Originally presented as part of an Aesthetic Realism public seminar.
What makes Claude Monet’s work so beautiful, and why it has affected people all these years, is explained by this principle stated by Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In a landmark radio interview, Eli Siegel described the great new thing Monet accomplished, when he said:
Monet made the vague, the uncertain, the trembling triumphant. We have a tendency to give edges and tidiness to reality when, it could be felt, reality says: “I am not that tidy, and I don’t have those glaring edges.”
Mr. Siegel continued: “So Monet wanted to see what happened at noon,
and what happened at twilight;
he wanted to see even stone as trembling,
and a cathedral dancing delicately,
and light persisting even as it changed.”
The vague and definite, the uncertain and tidy, the persistent and changing are tremendous opposites in every person’s life, and they certainly have been in mine. While I could be stubborn and fixed in my ideas, I was also very changeable and tentative, adapting myself, somewhat like a chameleon, to every situation.
Early in my study of Aesthetic Realism, my consultants observed, “You have a tendency to slip from one mood to another, a little like the fog. Do you think it’s important for you to be definite?” I had liked being elusive because I felt it made me free, more of an individual, and that I could hide in vagueness.
This was not what I felt when I was painting—concentrating on an object and trying to get it down on a canvas. At those times, I felt things looked vivid to me. Once, when I was doing a cityscape from my apartment window, I remember asking myself, “Why can’t I feel like this all the time?” Through Aesthetic Realism I learned that I had two different purposes that fought in me. As artist I was trying to respect the world, see how it was made. But in my everyday life I generally saw things as unworthy of my close attention and felt I was made of finer stuff. This contemptuous way of seeing interfered with my ability to have the feelings I hoped for, and also with my work as a painter. For example, in my drawings I had a very facile line, an ability to capture an image quickly, but these drawings didn’t show the depth or weight of the object. My consultants explained:
Clarity offends you; your style is vaporous. In your drawings you try to combat the vaporousness by the use of your clear line. But do you feel that your work might lack something because you prefer to hide?
MR: Yes, I’m beginning to see that!
And they asked:
Are you hoping very much to put together the vague and the crisp, the elusive and the definite, the wispy and the sharp in a way of which you can be proud?
When I saw that yes, in my drawings and paintings I was trying to answer one of the biggest questions of my life, I felt such wonder and relief!
The work of Claude Monet affects me—as it does people everywhere—because of the magnificent way he deals with these same opposites that were warring in me. Monet didn’t use the vague to hide, but to show the beauty of reality.
For instance, in this painting, “Impression: Sunrise” of 1872, which gave Impressionism its name, Monet, as Mr. Siegel said, “made…the uncertain, the trembling triumphant.”
In this early morning scene of Le Havre, pale blues, pinks, lavenders, and oranges sweep across the canvas as we see that definite orange sun rising out of a purplish mist, illuminating the breadth of the sky with its pale orange light.
Monet not only captured the rippling surface of the water, but also its luminous depths. Massive industrial smokestacks and rigging in pale blues and lavenders take on the lightness, the fluidity of water and smoke. In the foreground, he has placed the intense dark silhouette of a boat with two men in it—dramatically countering the intensity of the sun, but not overpowering its loveliness. Instead it gives weight, fixity to the picture.
Within all this mist, vagueness, uncertainty, there is a subtle geometric structure underlying the composition. The broad horizontal band of blues across the center of the painting anchors it and gives it a firm base. Then there are the vertical reflections of the sun, smokestacks, and masts going across the canvas, punctuating this misty scene and forming a delicate structure within the water and softly clouded sky. Monet made the “trembling triumphant,” yet we don’t feel we’ve lost our footing because of the way the definite and vague are beautifully made one.
I. A New Vision in Art
Claude Monet’s courage, his determination, his passion to see the world newly, honestly, was revolutionary—as he led the Impressionist movement. In 1895, his friend and biographer, the statesman George Clemenceau, wrote:
Monet’s prophetic eye scans the future and guides our visual evolution, rendering our perceptions of the universe more penetrating and subtle than before.
Monet said about himself that his ambition was to paint “directly from nature, seeking to convey my impressions of her most elusive effects.” And he worked in all kinds of weather—in sun, rain, snow, mist—changing canvases according to the changing effects of the light. He wanted to make the elusive stay put on a canvas while maintaining its wonder. [Click on images for larger size]
Born in Paris in 1840, Claude Monet grew up in the seaport of Le Havre. He loved drawing and was so accomplished at caricatures that by the time he was 16 he was selling them at a local frame shop. There he met the esteemed landscape painter Eugène Boudin, who,Monet said, opened his eyes “to nature and learned to love her passionately.”
He then went to Paris, where he became one of the avant-garde painters and writers of the day—Zola, Courbet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Pissarro, among others.
At the Salon of 1866 this painting of his future wife, Camille, Woman in a Green Dress, received much acclaim.
But by 1870, when his paintings became brighter and freer, his work and that of his colleagues was vehemently rejected by the Salon. According to their stultifying rules, painting should be of lofty subjects, emphasizing form, line, clarity. Their rejection left the young painters with no way of exhibiting their work, and eventually led to the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.
What they showed on canvas went along with the latest discoveries in science, and new thought in philosophy, literature, and music. But the critics were outraged and brutal in their attacks. The head of the French Academy of Fine Arts called them “a gang of lunatics.” Meanwhile, Renoir said passionately, “Without him, without my dear Monet, who gave us all courage, we would have capitulated.”
For the next 10 years Monet had to depend mainly on his friends and art dealer to support his wife and two young sons. Yet, in spite of this, he was driven to pursue his art with astounding energy and enthusiasm. He painted “modern life” in Paris—
—life in the country—
and traveled for months at a time to capture the unique light and atmospheric effects he found in the villages along the Seine—
(This is Edouard Manet’s picture of Monet and his wife on his painting boat)
—and along the Normandy and Brittany coasts.
He also loved the London fog,
and the Mediterranean sun.
“I have seen him,” said the writer Guy de Maupassant, “capture a glistening shaft of light on a white cliff, and fix it in a rush of yellow tone which made the effect of its elusive dazzlement strangely blinding and unsettling.”
Though he suffered a terrible loss—the death of his young wife in 1879—he kept true to the new way of seeing and painting called Impressionism, and eventually his work began to sell.
II. The Message of Art for Our Lives
“Disorder and fixity are present in Monet,” said Mr. Siegel, “present in all his painting.” And Monet’s desire to see these opposites as one stood for tremendous respect for the structure of reality. We can see this as he began to concentrate on single subjects, such as haystacks, poplars, the Rouen Cathedral—doing many paintings of them at all times of day and in all seasons. In each of these the motif is a fixed object—but Monet shows it’s not just fixed: the forms of the haystacks glow in the summer and winter light.
Disorder and fixity are big opposites in every person’s life, and they were in a terrific mix-up the life of Alicia Beaumont, a young landscape designer having Aesthetic Realism consultations. She prided herself on being a free spirit—cool and unmoved—but she also was very troubled by this. She told us she sometimes felt numb, saying:
I don’t show enough feeling. I thought the approval of my parents didn’t matter to me. I would just do what I wanted to do and I didn’t care what they thought. And I remember one time going on a trip and I didn’t think about them and thought I could never see them again and it wouldn’t really matter. But I felt ashamed.
Consultants: Did you think you could divest yourself of people and go on with your own life unencumbered?
AB: Yes, that’s what I thought.
Consultants: And you were going to show they didn’t matter to you?
AB: Yes, that’s what I did.
It is this attitude that stopped her from liking herself and having the emotions she yearned for. To encourage her to see people more accurately, we gave her assignments, such as writing a soliloquy of her father at the age of 18; describing what her parents might have felt about each other when they first met. She wrote about her father, who was a boy in France during World War II and whose family was against the Nazis. And she began to see how much she had missed about people—including things in them she honestly could respect. As Ms. Beaumont saw more meaning in people and in the world around her, she felt freer, more herself. She told us, “I made a wonderful discovery. I’m beginning to see what I thought wasn’t me—a certain kind of emotion, enthusiasm—is me! I’m starting to feel alive!”
Like a Monet cathedral, she was changing from stoniness to shimmer. “Monet,” Mr. Siegel said,
would tend to have the fixity of a cathedral change into tremblingness, shimmeringness….He was looking to have the stately tremble in luminousness. He was looking to have edges less tidy. This is a noble desire;…to have [reality] tremble even as it persists. The Impressionists were awfully ethical.
Here, in some of the great sentences of art criticism, Eli Siegel showed the profundity of the Impressionists when he said, “The Impressionists were awfully ethical.” I believe they were ethical because their purpose was to be fair to the nature of reality, to see its surprising possibilities, not to sum it up. Said Monet: “I have done nothing but look at what the universe has shown me, so as to bear witness to it with my brush.”
Rouen Cathedral dances in sunlight and mist. Monet worked for over two years on his series of paintings of the cathedral, producing over 30 pictures. In this radiant painting, “Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight),” 1894, in the Metropolitan Museum, the massive façade fills the picture, yet almost seems to be dissolving before our eyes as it dazzles with light.
The gray stone of the building has become a meshwork of whites, pinks, lavenders, mauves, blues and yellows with bluish-purple shadows. Even as we sense the intricacy of the Gothic architecture, nowhere is there a defining line. The arches and columns are all indicated by delicate blue, lavender, yellow and pink stippled shadows.
The way Monet painted this cathedral is amazing. There are layers and layers of paint strokes, “encrustations” as he called them, creating a thick, rough surface which gives the painting substance, yet it is the very thing that makes this pinkish structure so luminous and delicate.
This was Monet the artist. Yet these very opposites—the tidy and disorderly—puzzled and pained him in his life. “I was naturally undisciplined,” he said. “Even in my childhood, I could never be gotten to obey rules….” Yet he later said of his strict military service, “It did me a great deal of good in every way. It made me less harem-scarum,” meaning something like “all over the place.” Monet was troubled by the way he could shuttle back and forth between being rigid and being “undisciplined.” He set up rigorous work rules for himself, and was terrifically strict with his family, demanding that they keep to his schedule. He once wrote to his second wife, Alice, “This morning, I felt all out of sorts, my things were all over the place in utter disorder.”
In a class Eli Siegel spoke to me about these opposites in a way I think Monet would have loved. He said: “There are two opposites picturesquely described as swirl and tidiness. Do you believe so far you’ve trusted yourself more with swirl than tidiness?” “Yes,” I said. “The big problem of everyone,” Mr. Siegel continued, “is being tidy and wandering. Every painting, every dance, every photograph, every film has this deep question of self, ‘Should the self stay put or be everywhere?’”
Art, I learned, is both. But the way I used being tidy and wandering was not beautiful. I had traveled a lot, here and abroad, moving from one place to another. And as a free-lance picture researcher I liked the feeling there were no regular office hours for me! My roommates at the time called me the “phantom” because nobody ever knew where I was. I came to see that the way I wandered, and wouldn’t be pinned down was really contempt. It was the reason I was so unsure of myself, and was against what I hoped for, both as a self and as an artist.
Aesthetic Realism enabled me to change—to see that I wanted to have large, accurate feelings about people and not just make them vague or given them neat edges and then dismiss them. For instance, I had seen my father, Leo Rackow, as existing to make a fuss over me. Meanwhile, he had traveled to Africa and Europe as a young man, had been a pioneer, with others, in modern graphic design, and had intense feelings about World War II and used his art to further the war effort. As I came to see he had unbounded relations, a whole new world opened up for me. I became more unbounded myself, and also much more exact.
I also changed how I saw love. I had never thought a man could really add to me—make my outline shimmer or my depths glow. A man existed, I felt, to adore me while I remained coolly intact and hidden. Today in my marriage to Ken Kimmelman, filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant, I am more myself. Ken has usefully, often humorously and kindly, shattered those falsely neat edges of mine and enabled me to feel more happily solid.
In this painting, “Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond,” 1920,
which I’ve loved from the time I first saw it when my parents took me to the Museum of Modern Art, Monet answers resplendently the question: “Should the self stay put or be everywhere?” It does both!
In this magnificent triptych Monet has captured the fleeting effects of sunlight on clouds reflected on the shimmering surface of the water dotted with water lilies—which are both fixed and free. The motion of the pink brushstrokes creates clusters of swirling clouds reflected in the depths of the luminous blue-green water.
Yet in the midst of all this motion, looking closely we see swirl and tidiness as one thing.
Monet builds layer upon layer of definite strokes of paint.
So the motion that results arises from a base that is substantial and fixed.
Monet shows “the self wants to be everywhere”—that is, related to more and more things—as a means of being truly, solidly itself. And this is what the study of Aesthetic Realism can make grandly possible in every person’s life.