, "He was only an eye, but my God, what an eye!"

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