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Monet and Change

Claude Monet left the founding principles of Impressionism, the interpretation of color, light and their interaction, to paint a particular mood evoked by the changes in light and atmosphere. Monet believed the only way to understand a subject completely was to paint that subject in series; “to isolate a specific by painting a subject only once was to deny one aspect of reality: the passage of time.”

Japanese Footbridge, Water Lily Pool, Giverny, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Japanese Footbridge
Water Lily Pool, Giverny,
Philadelphia Museum of Art
“Change is the only constant, and one moment exists only in relation to others.” This belief lead to the creation of such series paintings as The Haystacks, The Waterlilies, and The Japanese Footbridge.

Monet’s paint application and shape interpretation changed as he grew older. Was it all due to his growth as an artist, pushing the boundaries of impressionism, or was his increasingly abstract interpretation of his subjects a result of his failing vision?

Monet had cataracts, which affected his color perception, as well as problems with his visual acuity. His subjects did not change, but he could not see them as clearly or accurately distinguish their colors. Ophthalmologists, through the study of medical records and correspondence, have been able to shed some light on the way both these infirmities affected his work.

In 1912, although cataract surgery was well established and relatively safe, Monet worried that it would affect his color perception. His visual acuity was only slightly reduced, and as he was not having major difficulties, he rejected surgery. However, the darkened tones of his paintings done between 1914 and 1915 suggest that colors were losing their intensity. He admitted that reds appeared muddy and he couldn’t distinguish or choose colors well. Trusting the labels on his paint tubes and operating under force of habit, Monet was unable to create the subtle color discrimination of his prior work. Looking through the “dirty windows” of his cataracts, his world took on a yellowish cast. By 1919-22, he was only able to paint when light was optimal.

Monet''s Japanese Footbridge
Monet's Japanese Footbridge

Monet’s late paintings appear almost abstract in his application of paint, and are predominated by either red-orange or green-blue tones. While it may be tempting to believe this is the result of experimentation and an effort to move beyond impressionism, nothing in his correspondence suggests that he was interested in pursuing the abstractions or distortions of other early 20th century painters. Although Monet would have been able to recognize the increasing coarseness of his brushstrokes, he would not have seen the true colors of his paintings. Those bold striking colors would have appeared a murky yellow-green to Monet. He would have no way of knowing how his viewers would see his paintings.

While we have no way of knowing if he wanted them to look they way they did, we do know that after his cataract surgery in 1923, he destroyed many of his later canvases. Those that survived were salvaged by friends and family. By 1924, Monet had returned to his easel and to an earlier style. His freer painting style had developed prior to his vision difficulties and can be considered part of his growth as an artist, but his move to bright, direct-from-the -tube colors was more likely a result of necessity than genius.




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