I am in London as part of my stitched-together path home in the wake of Sandy, so yesterday afternoon I went for a walk and on a whim decided to duck into the National Gallery. (Free museums are so Open Access!)
I am ashamed that once again I gravitated to the Impressionists. I take it as due to a typical American’s lack of education about art. My taste is so conventional and so lazy. For example, my wife likes Medieval art in part because she knows the backstories of the religious scenes depicted, while I, on the other hand, know a handful of saints. (Hint: If he’s got arrows stuck in him, he’s St. Sebastian.) My ignorance keeps me from appreciating what I’m looking at, much less knowing enough about the history of art to perceive the telling differences in the portrayals. (Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes is an astounding example of how knowing stuff helps to see things. (And here’s a rather snippy review of it [pdf] by one of the greatest art historians, E.H. Gombrich.))
The Impressionists are easy because you’re not looking at history or religion. You’re looking at looking. Although that’s not all. I also often have a strong desire to be in the place depicted, even though I’m not much of an outdoors guy. For whatever reason, I don’t have the same reaction to Renaissance landscapes or to the awestruck vistas of the American frontier. Those seem like a lot of work. I want to be on a blanket in Monet’s hayfield or sitting on a rock in Van Gogh’s meadow. It’s easy to like a painting of a place where you want to be, although in real life I’d last for about four minutes before checking my phone for email. So I guess the Impressionists get credit for making me desperate to be somewhere I wouldn’t actually like.
This is related to another aspect of the laziness I feel in my attraction to the Impressionists. They’re not taking commissions to commemorate ugly rich families or to paint a church with heroic scenes. They’re painting fields they don’t till, fruit they don’t pick, and gardens they don’t weed. The social Impressionists are at revels or performances, or watching ladies dry themselves. Of course many of these artists were thereby impoverished, at least for a while, but they were doing exactly what they wanted. So, laziness is the wrong word. Is “self-indulgent” any closer?
[Now for some backpedaling: Monet did a lot of weeding, but had a large staff of gardeners. Not all the scenes the Impressionists painted were happy. They were far from the only artists in history to paint for themselves and not for commissions. And I do understand that they were bravely asserting a human sensory aesthetic, which was not an easy or popular thing to do. So there goes my entire argument. Still, I feel lazy for being drawn to them.]
But screw it. The National Gallery has some beautiful, beautiful paintings. I found myself once again inevitably drawn to Monet. In this case, I was looking at a perfectly rendered painting of the beach at Le Havre, admiring how crisp and precise it was, even though many of the strokes are, well, impressionist. Yet it’s in hyper-focus. In fact, the sharpness of the mountain’s edge where it meets the sky is quite dramatic. It turns out the painting is by Monet. (The National Gallery has put these images on line. Thank you!!)
On the opposite wall, there’s a late Monet called “Water Lillies, Setting Sun,” which is much more vividly red than the online image appears. It shows lilies, the surface of the water, the water’s depth, a reflection of a willow tree, and the redness of a sunset. It took a moment to snap into focus, but when it did, I thought, “Wow. You really have to be a human to see this painting.” Send it in a space ship and aliens would never figure out what it’s a painting of. But if you are an earthling, it’s all there – earth, sky, water, life, surface and depth, reflection and shadow, days and nights. Everything except for humans of course. But we’re the ones who can paint this and see it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not respond only to Impressionism. I also am moved by other artists easy to like. Rembrandt does it for me just about every time. The Renaissance Italians had a way with a brush and chisel. But no artists make me feel simultaneously as moved and lazy as the Impressionists.
I had dinner with Suw , and it turns out that we both admire the Paul Delaroche painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, so I thought I’d put in the link to it.