Everyday Wonder: The Eyes of Claude Monet

“Roses are red, violets are blue.”

This simple adage described most art for centuries. It was a basic philosophy for painters ever since prehistoric people sketched animals on cave walls. A Neanderthal would color a bull ochre. A landscape artist would paint a rose red. A still life painter would paint an apple yellow. A portrait artist would paint a patron’s cloak black. Different shades, to be sure, but objects from roses to apples to cloaks to bulls were mainly monochromatic. As recently as the nineteenth century almost all paintings were “realistic.” They showed the object as it was. Paintings were realistic presentations of how a bowl of fruit or a monarch actually looked.

“Roses are red.” At least they were for painters, until a major invention liberated the world of painting. Its offspring continue to shake and redefine the world today. The invention was the camera.

Primitive cameras date to the 1830’s, 1840’s and 1850’s. The early history of photography was marked primarily by advances in materials:  lenses, prisms, apertures, paper and chemicals. In the late 1880’s, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, began to manufacture film for the masses. By the close of the century, cameras, film and photography were becoming widespread.

Visionary artists of that era began to seize the opportunity to paint differently.  It became clear that photography rendered realistic painting redundant. Why should someone paint what was objectively obvious to the naked eye when a photograph could capture the same image more quickly and accurately?

It is no coincidence that the rise of the Impressionist art movement in France began in this era. Instead of focusing on technological changes (lenses or paint, paper or canvas), they embraced a subjective change in the artist.  Impressionists claimed that the proper focus of painting was no longer the object … but the artist. No longer should we seek the “objective” entity in itself, but how the painter perceives it.  No longer the thing alone, but the artist’s impression of that thing.

The pioneer of this shift is usually recognized as the French artist Claude Monet (1840-1926). His genius lay in his deep observation of the world about him. His careful and attentive gaze revealed to him not just “red,” but what made up “red.”

He was captivated by nature. “My king is the sun,” he once said, “my republic is water, my people are flowers and leaves.” The kingdom of nature, like every realm, is governed by time. A day begins and ends. Light appears, shines, moves and diminishes as the day passes. Seasons emerge and retreat. Monet’s art depicts, writes one critic, “the instability of a universe that changes constantly before our eyes.”  Apples on a spring morning are not identical to apples on a fall afternoon. Monet’s devotion to the natural world revealed to him the rich diversity that an object reflects over time.

He saw in red chrysanthemums, for example, a diverse dance of orange, yellow and white. He painted those flecks.  He saw in his garden roses splashes of violet, pink and purple. He painted those splashes. The smoke from a train pulling into a station wasn’t simply grey. He saw and painted its blues, its whites, its blacks and its purples. In the everyday world around him, Monet brought a loving and radical attentiveness to his easel. He did so day after day, month after month, seeing and painting fresh perspectives for years.

A different, newer adage that might describe Monet’s impressionism is a lyric from James Taylor. “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time,” Taylor wrote.  Monet reveled in how light and time and seasons actually, in the Biblical phrase, “make all things new.” Monet  delighted in how the passing of time created new colors, new textures, new perspectives in the ordinary components of everyday life. His delight produced 19 versions of the Parliament in London, 34 views of Charing Cross Bridge, 41 observations of the Waterloo Bridge, and over 250 perspectives on the waterlilies in his French garden.

As a casual admirer of Monet’s work, I had long thought of his paintings as “too feminine,” too pastel, too misty and sentimental for my taste. On a recent Saturday my wife discovered an exhibit in Washington, D.C.,  called “The Immersive Experience: Claude Monet.”  That morning we walked into an amazing world of projection technology that recreated around us Monet’s pre-technological world.

We sat in a large hall that became the Parisian train station “Gare Saint-Lazare” and were enveloped by the swirling smoke of the locomotives. We sat among large projected plants and lilies of his Giverny garden. We understood how he saw beneath the illusion of a solid color to convey its component yellows, greens and reds. We saw a simple grey bucket on a table. With Monet-like vision we noticed it was not a uniform grey but a palette of tan streaks, black dots, a green smudge and a thin rusty orange line.

Monet painted by seeing through the named and recognizable object he was observing and attending to the uniqueness of what was actually before him. Monet’s art was, in a sense, worship of the creation as it was, filtered through a unique awareness, no longer the casual replication of the familiar.  “To see,” he said, “we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.”  Do not let the habit of recognition, in other words, rob you of wonder and awe at what is actually before you. His paintings invite the viewer to “see more,” and to realize that the surface of any object is visually inexhaustible.  It is something unique to this day, this moment, this unrepeatable now.

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho understands the same “secret of life” that guided Monet: “You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own.  It’s just a matter of paying attention to the miracle.”

Monet invites us to see the beauty in the ordinary. He invites us to see as he saw, the unrepeatable particularity of flowers, flags, buildings, plants and gardens. We too are surrounded by the everyday beauty of men and women eating lunch, waiting for a train, opening an umbrella, or reading a book. He opens to us the ever-changing wonder of fields and clouds, mist and rain, smoke and fog. He even hoped more than once that he could paint the air.

If it’s true that God is in the details, Monet presents us the holy wonders that routinely make up our world. He beckons us through his art to his vision of everyday wonder. His paintings whisper, “Pay attention to the miracle.” We can.

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