Seeing and Not Seeing

Claude Monet has been around for too long for us to expect any aesthetic surprises—those little shocks to the ocular engine were all absorbed, and rapidly enough, by the salon habitués of the 1860s and beyond. But one must not look a gift horse in the mouth. Some twenty-nine works by the master and his contemporaries—Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas and Sisley among others—have arrived in Sydney thanks to three years of inspired negotiations between Art Gallery of New South Wales Curator Terence Maloon and Dr George Shackleford from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: a second spiritual home for Monet, thanks to a passion for Impressionism among Boston’s artists and wealthy collectors in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

When one considers that looser brushstrokes had begun replacing more manicured surfaces well before Monet (we have only to look at a little gem in this exhibition called Field Outside Paris, painted in 1845 by Constant Troyon), one wonders what all the fuss was about. But fuss there was.  

In many respects, the Paris art world of 1863 was not so different from the one we know today. Art schools flourished and artists were mostly from the comfortable middle classes. There were more than a hundred art dealers negotiating with clients, arranging viewings and exhibitions in Paris and abroad, and guarding their artists like a mother hen with its chicks. Renoir once confessed to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel: “I was weak enough to be unfaithful to you on several occasions … but I have had enough of collectors, and I will not let myself be persuaded again.”

And as everywhere, there were the insiders, favourites and outsiders pressing their noses to the gilded windows hoping to gain admittance. The Salon (originally the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture) was the epicentre of such hopes. It represented the establishment, and success there could jump-start a stream of sales and commissions.

And while that group of disgruntled artists which history would come to celebrate as the Impressionists boycotted the Salon selection process by establishing their own alternative—the Salon des Refusés in 1863—it is of no little significance that Monet, ultimately the most recognised of all of them, backslid, showing his paintings in the Salon in 1880. For this he was harangued by Edgar Degas, who history may reveal was a less uneven painter than his friend and certainly in possession of much sounder compositional skills—as was Manet. Indeed one of the most satisfying works in this exhibition is Degas’s Racehorses at Longchamp. The jockeys’ silks: small blocks of mauve, turquoise, lemon and tan, are disposed across the small canvas to create a set of abstract tiles in a perfectly distilled moment on the racecourse.

The notion of capturing light as it changes its moods, of rendering fugitive atmospheric effects on everyday scenes, encouraged a faster mode of painting, and an outdoor one at that. But the Impressionists never took their eye off the ball. A railway station was always a railway station, a field of poppies was a field of poppies. However, they agitated and scuffed these visions for their canvases with brushstrokes darting and swarming this way and that, like shoals of tiny fish with a predator among them.

Releasing colour from its traditional representational responsibilities was explored with gusto, and shadows themselves became colourful, but it would be left to the Fauves, the Expressionists and the Cubists to fracture the picture plane completely; to tilt and mix perspectives, flatten and distort subject matter, or present it from several viewpoints simultaneously.

Of all the impressionists, Manet created the strongest sensation. First with his Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (in which an unclad pasty-faced lass enjoys a picnic in the woods with two gentlemen in suits) exhibited at the Salon in 1863, and then in 1865 with his Olympia. In more traditional paintings, the female nude usually averts her gaze in order not to meet the viewer’s eye. So we can see why a contemporary Parisian courtesan—staring down the visitors at the Paris Salon, with a business-like hand on her thigh and one insolent satin slipper flicking—created such a furore, notwithstanding those protectors, Baudelaire and Zola, who stepped forward to support her and her creator.

The first official “Impressionist” exhibition—the title being supplied by a critic with his tongue in his cheek—took place in 1874, and many of the works in this generous offering from Boston are indeed “impressions”. The strokes and dashes of paint aim not for precise detail, but for a view that comes together in front of the eye—that is to say, comes into focus—when viewed at a precise distance. Two of Monet’s works in the Sydney exhibition: Port-Goulphar, Belle-Île (purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1949 after years of hand-wringing) and Rough Weather at Étretat, are quite lacklustre in their own way, and almost indistinguishable from Australia’s own impressionist John Peter Russell, an escapee from a foundry-owning family in Sydney, who painted with Monet at Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, in the late 1880s.

While technology plays the role of handmaiden, she usually keeps her accomplishments out of the spotlight. In the 1840s new dyes were discovered which extended the range of colours available to painters, and the appearance of lead paint tubes which could be stored, squeezed and rolled up, facilitated the less structured activity of painting outdoors—or at least beginning outdoors and applying the finishing touches in the studio. Steamships were crossing the Atlantic regularly, making it easier for enterprising dealers like Durand-Ruel to have access to an American market bulging with wealthy collectors.

Newspapers, journals and periodicals exploded in number in the second half of the nineteenth century. Literacy had increased dramatically and there was an appetite for art journalism. Monet apparently fumed: “Today, nothing can be achieved without the press; intelligent connoisseurs are sensitive to the least noise made by newspapers.” Nonetheless, Louis Leroy, who wrote reviews to supplement his income, may have done Monet a favour after reviewing an exhibition at the Société Anonyme des Artistes in 1874, by singling out Monet’s Impression: Sunrise for an expression of journalistic whimsy, calling it “impressionism”.

In some respects it is perplexing that Monet became and remains the best known of the impressionists. As the art historian Ernst Gombrich pointed out, stylistic developments in art are invariably the result of individual technical accomplishment—not of historical or political determinants. Thus individual discoveries by certain artists were (and are) quickly taken up by those around them, not unlike a classroom of children all catching a cold at the same time.

Certainly the efforts of his dealer played a part. Durand-Ruel not only exhibited a large number of Monet’s canvases, he also energetically promoted him and on occasions acted as banker. Durand-Ruel had begun by selling works by the Barbizon painters, many of which, on inspection, are just a mere brushstroke away from what we call Impressionism today. It was Charles-François Daubigny, one of the earliest advocates of painting outdoors (plein air) who introduced Monet to his dealer. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 Durand-Ruel moved to London and opened a gallery in New Bond Street, and in 1888 he was sufficiently confident of Impressionism’s momentum to open a gallery on Fifth Avenue, New York.

While Monet championed the spontaneous recording of atmospheric effects and changing light patterns, and this in part determined the speed with which he worked, his paintings on the whole have far less of that thing Degas called “magic instantaneity”, while if we examine Degas’s works, we see it everywhere. Also, in one of the true gems of the exhibition, Cezanne’s The Pond, circa 1877–79, the brushstrokes have been disciplined in a way that suggests Cézanne knew the virtue and the importance of every one of them. The sparkle and freshness of this work make a number of Monet’s works in the exhibition look hectic and unresolved.

One Impressionist who does not make an appearance at all is Georges Seurat. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston owns not a single work by this quite radical practitioner, whose singular style demanded its very own subtitle: Pointillism. Seurat worked with tiny dots of paint to distil those elements of impressionism which suited him, such as coloured shadows, and produced works of careful rhythms and pure silence.

Every artist can have a bad paint day; some have many. Eager collectors who lack a finely calibrated aesthetic and who may see a painter’s work on the wall as a trophy to be brandished, rather than a source of private pleasure, will find themselves with less than perfect examples of the painter’s work. These too can find their way onto state museum walls and thence into the history books, or at least a range of catalogues. Some of the paintings in this exhibition are lacklustre. Valley of the Creuse (Sunlight Effect) is one such, The Waterlily Pond, with its raw colours, is another.

Because of his poor compositional skills and his pedestrian perspectives and viewpoints, Monet’s most compelling works are his most eccentric: the Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral and of course his Houses of Parliament, which have moved beyond self-conscious brush work to quivering near-abstractions. Four works in particular hold our attention in this exhibition: Charing Cross Bridge (Overcast Day) which dissolves its subject in a veil of haze, Meadow at Giverny with a concentration of pure light and lime green pigment, Rouen Cathedral Façade and Tour d’Albane (Morning Effect) and Boston’s Grainstack/Haystack (Sunset). Here at last, we see Monet thinking along the same lines as Cézanne, whose every equivocation was held suspended in the subliminal grids of his canvas.

Fifteen of Monet’s “Haystacks” were exhibited in Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery in 1891, and astonishingly, all sold within three days, an event which confirmed his reputation as the most financially ascendant of the Impressionists. By 1892 he had begun on his Rouen Cathedral series, which were among the most deliquescent of his works. In Rouen Cathedral the indigo façade shimmers, dissolves and reforms itself in a single moment’s scrutiny. Thus did Monet give expression to the fleeting and mysterious nature of “seeing”—and not seeing.

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