A light that judges

If the Impressionists had their say, we would believe that for 40 years it never rained in France. With the exception of a Pissarro or Sisley snowscape -- all winter whiteness flecked with vagrant ash or stenciled footprint -- summer seems to linger indefinitely. In painting after painting we are spectators to the same dry seamless sky stretched as tight as the canvas on which it's painted.

It wasn't summer or its blue arc of a sky that the Impressionists worshiped. It was what the two promised: constant light. A light that scattered and shimmered and speckled. For the Impressionists, light was their subject and the world its props.

Nothing, it would seem, dimmed its powers. Not the clouds skimming overhead nor the threat of summer shadows quietly spreading over dusty back lanes. Light only accented shade's loss. The bike abandoned in shadows still gleams; the bottle in the cupboard shines darkly.

No one seems to appreciate this more than the very subjects who crowd the canvas itself. A word settled in shadow celebrates light. In shady parks, women dressed in lemon- and salmon-colored silks, their children in cool cambrics, watch as light splashes across their path. A man looks up from his garden, a woman from her book. An afternoon's activity is only an excuse to observe the light that permits it. Each eye is fixed in fine judgment on the light itself.

"Terrace at Sainte-Adresse" is an exception. A grand exception. In it we notice the normal Impressionist inventory: figures gathered in a garden full of windy sunshine. Parasols and brimmed hats suggest light if not heat. But as we study this painting, a sudden chill steals across its surface. For this is a painting of failing light.A September light: stark, frontal, stripped. It is the strong illumination of light about to extinguish itself.

Season's conspiracies are subtle. The turncoat geranium with its sabotaging brightness suggests summer. But everywhere the signs are of season's change. The flag slaps hard against a thin sky. Winds comb a wet and whitecapped sea. Shadows steal in like a thief. A woman's parasol, like a sundial, casts time's shadow.

"Terrace at Sainte-Adresse" could almost be a Chekhov short story. All the right elements are slightly askew, off center in emphasis. Like Chekhov's "Lady With a Lapdog," here, we feel, the right faces have surfaced too late, the introductions are held in the throat, conversation centers on the departing steamers. Opportunity, like the light, is a receding promise.

Yet this is why I have always loved this painting. There is an exquisite tension to it. Monet has charged light itself with tension by quickening the scene it illuminates. The wind rises; the sea swells; the ships toss. Yet the true source of tension here resides in the figures themselves, in their separateness from one another. Unlike those scenes of crowded cafes or trafficked parks, scenes where light joins and celebrates, here light disjoints its subjects. They are curiously splintered from one another.

This is that rare Impressionist painting where people don't judge the light, but rather are judged by it. It is a painting that exposes in oils what Chekhov so often did in print: sunlight mocking a dark isolation of the moment. A moment fixed in a brave, failing light.

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