“To paint, without knowing what the thing one saw actually was”: Cristoph Heinrich’s Monet


I recently taught this book on Monet by Christoph Heinrich to my Humanities II class as way to introduce Monet's life and philosophy into his paintings.  Now I can't say the students unanimously loved it--or hell, even read it!--but the book charmed me right to the core.  What makes this book so wonderful is the author's ability to paint Monet's life and culture within the context of his works, since the paintings are why we read the book.  However, unlike many an art historian, the text helps us appreciate what he painted, why he painted it, and the cultural forces that led to the birth of Impressionism.  Heinrich is very skilfully in analyzing art with an expert's eye, yet without drowning us in jargon or specialized wisdom.  My students were able to follow the text quite well, and it challenged my own ideas about Monet's accomplishments.  Here are a few great passages that made this book 'sing' for me:

"What Monet was to call l'instantaneite became his life's work, and time and again reduced him to despair, for there is an intrinsic and irresolvable contradiction in the aim to preserve in permanent form the passing moment" (32).

[On Monet's decision to paint at the Gare Saint-Lazare station when he was still relatively unknown]: "I am the painter Claude Monet...I have decided to paint your station.  For a long time I was undecided whether to take the Gare du Nord of yours, but I now feel yours has more character."  Monet got his way in everything.  Trains were stopped, platforms closed off, the locomotives fired full of coal so they belched out steam in the way Monet loved.  Tyrannically he set himself up in the station and for days, amidst universal awe, he painted, then left again with half a dozen pictures done" (40-41).

[On the painting Vetheuil in the Mist]: "Jean-Baptiste Faure, a celebrated baritone at the Paris opera and one of the first collectors of Impressionist art, bought it from Monet but quickly returned it, saying that although he himself liked it his friends never tired of poking fun at him for buying a painting with nothing on it.  Monet kept the painting till he died, and would not have resold it for the world" (47).

[On the death of his wife]: "I found myself at daybreak at the beside of a dead woman who had been and always will be dear to me.  My gaze was fixed on her tragic temples, and I caught myself observing the shades and nuances of colour Death brought to her countenance.  Blues, yellows, greys, I don't know what.  That is the state I was in.  The wish come upon me, quite naturally, to record the image of her who was departing from us forever.  But before it occurred to me to draw those features I knew and loved so well, I was first and foremost devastated, organically, automatically, by the colours.  Against my will, my reflexes took possession of me in an unconscious process, as the everyday course of my life took over.  Like a draught animal working at the millstone.  Pity me, my friend" (48).

"At times, Monet imagined what it would have been like to be born blind and then suddenly be able to see, and to paint, without knowing what the thing one saw actually was.  He felt that one's first clear look at a subject was the most honest, because least sullied by preconceptions and prejudices" (55).

"For me, the subject is of secondary importance: I want to convey what is alive between me and the subject" (57).  

"Monet was never an artist meticulous in his botanical detail.  What he was after was the harmony of the whole, the overall impression.  For Monet, flowers were bearers of light, and a feast for the eyes" (73).  

[On his waterlilly paintings]: "The sky was only a reflection now and no longer appeared at the top of Monet's paintings.  His water pictures were landscapes shorn of horizons.  However small the section viewed, it might still include the countryside, trees, the sky, or clouds--but of course these were not landscape paintings in the usual sense; Monet himself called them reflected landscapes" (83).  

"It was as if Monet's broad, chalky stroke were itself becoming an alga or waterplant.  His brushstrokes no longer ran horizontally or vertically, but coiled like mysterious tendrils, and began to dance.  It was this freedom and daring in Monet's technique, together with the distance his colours moved from faithful representation, and his audacious use of outsize formats, that made his waterlily paintings so important for future artists" (84).  


These are just highlights, of course, but they suggest the luminous perspectives that Heinrich gives to this famous--and to some, overexposed--artist.  Reading this book is seeing Monet with new eyes as if one were blind and had never seen a Monet before.  It makes Impressionism new and daring once more, and certainly helps underpin the debt that later symbolist and abstract painters such as Kandinsky, Pollock, etc., owed to his example.  The beautiful writing is coupled with so many gorgeous, full-color images, some I've never even seen before.  A wonderful introduction or re-appreciation of Monet's work and well worth reading--or teaching in class!  

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