Capturing the enveloping light

A painting only reflects light, of course. But the idea that a painting might seem actually to give out light has intrigued and challenged many painters , not least the "Arch- Impressionist" Claude Monent. The sky in his "On the Beach, Trouville" is presented as the source of light in the scene. If Impressionism brought to painting one realization above all, it was surely that everything in a landscape, even the deepest shadows, is illuminated by the flood of brilliance from the sky, and not some unknown secondary source.

Some of the most astonishingly luminous pictures by Monet and his friends, Pissarro and Renoir, were produced between 1869 and 1872. Those painted "a contre jour"m -- against the light -- are the most astonishing of all.

Staring into the light not only dazzles the eyes, it also deepens and intensifies the shadows cast or the silhouettes formed by whatever objects happen to fall between you and the light. These early "impressionist" pictures certainly made use of bold tonal contrasts. Here the seated women in the foreground raise their parasols to shade themselves from the fierce sun: at the same time they provide the painter with a perfect device for making a sharp, ungraded transition from light to shadow, and for increasing the effect of brilliance by contrast.

The Impressionists realized that shadows are not simply the absence of light, that they are not merely (and academically) black or dark brown but filled with captured, strong color. But they also, in trying to paint the very brightness of sunlight itself, made more of the forceful differences between dark and light than most painters before them. At least, Monet did -- initially. Many of his early Impressionist paintings have a darker foreground, or a darker object or figure between us and the light.

Monet's art is always deceptive in its apparent nonchalance. He had an instinct for composition rather than a deliberate effort to form and construct a painting. Yet the contrived balanced of this picture is perfectly suited to his purposes. Nothing is static: the sun moves, the clouds scud, the light glances and flashes, the distance quivers and dissolves, the parasols are held in only momentary suspense, the figures may shift, a breeze wafts the flag. Monet's aim here is scarcely different (even though his methods are) from the aim he put into words much later in his career: ". . . to paint directly from nature, striving to render my impression in the face of the most fugitive effects."

It would be a mistake to conclude that Monet's art somehow sprang unprecedented into existence like an unknown species of floers in a desert. It is possible to locate this spontaneous snapshot of a picture in a passage of influences and experiments and discoveries and styles: it is firmly placed in the story of 19th-century painting.

For example -- it was Constable's studies of skies and weather that woke up French interest in outdoor painting and an awareness of the sky as the sole light source. It was Corot who made his shadows luminous, even translucent, and painted sunny landscapes and bright, fresh skies as no one before. It was photography that added to the realization that everything in a picture is light and light alone and also introduced new concepts of distance and close-up, of cutoff compositions, of clarity and blur.

It was Courbet who began to apply paint with a freedom and attack that escaped from the deliberations and rules of stultified academy painting. It was Manet (and Courbet) who painted figures in modern dress in naturalistic settings. It was Boudin who attempted to capture the ever-changing breeze, and sun, and the exhilarated open skies of the seaside. It was also Boudin who delighted in modern fashion, promenades on the shore -- crinolines, and that elegant accoutrement, the parasol.

Boudin was the greatest influence. He was painting with Monent at Trouville in 1870. It was he who thirteen years earlier in Le Havre had "torn the veil" from the 18-year old Monet's eyes (as Monet put it) and showed him "what painting was capable of being." It is not without significance that the older and younger painter were still working together even after the initial discoveries of Impressionism had been made (in 1869 by Monet and Renoir at Bougival on the Seine). Our little Monet is still, like a Boudin in closeup. The seaside painters' influence on him was as strong as ever. He has to stand as a potent influence on Impressionism -- in spite of his modest and unpretentious procedures. In his own words: "I may have been some small measure of influence on the movement that led painters to study actual daylight and express the changing aspects of the sky with the utmost sincerity." And ". . . we do not reproduce the world so much as the element that envelops it."

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