Monet's radiant atmosphere

`LOOK at the shadow of the snow, how blue it is!'' The words were not, in fact, Monet's, but Courbet's: The fascination of the French realist painter for snow as a motif, going back to the 1850s, predated that of the French Impressionist painter. On a wider historical scale, it might be generalized that French painters of the mid-19th century were no less interested in snow than the Dutch of the 17th. In each case, however, the reasons for the interest were different. The Dutch painters seem to have been intrigued, above all, by the human comedy that ice and snow brought out into the open air (in this they were not forgetting the earlier Flemish painter Bruegel). Courbet saw snow in harsher terms. As a countryman, he knew it as the context for hunting and as the background for bleak peasant-poverty. At the same time he was taken not only with the brilliant color of the shadows cast on the sparkling white surface; and he found in snow a medium of nature that paralleled his aesthetic preference for thickly applied, weightily objective paint.

The Impressionists perceived this parallel and went much further with it. Apart from Monet, snow was also a favorite subject for Sisley and Pissarro. Even Renoir, who hated it, painted snow once or twice, recognizing, perhaps, that it particularly suited the broken facture he and his friends were using to represent the changing light and atmosphere of nature in their paintings. He also pointed out on one occasion that ``white does not exist in nature'' and that snow, therefore, picks up the ever-altering colors of the sky.

Monet above all saw and exploited the implications of that, observing snow as a substance that is marvelously responsive to nuances of light. As John House points out in detail in his book ``Monet, Nature into Art'' (published last year), the development of Monet's art showed an increasing awareness of the atmospheric ``envelope'' of nature. The artist expressed this awareness verbally several times. He said he was trying to ``render the weather, the atmosphere, the ambience.'' And that for him ``a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but its surroundings bring it to life - the air and the light, which vary continually.... For me it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives objects their real value.''

``La Pie'' (``The Magpie''), though comparatively early in his oeuvre (thought to have been painted in 1868 or '69), is a celebration of the brilliant effect of warm sunshine on snow so deep that it rather literally and dramatically envelops the landscape. The shadows cast by the wattle fence and the rustic gate are a true, translucent blue; the sunlight illumines the snow with a gentle yellow. The masses of snow on the bare trees stand out like highlights against the roofs of the houses and look like soft clouds against the lighter parts of the sky. Snow is pictured as an all-transforming smother of light (it is impossible to tell where ``light'' begins and ``snow'' ends) - covering the landscape, and, in turn, covering Monet's canvas.

One of the surprising things about this picture when you actually encounter it on the wall in Paris's newly opened museum of the 19th century, the Mus'ee d'Orsay, is its ambitious size. It is more than 10 feet wide and more than 7 high. Monet painted it at a time when he was still hoping to exhibit his very modern art in the official annual Salon in Paris where grand scale was par for the course. But his efforts to achieve such conventional recognition continually failed. Even this remarkably attractive work was rejected by the Salon in 1869. Throughout the '70s, when he no longer sent works to the Salon, they became much smaller. But ``La Pie'' was one of a number of big paintings he painted hopefully for exhibition in the '60s.

John House suggests that the very size of this painting might well have made it impossible for Monet to have painted it out of doors in such deep snow. Apparently, however, there is no small sketch still in existence which he used in his studio for enlargement. And he had already proved himself rather heroic (or foolhardy) in not only painting large canvases outside, on the spot, but also in braving the most impossible elements. In this case there is no evidence either way - unless the exceptional freshness and freedom of the observation and notation, accented by the inspired touch of the dark magpie itself, are taken to suggest immediate confrontation of the subject. It does have all the characteristics of a vast sketch - which is presumably why it was unacceptable to the Salon judges.

William C. Seitz, writing about ``La Pie,'' describes the character of its composition: ``The horizontals of the buildings, paralleled by the wall and continued by stratified clouds, emphasize the stillness; and the perspective of the receding trees (like the repeated shadow in the foreground) comes to rest at a bright patch behind the gate.'' It might have been even more correct to say that there is virtually no ``linear'' perspective in the picture at all. There is ``aerial'' perspective in the recession of tones from foreground to distant sky.

But the composition is considerably influenced by Monet's interest in Japanese art, its space being described by overlapping forms viewed frontally and not by lines that converge toward a vanishing point. The laddered bars and uprights of the gate might have been read as a receding linear perspective if the ingenious placing of the bird hadn't insisted that we see it rightly as upright. Its main compositional function is as a silhouetted foil to the contre-jour light - light shining directly toward the viewer - and its cast shadows help describe the horizontality of the ground.

One of the most telling parts of John House's exhaustively detailed analysis of Monet is his emphasis on the audacious unconventionality of the artist's compositions. It is as if Monet wanted to reduce the importance of composition in landscape painting, relegating it to a back seat, so that his greater interest in light could dominate. Of another of his large 1860s pictures, ``Women in the Garden,'' House observes that its informality of composition ``deliberately denies its subject the level of significance (its) ... size would have led its audience to expect.''

A few years earlier a critic had complained that in Manet's paintings (and the younger Monet was a great admirer of Manet's work) people's faces were made no more important than their clothes. Monet likewise presented no hierarchy of importance among the various objects in his landscapes. If one thing is significant here it is the bird - not only is it small and commonplace, but also it might well fly off any second: It might be seen as a symbol of the ``fugitive effects'' of nature Monet once said he was trying to capture in his art.

There is a touch of humor or apparent naivet'e in making a mere magpie the focus of such a big painting, as well as in naming the picture after the bird rather than giving it a title mentioning snow. That Monet appreciated the role of naivet'e in art is shown by advice he gave in 1890 to Lilla Cabot Perry: ``When you go out to paint, try to forget what object you have before you, a tree, a house, a field ... paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.'' He must have observed the simple and direct way in which the Japanese artists depicted snow; his own depiction of it has, though in Western oil-painty terms, something of the same innocent lack of complication.

House, in discussing Monet's fascination with ``extreme effects'' of nature - he loved storms and rippling water, ice, fog, dazzling sunshine, morning mists and sunsets as well as snow - states that it is only in and after the 1880s that these effects become ``the sole theme of the canvas.'' His point is that in the earlier paintings there is always evidence of man's intervention in nature. Here, for instance, the houses and the fence and gate, as well as two or three footprints in the foreground, indicate that human beings are not far away.

Nevertheless this picture does present an extremely direct confrontation of painter and nature. If snow isn't its ``sole theme,'' it is difficult to say what is.

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