TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1982

APPROACHING THE ABYSS: MONET’S ERA

“ALL GARDENING IS LANDSCAPE PAINTING.” The sentence is attributed to Alexander Pope, the reigning prince of 18th-century English poets. In 1719 at the age of 31, Pope moved 15 miles up the Thames from London to a riverfront property called Twickenham and resided there for his remaining 25 years. Digging an elaborate, shell-encrusted tunnel under Hampton Court Highroad, which divided his five-acre estate in two, he designed and constructed not a formal garden after Versailles but something in the new style of an English “romantic” garden. This vision of landscape can be traced variously to John Milton’s descriptions of the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost, and to essays by William Temple, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and Joseph Addison. Pope himself was one of its principal instigators and theorists. In an irregular yet carefully laid-out design, he built walks, vistas, mounts (or little hills to provide outlooks), clumps, sculpture, dense woods, and a kitchen garden. Imitating Horace, he wrote:

Content with little I can piddle here On Broccoli and mutton round the year . . .
Satire II, ii

All this was no idle pastime; it formed a part of his essential outlook:

To build, to plant, whatever you intend, . . .
In all, let
Nature never be forgot. . .
He gains all points who pleasingly confounds,
Surprizes, varies, and conceals the Bounds.
Consult the
Genius of the Place in all,
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall . . .
Now breaks, or now directs, th’intending Lines;

Paints as you plant, and, as you work, Designs.
An Epistle to Lord Burlington, 1731

Pope designed the landscape he desired to live in and then (in addition to making sketches of it himself) indirectly discoursed upon it in poem after poem. He even installed in his grotto-tunnel an optical device dear to artists since the Renaissance, and described it in strikingly prophetic terms in a letter to Edward Blount. “When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a camera obscura; on the Walls of which all objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats are forming a moving Picture in their visible Radiations.” The principal product of Pope’s garden at Twickenham was the constant stimulus it gave his imagination by its changing vistas, moods, and seasons. The place had a genius worthy of his.

A decade after Pope’s death, his friend Voltaire left Geneva at age 66 to move across the French frontier to a 500-acre estate in Ferney where he too immediately began redesigning his chosen environment, upon which he imposed the very lines of his thinking. That thinking was more formal and all-encompassing than Pope’s. While his incredible literary production never flagged, Voltaire saw to it that there was a constant round of theatrical productions, balls, pag eants, banquets, and magic lantern shows. In this rural community, liveried footmen in powdered wigs announced the guests as they entered the salon. At the same time, “there was one field which no one else was allowed to touch, and which Voltaire ploughed and sowed himself.”1 He had, after all, composed the famous sentence at the end of Candide, “Cultivons notre jardin.” Pope and Voltaire gave new resonance to Pope’s expression, “the Genius of the Place.”

Claude Monet moved to Giverny on the Seine at the age of 42 to remain there for the next 43 years. He was not retiring from active work any more than Pope or Voltaire had done. Even more than they, though with far less philosophical and social ideology to direct him, he set about to transform his bare and almost unproductive property—traversed like Pope’s by a road, and also by a railroad—into his personal domain, the very pasture of his mind. He gradually abandoned his monthly visits to Paris and his dinners with other painters at the Café Riche. As time went on, his frequent travels to London and Britanny, and later to Venice, ceased. Increasingly, even before his wife’s death in 1911, his life in Giverny consisted of eating well, sleeping well, painting all day after beginning before sunrise, and gardening. This last responsibility grew with the size of the property, with the size of his staff (he employed six full-time gardeners for the last twenty years or so), and with the artist’s ambitious plans for diverting streams, building ponds and bridges, and planting flowers in prearranged color combinations. The older Monet got, and the higher the prices his paintings commanded on the market, the more ambitious his landscape plans became—and the more Nature seemed to take over. The flower beds, the ponds, even the house disappeared under a great welling-up of vines, foliage, overhead arches, and trellises. Monet’s last paintings are celebrations and extensions of his plantings.

William Seitz, one of the earliest and best of the critics of the Monet revival, points out that the garden at Giverny successfully mediated between two opposed tendencies in his art: the desire to paint in front of the motif, en plein air; and the desire to create huge decorative canvases too large to trundle around conveniently out of doors.2 In the form of a garden he combined the controlled, compact environment of the studio with the open, natural spaces of the outdoors, reconciling inside and outside. Even more effectively than Pope and Voltaire had done, Monet designed his chosen garden spot as a living and working milieu with a direct operational relationship to his creative life as an artist. As the walls grew higher, this vision of himself in the landscape became more personal, more intense, and a little mad.

During the time at Giverny, Monet’s painting underwent changes so profound that he seems to have entered a second career. I want to distinguish several aspects of this evolution and the continuity that guided it. To begin with, anyone who surveys Monet’s paintings after 1883 is bound to notice the gradual dwindling and final disappearance of the human figure. Two matched paintings of a rowboat illustrate the process dramatically and almost humorously. The Pink Boat, 1885, contains two seated human figures; the same highly enclosed landscape, entitled The Boat, 1887, shows an empty boat and no traces of the rowers.3 People make their last stand as mere specks in the London series done in 1903. This expulsion constituted a turning away from significant motifs of the time. Abandoning the picnics, cafés, railroad stations, and lively street scenes of his earlier years, Monet had renounced the whole tradition of “l’héroisme de la vie moderne” that came down from Charles Baudelaire through Edouard Manet. Unlike Rembrandt, who hovered more and more over the most expressive features of the human form, Monet restricted himself to the forms and colors of Nature, cleansed of the human presence. At the end he was painting Eden after the fall, when the garden was growing up to obliterate all traces of earlier occupancy, a wistful paradise which eventually came to effect a new relation to mind and to appearance.

In work of the same period one also discerns a contraction of space in Monet’s compositions, in which all objects move up close, cutting off the sense of open distance and of vast skies filled with light. Monet’s double cataract and incipient blindness in his last years no doubt contributed to some of these changes. But this still doesn’t explain why Monet began, around 1900, to tilt his point of view downwards so as to exclude the horizon and often to eliminate any recognizable point or passage that the spectator could use for orientation. And finally, by a compensating reaction of major significance for modern art, the canvases tended to become larger and larger as the actual field of vision became smaller.

In all these respects Monet was going counter to Impressionist practice. He left behind the world of light-saturated space occupied by beautiful people in 19th-century costumes. He left behind the small, rapidly-brushed easel paintings which, from the 1870s on, had declared their opposition to the enormous paintings meticulously built up in studio conditions for the official Salon. The stocky old man whose dark beard had now turned white addressed himself resolutely to a new adventure of his own.

Monet used a revealing vocabulary to describe his undertaking. Many of the Realist and Impressionist painters of the 19th century were inclined to talk of their work as a struggle. “The study of the beautiful, wrote Baudelaire in Le Confiteor de l’artiste, one of his most painterly prose poems, ”is a duel in which the artist cries out in fright before being overcome." Caricaturists loved to represent the Impressionist painter as literally dueling with his canvas. But that was not Monet’s metaphor. At the end of letter after letter to Paul Durand-Ruel and Frédéric Bazille and Georges Clemenceau, he habitually employed two down-to-earth words to describe his daily activity: Je pioche (I’m hoeing my row. I’m opening new ground with my mattock. I’m hacking away.). In other words, he unconsciously associated wielding a brush with wielding a gardening tool. That association helped liberate him as a painter.

Monet did not abandon all his loyalties to the original Impressionist ideals. According to his own repeated statements he continued to put on canvas only what he saw with his own eye en plein air. But he had constructed so elaborate an observation post, with extended paths, prepared sites, and three studios, that it was hard to know when he was inside and when he was outside. And, as the most astute critics sensed when they saw the Durand-Ruel exhibit of 48 water lily paintings in 1909, Monet had taken a further step. He was practicing painting to the second power, painting within painting. The scenes he observed around the lily pond and along the flower beds were already painted—that is, created by his landscape gardening. In his late works Monet realized the consequences of applying Pope’s law that all gardening is landscape painting. After 1895 or so the subject of Monet’s canvases, their “content,” is not so much “nature” as painting itself, the painting of a master gardener. In 1907, without having visited Giverny, Marcel Proust instinctively grasped the significance of that garden: “. . . it is a true artistic creation even more than a model for pictures, itself a picture executed in nature as it comes to light under the gaze of a great painter.”4

Initially one could say that Monet was investigating a new form of the picturesque. He painted pictures of a landscape already designed to lend itself to painting. A kind of esthetic amplification sets in that can become as overwhelming in certain canvases as the scream of feedback in a P.A. system. But when Monet succeeded in adjusting his palette, his scale, and the formal patterns of his disappearing motifs to one another, he left the picturesque far behind. In the late “Japanese Footbridge” series, for example, the carefully arranged elements of domesticated countryside display qualities of plasticity and formal invention that we associate with Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Paul Cézanne in their still-life paintings. Paradoxically, the gardens at Giverny led Monet not to landscape painting but to a form of monumental still life.

Whatever his reputation as a crusty recluse, Monet was not one to isolate himself totally from the world. He signed a document in defense of Dreyfus, and for two decades battled the bureaucracy to have the State purchase Manet’s Olympia for the Louvre. Gustave Geffroy, his biographer, assures us that he continued to read widely in literature “with sensitive and confident taste.” But this partly self-taught painter, who had found the basis of his style in the 1870s and established himself as the standard bearer for the Impressionist school, did not pay much heed to later developments in painting that crowded Impressionism off to one side or back into history. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism—all these tendencies arose before Monet’s death in 1926, without leaving any noticeable trace on his art. For he had found his line, and he pursued it according to its own inner logic and dynamics.

But what about other domains of knowledge and investigation? How much distance did Monet put between himself and his era? Was he aware of developments in science?

During the latter half of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th, the physical sciences accomplished a complete overhaul of our understanding both of the subatomic universe and of the cosmos itself in its furthest reaches. Moving beyond the randomness of Brownian movement noticed in the 1820s, J.J. Thomson established the existence of the electron in 1897. After that, the quantum theory of energy and the concept of wave mechanics were not long to follow. During the years Monet was watching the erupting foliage and the shimmerings on the pond at Giverny, physicists had lost their hold on any simple concept of location in time and space and had replaced it with a notion akin to vibration, something imponderable at the heart of things. At the same time, at the opposite order of magnitude, a comparable revolution had taken place. Extending Michael Faraday’s work in electromagnetism, James Clerk Maxwell established the nature and dynamics of the electromagnetic field within which light waves now took their appointed place. Here also one can see in retrospect the inevitability of Einstein’s hypotheses of special and general relativity relating light and space to gravity itself through the key concept of field. In the closing years of the 19th century there was a struggle in progress between scientists who believed that the description of the physical world could best be reduced to mathematical equations, and those who held out for some sense of “real” phenomena that could be imagined and, preferably, diagramed. Maxwell’s seminal A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) contains a large number of plates showing fields. In the preface he makes this telling statement about how he and Faraday differ from “the professed mathematicians”:

For instance, Faraday, in his mind’s eye, saw lines of force traversing all space where the Mathematicians saw centers of force attracting at a distance: Faraday saw a medium where they saw nothing but distance; Faraday sought the seat of the phenomena in real actions going on in the medium, they were satisfied that they had found it in a power of action at a distance impressed on the electric fluid.

This vivid statement about kinds of seeing belongs to the historic controversy over the existence of the luminiferous ether. I quote it, however, because it describes the tensions at work within powerful scientific imaginations or sensibilities in the 1870s; that was precisely the moment at which Monet organized his friends to exhibit together as the Société Anonyme (1874), soon to be dubbed the Impressionists. The answer to whether this chronological convergence carries any significance should be approached cautiously.

If there is one thing about which all of his friends and critics agreed, it is that Monet had a superior, almost a miraculous eye. Cézanne’s famous quip (“Monet was just an eye. But what an eye!”) and Clemenceau’s enthusiastic book present the patriarch of Giverny almost as a mindless optical device.5 Monet’s aversion to theorizing about his practice does not justify such a distortion of the case. But the question haunts us: what did Monet see? What did he see, both when he stared at the motif, and when, eyes closed, his arms hanging limp beside the studio armchair, he meditated on his painting? Do his paintings fully answer the question?

Some information can be gleaned from the writings of contemporary critics and friends who were perplexed by the same question. Furthermore, since Monet usually read what they wrote, their lyric prose may have influenced the development of his sensibility. Here are some of the thoughts Roger Marx attributed to Monet in a real or imaginary interview that appeared as an account of the 1909 “Nympheas”exhibit in Paris. In the water lily pond, Marx wrote, Monet had

discovered, as in a microcosm, the existence of the elements and the instability of the universe in perpetual transformation under our very eyes . . . Monet differs from his predecessors by his hyperesthesia, and also by the oppositions united in his temperament; coldly passionate, he surveys his impulses and deliberates over them; he is as obstinate as he is lyric, as brutal as he is subtle . . .6

Such messages could not help but have had some effect on Monet in spite of his craggy temperament. Like any powerful artist, he was endlessly propelled forward by the spectacle of his own performance.

Geffroy’s use of the doctrine of phénoménisme to describe the nature of Monet’s sensibility helps relate it to the profound shifts in scientific outlook. This doctrine asserts that only phenomena exist, only the objects of actual sense experience, and not the noumena that Kant postulated beyond them, and it implies that an adequately refined and attuned sensibility can directly experience the ultimate reality of the universe in appearances themselves—for there is nothing else. Monet never used such ambitious words. Yet he was making similar claims for his art when he referred insistently to painting only “what he saw.”7

Friends and critics may have encouraged Monet to cultivate his special powers of vision. But I believe that basically he trained himself to see in nature values that loosely correspond to the two complementary categories of physical science described earlier: namely, the infinitesimal vibration of particles of matter; and the all-pervasive, overarching lines of force that form a unifying field. His painting moved steadily in this double direction; he intuitively worked in close relation to the most advanced scientific thought of his day. His work in Giverny, especially that of the last 15 years, reveals to what degree Monet could, as Wordsworth put it, “see into the heart of things.”

To produce a painterly embodiment of vibration and a unified field, as Monet increasingly perceived them in his prepared garden motifs, required both convincing detail and an imposing scale. He needed to arrest and hold the spectator’s attention for an essentially new esthetic experience. It was at this point that Monet’s paintings expanded rapidly to the maximum dimensions possible for stretched canvas and then spilled over onto several canvases to form an enveloping environment. The dramatic change in scale of his late work seems to spring from his hyperesthesia, from his preternatural vision into universes physicists were trying to map. He saw the field vibrating and he painted it—painted it huge enough to force the rest of us to see it also.

It is very difficult to trace a development in Monet’s work through distinct stages. He repeats himself for long intervals, reverts to earlier styles, or leaps ahead unexpectedly. Still, I discern four levels or manners in Monet’s painting which emerged chronologically though none displaced the previous manner. To differentiate between them will help us understand where his eye eventually led him.

Very early in his career, while he was still working as a caricaturist for hire in his late teens, Monet could depict the thing out there, the object at a distance where our eyes see it by an intricate series of adjustments and illusions. Often that distance becomes a kind of interfering medium of fuzziness; both Baudelaire (Salon de 1846) and Delacroix emphasized the spectator’s need for adequate distance from a painting in order to judge it properly as form apart from representation. For Monet, distance—real or atmospheric—melts the tones, and changes even the most solid object into a flicker of itself. At this first level of sensibility (still operative in the early Giverny years), the garden is still essentially and recognizably a garden, flecked and blurred by air and light, but not mistaken for anything else, not dissolved into pattern or flux. Clemenceau, who had every reason to know from his long friendship, observed that Monet never needed to step back from a canvas in progress in order to grasp its overall effect or to check how it matched the motif. The painter could create the necessary distance at will, in his mind. The visual world kept its familiar shapes and positions when he wanted it to.

Later, in developing what I am calling his second manner, Monet tended to de-emphasize representational and pictorial form even more, in order to render the fluid, vibratory substance that he seemed to see, literally to sense, in everything around him. I have already quoted Pope on the “visible radiations” seen from his grotto, and Maxwell on how Faraday saw “lines of force traversing all space.” In the Codice (A2172), Leonardo da Vinci spoke along strikingly similar lines: “The air is filled with tiny straight lines radiating from everything, crossing and interweaving without ever coinciding; and they represent the true form or reason of each object.”

This is what I mean by field; it is what Monet meant, I believe, when he said in an interview with Lila Cabot Perry, “. . . forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field, or whatever,” and referred to painting the “naive impression.”8 Monet as well as his critics have tended to describe these moments of insight in terms of catching the fleeting effects of light and color. My own response to the later paintings urges a slightly different reading. Monet approached the painting of matter itself, matter which had been so thoroughly penetrated by his eye as to appear as field, as lines of force, dissolved into energy in a way comparable to Einstein’s scientific insight that matter is convertible into energy.

It was the use of series that helped Monet make the transition in his own practice from the transitory effects of light he assumed he was painting to the more essential nature of things he was actually rendering as vibration, as field. The paintings in series display Monet’s powers of total absorption, of meditation on his own creative activity. The impasto surface of his canvases keeps telling us that he was depicting the kinetic content of the scene, its heat, its beat. This audacious specialization of vision obviously had a lot to do with aging and incipient blindness and even the limitations of the muscle tone of a vigorous old man. We tend to see that vision as a kind of veil thrown over the motif, a colored glass through which he peered resolutely for the last 15 years. Yet we would do better to interpret it as the advanced stages of a process of training which Jules Laforgue had described twenty years earlier. The young poet spoke of the ideal modern artist who “by dint of living and seeking frankly and primitively . . . has succeeded in remaking for himself a natural eye . . . or a refined eye, for this organ, before moving ahead, must first become primitive again by ridding itself of tactile illusions.”9 Laforgue understood that direct or “primitive” vision is not given; it is an accomplishment requiring long discipline. Without knowing for sure what was going on in Monet’s sensibility, I find myself responding to certain paintings of this period with the conviction that he was almost hearing the landscape. I wonder if the time hasn’t come to speak of Monet’s ear. He listened to the field, where figure and ground tend to fuse and only vibration remains. This form of synesthesia seems almost normal, common sense.

Since hearing normally encompasses a full 360 degrees, we now begin to understand why Monet formed and carried out his final project of painting in the round, a fully encompassing environment or field that enlarges vision to match the unlimited field of hearing. What began as separate works forming a series (e.g., “Haystacks,” 1889–91; “Rouen Cathedral,” 1892–3) were consolidated into a single mammoth composition that forms a circuit, a cyclorama. Monet’s circuit paintings confront us with both a dazzlingly painted periphery implying a virtual center, and a hook-up of elements that carry a steady current of appearances and feelings. The successiveness of the series yields to the simultaneity of the circuit. What the Cubists sought to collapse into overlays of multiple perspectives Monet spread out in panoply around the entire horizon. He catapulted himself into nature and submitted to it in order to depict it from inside—virtually to restage it for the spectator standing inside the circuit paintings in the Orangerie in Paris or in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

To many, a late Monet looks as alien as an infrared photograph of one’s own backyard. Nevertheless, Monet’s unswerving purpose to paint exactly what he saw, and nothing else, was the principle that had propelled him to this second “vibration in the field” style. He overshot his mark, primarily out of sheer visionary energy, partly by lending half an ear to the claims of enthusiastic critics and friends.

John Singer Sargent provides insight into Monet’s third manner; he probably said to Monet himself what he wrote to a friend and repeated many times to others in his campaign in favor of Impressionism. “Impressionism was the name given to a certain form of observation when Monet, not content with using his eyes to see what things were or what they looked like as everyone else had done before him, turned his attention to noting what took place on his own retina (as an oculist would test his own vision).”10 To paint what impinges on the retina, “in here,” constitutes a very different task from depicting the vibrating field “out there.” Either out of orneriness or out of genius—probably both—Monet was able to demonstrate a further meaning of “impression”: the physiological- chemical traces registered on the retina by light. All our experience of focusing, noticing, and paying attention conspires to make this unprocessed “first” impression inaccessible.

One of the most compelling descriptions of what Monet was undertaking comes from the pen of a scientifically trained philosopher who published his first work in 1889 as The Immediate Givens of Consciousness. Henri Bergson made few direct references to painting, yet he used what will sound to us like a painter’s vocabulary in criticizing ordinary modes of perception. “Impression” had a specific meaning for him: “We keep substituting for the qualitative impression our consciousness receives the quantitative interpretation our intelligence gives of it.”

Bergson goes on to suggest that we can catch the immediate impression only by “abstaining” from certain habits of mind. Laforgue was on the same track. The opposition here seems to operate between le regard, an active looking that interprets the world according to categories we already have in mind, and l’impression, a relaxed communion with things, achieved only through a willed abdication of certain modes of thought and expectation. In a letter John Keats called that state of mind “negative capability,” the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This third level of vision as Monet developed it can be associated neither with the garden out there, nor with the field that throbs and trembles within or beyond what we see out there. It belongs to the retina as sensor, in here, in us. Such vision is so intense as to resemble a form of audition or even touch, linking us closely to the physical world of our own body.

Impressions, however, whether we think of them as residing in the field out there or as occurring on the retina that receives optical stimuli, do not last. They are no more than passages, fleeting disturbances. By recording them for preservation, the traditional Western artist gives priority over all other stages of vision to the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. By training, habit, and vocation the artist strains to establish a correlation between that picture plane and the impression he or she sees or has seen. Yet as the artist builds, mixes, balances, and measures effects, that plane interferes more and more with the motif. Impression now comes to mean something the artist is creating, imprinting on the canvas. At this point in the creative process, the fourth of Monet’s manners, the painting surface assumes the role of a screen, a visual event in its own right that blocks out the garden, or the field, or the retinal image it is presumably intended to register. Paint on canvas begins to generate its own dynamics and to live its own life apart from appearances.

In Monet’s case, when he came to this juncture after the construction of his third mammoth studio at Giverny, the dimensions of his canvases first doubled and finally more than quadrupled, to the point where he had to give up his folding stools (at age 75) and paint standing in front of multi-panel compositions which ultimately formed a full circuit around him. Even though he often had his workmen carry these huge sails out to the water garden, when set up they virtually cut him off from the scene he proposed to paint. Instead of saying “je pioche,” as he could of his earlier works, he could now have claimed with accuracy, “je patauge” (I’m floundering. I’m up to my knees in problems). As he worked away on these immense canvases, brandishing with loud scratching noises the new bristle brushes Sargent had suggested to him, Monet built up a surface that seems to be more and more fluid, elusive, personal. The impasto belongs not only to the painted surface but even more to the movements by which he applied it; Monet stood already, as we now know, within the portals of action painting. For years he worked less than three feet away from the surface of vast paintings which were in effect screens shutting him off from the visible world of places and objects. Even when nearly walled up inside his own visionary universe behind these great canvas screens, he never lost touch with the original visible garden “out there,” his anchor in palpable reality. Like the Cubists who carried out their collective formal experiment during Monet’s last 20 years, he refused to take the final step into abstract art. But the temptation was increasingly there around him in the form of huge panels screening him from the motif and offering themselves as a sovereign plane of visual composition independent of the two modes he had mastered: the vibrating field of the natural landscape as he had prepared it at Giverny, and the inchoate retinal impression cleansed of the conventions of image. That beleaguered situation strained Monet to his limits as a painter and gave his last works an unparalleled excitement, a fierce starkness beneath the welter of strokes. One can virtually hear Monet’s struggle to keep the real world of natural appearances from melting away into a flood of dynamic gestures imprinted on a two-dimensional surface.11

Stated succinctly, the four manners through which Monet’s art intermittently developed and defined itself encompass the major areas of modern Western art since Turner and Delacroix:

1. The garden: appearances on a conventional human scale seen “out there” as the real world of nature;

2. The vibrating field: both tiny and infinitely great forces behind or beyond appearances, discernible by a hyperesthetic sensibility as the constituent elements of the universe;

3. The retinal impression: what a painter may gradually become aware of taking place in his or her own eye as a physiological phenomenon prior to seeing, looking, recognizing—a stripping away of the culturally influenced categories of vision; and

4. The screen: a painter’s absorption in the optical surfaces he or she is constructing (often very large), to the verge of their blocking off from the three previous forms of perception.

The late development of Monet’s work parallels that of Cézanne’s last years (1895–1906), during which he studied a few highly familiar sites around Aix-en-Provence. Aix provided his garden. Both artists settled deeper than ever into the role—established by Gustave Courbet—of the artist as stubborn peasant, scorning public taste, dismissing criticism and theory, cultivating his garden.

I believe Monet did not anticipate the full effect on him of his own last water lily and wisteria compositions; they swept him away by their scale and by the importunacy with which they substituted their colored surface for every other aspect of painting, including vibrating field and retinal impression. Their scale grew until they closed the visual circuit around him. In order to describe these final compositions I shall appropriate a distinction Michael Fried set up between “non-representational” and “non-figurative” painting in discussing Jackson Pollock’s work (Three American Painters). As I see it Monet remained representational while becoming non-figurative. Partially because of the certifying authority of their titles, we recognize the representational power of compositions as extreme as The Path through the Irises, 1918–1925, Water Lilies—Reflexions of the Willow, 1918–1925, and Water Lilies, triptych, 1916–1923. The original scenes survive the radical transformations of the painting process only as ghostly emanations of themselves. These intense appearances, “a buzzing, blooming confusion,” in William James’ description of perception, are probably what Monet came to see. Their link to the visible world is still secure. Yet their accumulation of strokes and gestures and sheer texture composes an overall surface on which we cannot confidently distinguish line from color, water from air, figure from ground, inside from outside, before from behind. Those vast swirling fields have become non-figurative, rendering the vibrating field and raw retinal data rather than the conventional forms and figures (straight line, circle, angle, grid, etc.) of learned perception. At this crucial juncture in European easel painting, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich were becoming nonrepresentational while remaining emphatically figurative. Monet, on the other hand, remained stubbornly representational and at the same time abandoned conventional shapes and sizes for expanding optical fields. The token survival in his titles of a few identifiable garden sites seems to have given him the confidence to animate the entire area of the larger-than-life canvas screens he was working on. In the circuit compositions he painted himself not into a corner but into the center of the natural universe.

Je pioche.” We now know what he meant. Monet was tending flower beds in the middle of the French countryside, and at the same time with his painting tools he was planting beds of paint, saturated surfaces that came closer and closer to being self-signifying without ever going all the way. In both cases he was single-mindedly cultivating appearances, phenomena, not eternal forms.

It is difficult to avoid one logical consequence of this way of looking at Monet. The accomplishments of his last years in Giverny can be seen as highly unsettling to the Platonic tradition of the nature of reality, which is deeply ingrained in our culture. Heraclitus’ flux, Plato’s parable of the cave, Christian doctrine about the vanity of material life, and proverbs in every language tell us that the world of appearances is evanescent and deceptive. One must penetrate this transitory spectacle in order to reach a universe of forms, ideas, enduring entities, the grand design. The Impressionists themselves tacitly accepted this attitude in their pronouncements about catching only fleeting effects of light and atmosphere. For thirty years Monet led the way in this exploration of an ever wispier and more tenuous world of surface effects; presumably these effects arise from an underlying continuity and solidity of forms. Then, around the turn of the century (e.g., Morning on the Seine, Giverny, and in the early water lily series, 1903–1907, Monet seems to reverse his direction, to live through a shift of vision comparable to the reorientation we experience when an optical illusion flips over into its reverse arrangement. In Monet’s last paintings the world of appearances—both the still-recognizable garden motifs and the non-figurative traces of his gesturing brush—has metamorphosed from the transitory into permanence. Those vivid impressions of the visible world constitute our only sure refuge; for, if one dares look, the flux lies behind. The security of appearances screens us from the fluctuating field Maxwell tried to diagram, from the elementary particles that will not hold still, and from the dizzying dance of it all on our own retinas. The world is in constant flux, yes, not on its surface but behind, in its depths. Here is the abyss. Monet attested to its power over him by the galvanic strength with which he clung to “what he saw,” to nature. He sustained himself in the face of the abyss by cultivating his garden—the real garden of flowerbeds and paths and ponds and bridges at Giverny, as well as the thick layers of paint he built up like compost in his last works. His painting became truly phenomenal, for he found his salvation in phenomena themselves, in the appearances his work teaches us to perceive as real, lasting, and endlessly exciting.

Roger Shattuck is Commonwealth Professor of French literature at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Banquet Years (Viking) and most recently, of The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1980). This article is based on a talk given at the St. Louis Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibit “Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism.” The exhibition was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, in association with the St. Louis Art Museum.

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NOTES

1. John E.N. Hearsey, Voltaire, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976, p. 314.

2. William Seitz, Claude Monet, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1960, p. 43. William Seitz curated an important Monet exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1960, entitled “Claude Monet: Seasons and Moments.”

3. “Monet’s Years at Giverny,” as exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in the spring of 1978, contained no painting displaying the figure and therefore included only the latter of these two paintings. In the installation of the same exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum in the fall, the former painting was added and was hung prominently, immediately over the entrance. For an alert spectator the St. Louis exhibit began with a deliberate curatorial lapse—or joke.

4. Marcel Proust, in a book review of a volume of poetry by the Comtesse de Noailles, published in Contre Sainte-Beuve, 1907.

5. Georges Clemenceau, Claude Monet: Cinquante Ans d’amitié, Paris, 1928.

6. Roger Marx, quoted in Steven Z. Levine, Monet and His Critics, New York: Garland, 1976, pp. 304, 306.

7. Monet’s mind and sensibility stand diametrically opposed to the complacently alienated, demythologized, self-referential universe of “post-modern-ism,” in which no nature exists to afford the luxury of appearances or even of phenomena. For Monet, art deals not with fictions but with brute realities as they impinge on our senses, and with our desire to register that experience in artificial yet human works.

8. Lila Cabot Perry, Claude Monet’s Ideas about Art, 1927.

9. Jules Laforgue, “L’impressionisme,” in Mélanges posthumes, Paris: Mercure de France, 1902, p. 133, 136.

10. Evan Charters, John Sargent, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927, p. 123, from a letter to D.S. MacColl. dated 1911 or 1912.

11. My references to Monet’s later Giverny paintings differ considerably from the “decorative vision of peace and quiet” proposed by Charles S. Moffett and Grace Seiberling. (See Charles S. Moffett, Monet’s Water Lilies, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978; and Grace Seiberling, “The Evolution of Impressionism,” in Paintings by Claude Monet, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1975.) Even though Monet apparently referred in interviews to his “decorative aim” and to “peaceful meditation” in front of his compositions, I believe that the struggle to defend and record appearances can always be felt urgently in the dimensions. textures, and precarious “realism” of his late canvases. To my eye and ear, they are rarely restful.

I must also confront an argument put forward by Paul Valéry. In his Degas Danse Dessin, 1936. one comes upon two sobering pages called “Reflection on Landscape Painting and Several Other Matters.” He points out that landscape used to serve merely as the expressive backdrop for scenes of human action and has achieved independent standing as a painterly subject only in modern times. The elimination of the human figure from landscape has led, Valéry believes, to the illusion of facility in rendering natural forms (producing Sunday painters) and—far more important—to a reduction in its content and value. “The development of landscape painting seems indeed to coincide with a marked diminution in the intellectual side of art” Landscape painting, Valéry affirms, does not offer “the act of a complete man,” as presumably would be the case in painting figures placed in expressive relation to a natural setting. As we might expect, he mentions Poussin and Claude Lorrain.

The popular image of the Impressionist painter seems to confirm this criticism. Such a painter is seen as recording fleeting perceptions with a minimum of interference from the mind; he or she becomes pure eye. But this view is far from adequate to describe Monet in his subjects treated in series and in the late paintings I have been discussing. In those pure landscapes a strong human presence makes itself felt and stands as a surrogate for the human figure. Monet’s sensibility and his “intellect” do not subordinate themselves to color and light effects. The fascination of his work at Giverny resides in the insistence with which a recognizable, individual sensibility affirms itself in choice of motif, in scale, in treatment of color and brushwork. What we see in these garden subjects is a mind thinking, thinking about painting, obsessed by the infinite resources of painting as he was still discovering them. In Monet’s case Valéry is glaringly wrong. These “landscapes” are neither facile nor intellectually shallow. Not merely “an eye,” but a complete human being labors here; there can be no mistaking in whose presence we stand.