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The very nature of abstract art might lead us to suppose that it stands at an even further remove from Impressionism than Cubism did. The fact is, however, that by reacting against cubist rationalism and reverting to the basic forms and forces that appeal to the human instinct, abstract art has contributed to focus the attention of the younger generation of painters on the master of Giverny.
The first wave of abstractionism unleashed by Cubism was based, it is true, on a rational, intellectualized system of symbols. But it was followed by a purer form of abstraction embodying a very different conception of art. The latter, based not on the reasoning mind but on the senses, set out to give plastic expression to the blind, instinctive forces and uncontrollable pulsions that lie beneath the surface of consciousness. Since this is the prevailing trend of art today, it is only natural that the younger generation of painters should be more susceptible than their elders to a purely sensorial art; only natural, therefore, that they should see Monet’s last works in a new light.
To them the great Water Lilies recently withdrawn from the seclusion of the studio at Giverny have come as a revelation. In these canvases, executed when Monet’s eyes were clouded by cataract, they have found, as it were, the sponsorship of their own experiments in “abstract expressionism.” But the question arises: may not this apparent sponsorship be simply fortuitous, inasmuch as the works on which it is based were the result, involuntary perhaps, of failing eyesight? To this there is only one reply: after the operation which partially restored his sight, Monet preserved the canvases in question instead of destroying them, and it was his lifelong habit to destroy every canvas that failed to satisfy him.
Furthermore, the keen interest he took in these experiments in near-abstraction, in which the very shape of objects melts away in modulations of colors, is confirmed by his deliberate resumption of them after his recovery. It is easy to identify the canvases executed before his operation, when the cataract had spread an amber-colored film over the crystalline lens of his eyes: these canvases are not only woolly in outline but abnormally yellow in tone. Those painted after the operation, on the contrary, have an almost acid freshness of tone. Now some of the latter group, some of the most characteristic among them in fact (whose documented dating, moreover, is unimpugnable), nevertheless retain a haziness of outline which renders the subjects unrecognizable. These works can only be regarded as experiments in abstraction deliberately undertaken.
Among these irrefutable examples of deliberate abstraction is a Garden in Bloom, in green and acid pink, whose subject is only recognizable by reference to a second version, painted by Monet at the same time, from the same spot, but with normal eyesight. The composition, angle of vision, lighting and color scheme of the two pictures are identical. The only difference is the handling, the focus, if you will: clean-cut in one, blurred in the other. Without reference to the first, which corresponds to it in every particular, save handling, the second fails to convey any figurative impression at all; it is, purely and simply, a magnificent symphony of colors.
Argenteuil and Impressionism
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (July 18, 1870) found Monet at Le Havre, where he remained as that fateful summer wore on. On September 2 came the German breakthrough at Sedan; Napoleon III capitulated and on September 4 the Third Republic was proclaimed. Leaving Camille and little Jean in Normandy, Monet sailed for England in September. Bazille volunteered for the Zouaves and joined a line regiment in August (he was killed in action at Beaune-la-Rolande on November 28).
Manet, as a confirmed republican, waited for the Empire to collapse and then enlisted (as did Degas) in an artillery unit of the National Guard. Pissarro, living at Louveciennes, found himself in the path of the advancing Germans and fled to England, leaving behind hundreds of his pictures together with many that Monet had stored with him. Torn from their frames and used as floor-mats and aprons by the Prussian soldiery, who turned his house into the regimental butchershop, all were destroyed — an irreparable loss, depriving us of by far the greater part of Pissarro’s pre-1870 output and a substantial part of Monet’s. To these losses, in the case of Monet, must be added the many canvases which he himself ripped to shreds in fits of despair or to prevent their being seized by his creditors.
Things went no better for him in London than in France. The English public showed complete indifference to his work. He submitted some pictures to an exhibition at the Royal Academy, but they were rejected. He had the good luck, however, to run into Daubigny, who introduced him to his own dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, also a refugee in London, who had opened a gallery at 158 Bond Street. This meeting was providential not only for Monet but also for Pissarro, who met Durand-Ruel at the same time. “Without him we’d have starved to death in London,” he wrote later. But in spite of his enthusiasm for their work and his persistence in bringing it to public notice, Durand-Ruel failed to sell a single one of their pictures in England. He nevertheless went on buying canvases from Monet and Pissarro, and thus enabled them to keep afloat.
Series of Regattas: Sailboat at Argenteuil
In the series of Regattas, painted from his boat, slight stylistic differences are discernible from picture to picture. These reveal a rather subtle line of evolution, but a significant one.
Sailboat at Argenteuil (Bravington Collection), tacking with all sails set across the Seine, represents the next step after Pleasure Boats (May Collection). It is handled like the latter, with the paint swept on broadly in thin coats, but the strokes of the brush are no longer quite so separate and distinct as they are in Pleasure Boats; instead of being juxtaposed and contrasting with each other, planes tend to fuse and intermingle. Regatta in Fine Weather (Caillebotte Collection, Louvre) marks a further stage.
Reflections on the water are no longer rendered in molten dabs of color, but in straight, horizontal, distinctly separate brushstrokes. These strokes, however, are larger than those in Regatta in Gray Weather (Camondo Collection, Louvre). Here, in order to render choppy water ruffled by the wind, Monet dabbed on his paints in small, flickering touches that convey an effect of movement and agitation, and though motivated by circumstances (i.e. the state of the weather) they nevertheless mark a further step in his increasing concern with effects of atmospheric vibration.
In each of these pictures he never failed to adapt his technique to the nature of the scene before him. Sky, water, trees, sails, houses, no two of these things are treated in the same way. The brushstroke is adjusted in every case to the visual impression, which in turn depends not only on light conditions but on the form and texture of the object or element in question.
During the summer Monet was so completely engrossed in nautical subjects that he apparently found time for only one rural landscape: Springtime (Berlin), a masterpiece of sunny airiness, painted with the utmost simplicity in flat colors. At the approach of winter his thoughts turned again to the open country and he made some snowscapes, mostly handled in thin coats of modulated color (for example, Train in the Snow, Musée Marmottan, Paris, dated 1875), sometimes in a thick impasto, but always smoothly brushed on, without any division of color.
As a result of the severe winters of the early seventies (borne out by his snowscapes), Monet felt the pinch more than ever and, to make things worse, there seemed to be no prospect of better times ahead, for the “incomprehensible” novelty of his painting only widened the breach between him and the public. With his stout physique Monet could bear the hardships of cold and hunger, but his wife’s frail health was permanently injured. His painter friends were Monet’s only resource, but the whole group was faring badly.