Yesterday, while my daughter was having breakfast, I said, “Well, it’s a shame the Monet exhibition at Te Papa Museum will end this weekend.” Her face fell. She had been reading about Monet and his work, as well as the work of several other Impressionist artists, like Renoir and Degas.
“Ohhh,” she said slowly and sadly, “I guess we’re not going to see it then…” Her face crumpled.
“Would you have wanted to go?” I asked gently.
“Yes,” came the quiet, disappointed reply.
“Well, you’d better get dressed then, so we can catch our plane to Wellington!”
She stared at me disbelievingly for a loooong time, until I finally said, “SURPRISE! I’m taking you to the exhibition! Our flight’s in 2 1/2 hours, so you’d better get dressed!” And then what a grand hip hip hooraying and hollering filled the room as she jumped up and down like a jackrabbit on steroids. She yelled! She screamed! “We’re going to Wellingtonnnnn. Praise the Lord!!!”
She couldn’t stop squeezing my arm in glee as we traveled the short distance to the nation’s capital to view the over 55 Impressionist works on loan to the National Museum of Te Papa by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
As we queued, we were told how lucky we were that the queue was not long (under an hour’s wait) compared to the weekend queues where people waited for three hours just to get in.
The works on display were worth it. And it made such a difference that we had studied Monet before going to the exhibit. We understood so much more about why the Impressionists found it so trying to break into the market and even to get their works exhibited at the snooty Paris Salon. We learned where the name “Impressionists” came from (It came from a derisive comment by an art critic who gazed on Monet’s painting “Impression: Sunrise” and mocked the fact that the artist and his ilk painted based on their impressions rather than on accurate depictions of reality.)
We were there for nearly five hours, just soaking in all the beauty. I came away thinking, Monet really is a Master of colour and light. He outlived all the other Impressionist artists and lived to the ripe old age of 86. The body of work he left behind was remarkable for the incredible portrayals of light falling upon landscapes, people, and objects like haystacks; and, for changing the way artists painted landscapes (His waterlilies series contained no earth and sky, contrary to the style of the day).
The two paintings that took my breath away were both captured in the early morning mist: Charing Cross Bridge, and Rouen Cathedral. Charing Cross Bridge, with the sun-dappled Thames in the foreground, was remarkable in its simplicity. Monet mastered painting the effect of sun kissing the water. The painting reminded me of a lady, not outwardly beautiful or arresting, but whose intelligence, kindness, and grace render her captivating to one who looks with the inner eye.
No book I have read has captured the effect of viewing these paintings in person. If you look at them up close, particularly the painting of Rouen Cathedral, you see heavy brush work and thick paint. Ugh! The cathedral looks hazy and washed out. I wondered why Monet bothered to include this painting in his collection. “It does nothing to recommend him,” I thought in my ignorant way. BUT, an accident of distance showed me something different. I was viewing another painting on a far side of the gallery when I turned around to look for my daughter and my eyes spied the painting of Rouen Cathedral. Well! It took my breath away! I couldn’t believe how critical I was of it not 20 minutes before!
So here’s the trick! If you walk away from the paintings and view them at a distance of at least 14-15 meters, what a ravishing sight awaits you. You feel like you’re standing on the street in Rouen, looking up at the Cathedral in the early morning light. The sun is nudging the Cathedral’s tall spires – bright fingers piercing the mist and reaching out to grasp the solemn stonework.
HOW did Monet achieve that amazing effect? Surely he would have painted the canvas up close! So, how did he achieve the effect of perfectly capturing the Cathedral in the washed out milky morning light as though one were viewing it from a distance? I kept walking up to the painting trying to figure out how he achieved that remarkable effect. Of course, not being an artist, I wasn’t struck by any great revelation, but it didn’t stop me moving forward, moving back, moving forward, moving back…which was how I ended up meeting another lady who was doing exactly the same thing for the exact same reason! We laughed at our shared curiosity!
There is so much more to meditate on regarding Monet’s work and life. But for now I would say, if you ever have a chance to view his work in person, take advantage of it. The first time my husband and I got to see Monet’s work was over 10 years ago in Japan, and it was so popular, you could only ever view his work over the heads of hundreds of eager Japanese art lovers. So flying into Wellington for a day to catch the work of this Master was well-worth it. No book I’ve seen, not even those of the highest print quality, can capture the startling beauty of Monet’s canvasses. What a wonderful blessing they were. And what a precious legacy Monet has left for generations of nature lovers to enjoy. God Bless him! 🙂