Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of the founders of Impressionism, a type of painting founded on the idea of painting nature as it was perceived, especially outdoor painting (en plein air). He would often paint multiple pictures of the same scene, at different times of the day and at different seasons, in order to capture the way the light would change the colour of what he was looking at. He suffered from cataracts in later life that had an effect on his painting, but curiously not necessarily a detrimental one. The paintings of this period are different, certainly, but still have great beauty, their often foggy appearance giving them almost a magical quality.
“Water lilies” refers to not one picture, but a series of two hundred and fifty works on the subject. He painted them from his own garden, and opted to have no edge to the water, so the lilies fill the entirety of the canvas. Your vision is filled with the serenity of lilies floating, with sunlight reflecting off the water showing the nuances of light, the sky, clouds. When viewing the works in their original size, it is possible to immerse yourself in the dreamlike peace of the water lilies. These pictures are very meditative to me – I can picture myself in that scene, in the serene garden of Giverny, watching the lilies, the quiet of the water, the reflections that are always moving. It is a beautiful way to peace.
“Le Bateau-Atelier” (the Studio Boat), painted in 1876, depicts a fishing boat Monet bought while living in Argenteuil. He built a cabin on the boat big enough to set up an easel, and used it as a floating studio, from where he could paint scenes of the River Seine from a perspective not seen from the shore. He painted the boat itself on a few occasions. In the painting I am referencing here, the aspect that I like the most is the reflection of the boat on the water. He uses the paint in wavy lines to give an impression of the ripples on the water, and consequently the distortions of the boat’s reflection. There is a figure inside the cabin, a silhouette only in the darkened interior. Your eyes are drawn to the water, and to the reflection, even more than the boat itself.
“Red Boats at Argenteuil” is a classic example of the Impressionist ideal of painting outdoor (‘en plein air’) not equating with a realistic depiction. The pristine depiction of shiny boats and clean waters is at odds with the pollution and disarray of this area at this time. It’s a fantasy, but it’s a great one. The red boats at the centre of the piece stand out beautifully against the blue and green waters. The yellow masts cut into the sky, the central one disappearing at the top of the picture. While figures can be seen on the banks and a few of the boats, they are indistinct. The eye is not meant to be looking at them. They are spectators, as are we, of the clean bright boats, ready to set sail, and the peaceful waters. Don’t you want to climb into one of the red boats, unfurl the sail, and find out what there is to see once you move out of the picture? This could be our starting point for new horizons, or even our finish, coming to shore at the end of a wonderful day on the river. I want to go for a sail at Monet’s Argenteuil.
In “Hauling a Boat ashore at Honfleur”, the boat is dark, but stands out against the sunset light reflecting off the water. Three men, fishermen perhaps, haul the boat up onto the sand at the end of a long day. The town of Honfleur is depicted as dark buildings, indistinct against a hill in the fading light. What dominates the picture is the vivid yellow and orange sunset light, against which a lighthouse is clearly outlined, and the water reflecting the colours, the wobbly shadow of the boat on water, the ripples, the obvious exertion of the men at their task. Clouds are tinted pink and purple from the reflected light, and the rising hill blocks out the fading light and puts the town into shadow. While the workers would be unlikely to appreciate their environment I suspect, we can look from the outside and see the open expanse of water, the endless sky, the colours of the setting sun on cloud and sea. We can almost hear the lapping water of the incoming tide, the sound of the wind and the gulls. We can almost be there.
“Rowboat on the Seine at Jeufosse” shows a wild and autumnal scene. The trees and foliage on either side of the river are green, orange and brown. The river is streaks of blue and green, and the sky streaks of white on blue. The way the painting is done in this streaky way suggests violent movement, a wild and blustery day on the river. The rowboat of the title is almost inconsequential, tiny against the movement of nature all around. The reflection of trees onto the water makes it hard for the viewer to tell where the water ends and the land begins. The reflection and the reality are one. How much rowing would you need to do? Everything is in flux in this painting, and the boat might be swept along by the flow, its occupants hanging on for the ride of their lives. It’s an exciting and vibrant picture.
Monet didn’t only paint water pictures, but I find many that I like the most are on the water. He painted light on water in such a way that his pictures seem to move and flow as you watch. He took the world that he saw, and then perfected it, but not in a way that is static or bland. To my mind, Monet was in love with nature, and nature in all its glory is what we seen in his paintings, alive, vibrant, and glorious.