This week’s Monday Muse is Venice by Twilight, by Claude Monet.
Monet was among the leaders of the art movement known as impressionism. This art movement used visible brush strokes, paint was applied quickly, from life, usually outdoors, or as artist’s like to say, “En Plein Air”. As a movement, impressionism emphasized fleeting moments, trying to quickly and accurately capture the effects of light before it changed.
Impressionists often painted with a loose style, from a distance, their work would look very realistic and accurate, however up close, edges lost their definition and sharpness as one realized that the painting was made from many bold, visible brush strokes.
The idea was to paint what the first impression on the eyes were, before a recognizable object could be made out. Monet himself described it this way, ”When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naïve impression of the scene before you”.
Monet painted for years, and many of his works show much detail even though they are rendered in the style of impressionism. However, this particular painting does not show a lot of detail. The brush strokes are larger, the image appears “fuzzier”, the colors are glorious as the deep blue is complemented so beautifully with the bright yellows and oranges. The looser “feel” to this painting is most likely due to the fact that by then, (sometime between 1908-1912) Monet was suffering from cataracts, so what he actually saw, probably looked very much like what he displayed on his canvas.
To me, it is quite inspiring to think that not only did his failing eyesight not hinder his artistic pursuit, but very well may have enhanced the results he achieved. His failing vision gave him a unique view, which he shared with others.
On the left side of the canvas you see the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, with its bell tower silhouetted against the sunset. San Giorgio Maggiore is a very small island, and the church takes up a large portion of it. On the right you can faintly make out the domes of the della Salute, and the entrance of the Grand Canal.
Here is a photograph which shows the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, but from a slightly different vantage point than Monet used for his painting.
For those unfamiliar with the geography of Venice, here is a map of Venice showing the location of the island in the Venetian lagoon, and the location of the Venetian lagoon in relation to the rest of Italy.
In many ways this painting should have been my first Monday Muse, because it is by far higher on my list of favorite paintings than last week’s painting.
The only reason I listed Monet’s painting first was primarily because of my own struggle painting clouds. I took comfort in the fact that Monet’s clouds were not strikingly realistic either, and yet his painting was still wonderful and breathtaking. In other words, Monet’s painting inspired me because I saw what I would perceive as a weakness in my own work in his, and saw that despite that “weakness” his painting was still rightly considered great art.
Here, in Van Gogh’s work however, I am not seeing some weakness that encourages me that my own weakness is acceptable, rather I am seeing a mastery to aspire to.
In this, and many other of his paintings, Van Gogh, shows a style that none before him had undertaken. His brushstrokes, laid side by side, are somewhat reminiscent of the work of the Impressionists like Monet, Manet, and Renoir, but they are thicker, longer, bolder strokes, and he uses them without the strict adherence to realistic portrayal of the properties of light that the Impressionists emphasized.
His thicker, bolder brushstrokes almost mimic the work of Mosaic artists of ancient Rome and Greece, yet without the adherence to the themes of classicism those artists followed, and without the restraints imposed by the shapes of the stones.
His work somewhat resembles pointillism, such as that done by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, however, yet again Van Gogh’s strokes are bolder, thicker, and his paintings seem to have more depth than the works of the pointillists.
Van Gogh was undoubtedly influenced all these artists, and many others as well, and yet unlike any of them, he introduced the idea of expressionism in his art. He didn’t just depict what he saw, but what he felt, and thought.
Van Gogh predated the expressionists, and his art doesn’t quite fit neatly into that definition either, but rather his art stands, almost as a bridge between impressionism and expressionism, influenced by, but not adhering to the first, and being a harbinger foretelling the development of the second. Art Historians have labeled him a post impressionist, which I suppose fits, since his work does seem to be a bridge between impressionism and more modern art forms such as abstract expressionism.
In this particular painting (Starry Night), Van Gogh is looking out the window of his room at a mental asylum, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Vincent had voluntarily admitted himself after cutting off a small piece of his own ear (contrary to popular myth, he did not cut off his entire ear, but rather a very small piece of the ear lobe, probably doing less harm to himself than many do through popular forms of body-art today). At any rate, he had admitted himself to the asylum, knowing that his depression was getting the better of him.
While at the asylum Vincent painted a great many paintings, the Starry Night being among the most famous. He painted it based on the view out of his window, along with no fewer than twenty other drawings, paintings, and studies, all variations on that view. Some of those works showed the scene in the day, some were pencil sketches almost identical to Starry Night.
Interestingly, Van Gogh regarded this, perhaps his most famous painting, as a failure. He referred to it in a letter to Emile Bernard this way, “When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led astray into abstraction, as you know. . . . But that was delusion, dear friend, and one soon comes up against a brick wall. . . . And yet, once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching for stars that are too big—another failure—and I have had my fill of that.”
It seems that later, he came around to appreciating abstracted style a little more though, because he later wrote about it (in reference to the Starry Night) to his brother Theo, “Despite what you say in your previous letter, that the search for style often harms other qualities, the fact is that I feel myself greatly driven to seek style, if you like, but I mean by that a more manly and more deliberate drawing. If that will make me more like Bernard or Gauguin, I can’t do anything about it. But am inclined to believe that in the long run you’d get used to it.” Then at other times he again expressed dissatisfaction with the painting, so it seems he was somewhat ambivalent in his feelings about it.
Regardless of whether he loved this painting, or continued to think of as a failure, the fact remains that this stylized sky is one of his greatest works. Perhaps, his struggle to accept this painting isn’t so hard to understand though. Perhaps, as he looked at the beauty of God’s creation, as he looked on the vastness and grandeur of the universe, and tried to depict it with mere paint and canvas, he simply felt discouraged by the impossibility of the task.
I think that while his depiction no doubt falls short in comparison to the real majesty of the heavens, his swirling brushstrokes at least give a nod to their glory, and that is the best that any artist can ever hope to do.
I’ve decided that each Monday I should post about a “Muse”. For my purposes a Muse can be any thing or person that brings me inspiration.
Today’s Muse is this painting, by Claude Monet:
Why did I pick this painting as my Monday Muse?
Well, as my readers know, I find it very difficult to be satisfied with my renderings of clouds. I have produced a few paintings where I was genuinely satisfied with the clouds. However, those paintings are the exception, and I certainly seem unable to reproduce the results at will. Its more a matter of “luck” than skill when I produce a sky I am truly happy with. Sometimes grueling hard work gives me results that I find acceptable, but not really pleasing. Well today, I was doing something I frequently do, browsing paintings online. I started looking closely at many of the impressionists’ work, particularly their skies. What I was seeing was encouraging to me. These paintings are beautiful, but if I isolate the sky like this:
I see brush strokes of blue, white, some yellow, a little that is kind of dirty yellow-gray… What I don’t see is photograph-like realistic clouds.
In fact, the closer you look, the less cloud like they become:
To me this is a wonderful encouragement, because the overall picture is amazing, even the sky is amazing. No person knowledgeable about art would say that Monet didn’t know how to paint. Yet when I look at the sky closely I realize that if I had done it myself, I would not have been satisfied. It is showing me that perhaps I need to step back and look at my paintings from further back. It’s okay for them to not look like photographs. The are PAINTINGS. I am my own worst critic of course, because when i saw this, at first I wasn’t thinking anything negative, I was admiring the beauty of the painting. The reason I looked closer at the sky was to see how he did it, and that’s when I realized that I would not have liked it if I did it, but I loved it when Monet did it.
Now does that mean that I will stop trying to improve my skies? No. It does mean though that I can stop stressing every time I fail to make it look exactly like what I see. I don’t necessarily have overwork my sky to the point of frustration, it is OKAY to put in brushstrokes that give the impression of clouds, especially when the sky isn’t the central point of the painting, but merely a backdrop for the rest.
I really don’t know why I didn’t grasp this concept before, after all, the artists I admire most are Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, neither of which are particularly preoccupied with Photorealism in their paintings. In fact, one of my frustrations with other aspects of paintings is that I find it difficult to loosen up enough, and yet with clouds, I was refusing to loosen up. I was trying so much to control every aspect and get the EXACT image held in my mind.