Viewed from the late 20th century, the world of Impressionism seems idylic. Nature in all its variety, untrammeled by the Industrial Revolution, is shown in sharp contrast to the frenetic activity of the 1980s. People picnic and go boating in unhurried pastoral solitude. Who could help but love such paintings?
Claude Monet spent most of his long and productive life on the shores and in the fields of France, recording the natural world he so dearly loved and the light in which it was bathed. Always working on location, in all types of weather, at all times of day, he expressed in pigment a fascination with mood and atmosphere with little or no regard for story or moral. The large and sumptuous volume, ''Monet,'' documents the painter's journey from salon landscape artist to near abstractionist in his famed water lily series.
Robert Gordon, who has written extensively on French Impressionism, and Andrew Forge, dean of the School of Art at Yale, are to be commended for their thorough record of Monet's prodigious output and the main drama of his life, his battle with canvas and paint. Monet outlived two wives, and had early financial difficulties that seem endemic to the artistic experience. But the major thrust of his life is his painting, his campaigns into new fields of expression.
Toward the end of his career, Monet created his own subject matter by cultivating his famous gardens with their conjunctive lily ponds and Japanese bridges. These gardens are still being preserved at Giverny to inspire contemporary artists. A clue to Monet's greatness can be found in a delicate little novel by Eva Figes called ''Light'' (Pantheon, New York, 1983). It depicts a day in the life of the Monet family at Giverny. Although it involves all the servants and family members, one feels the dogged intensity of the painter to capture his moments on canvas. His entire being is dedicated to this task, even to the emotional detriment of those around him. Everything was secondary to Monet's continual attempts to capture the varying conditions of light and nature.
It is impossible to reproduce accurately the subtle color mutations of Monet's palette. The printing capabilities to achieve such accuracy do not exist. The cost of using enough inks and photographic processes to even approximate Monet's color relationships would be prohibitive. His paintings must be seen directly to gain the full impact of this sensitive work. But in the beautiful Gordon and Forge book we get some sense of the prolific works of a master.