Tuesday, April 8, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight (Monet)

For the next couple of days, I'm going to break from the Realists and talk about a couple of Impressionists.  Let me just say for the record that I am not a die hard fan of Monet, or of Impressionism as a whole.  But I do like some of Monet's work, and he's one of a few Impressionists that I admire.
The thing with Impressionism is that it is a great style of painting to an extent.  There is a certain level of abstraction that happens with impressionistic painting that makes it interesting, but after a certain point, the abstraction causes the painting to lose its appeal.  That's what's so difficult about impressionistic painting.  You have to know how to exploit the abstract qualities of painting without taking it too far.  Take a look at Velázquez and Rembrandt.  When you stand back from their portraits, you see an amazingly convincing depiction of realism.  But when you look up close, you see this dazzling technique that uses those abstract qualities of paint to create the realism - if that makes any sense.  Basically your eye and your brain work together to, in a sense, "edit out" the abstractions so that you are looking at a cohesive, harmonious image.  Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Titian would intentionally leave areas of their paintings with a sketchy look not for the sake of abstraction, but because the abstraction created realistic effects.
So getting back to Monet, we can see how he did the same thing, but to a greater extent.  Monet had some academic training, and he could have stuck with a more academic technique to painting, but chose the impressionistic style.  Colors are more intense, and brushwork is more loose.  Monet seems less interested in making objects look real, and more interested in exploring the effects of light on those objects.  He was a plein air painter, meaning he worked exclusively on the spot outdoors.  But unlike Shishkin, he broke down the subject into pure colors (much like a prism) to create an optical effect in which the eye would visually mix the colors together when viewed from a distance.  I do have to hand it to Monet here... this is a brilliant technique, as is his loose, broken brushwork technique which captured the effect of the natural, atmospheric light of the outdoors.
One of my favorite paintings by Monet is this one here, his "Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight."  This is Monet, and Impressionism, at their best.  What I love about this painting is that Monet has taken his use of optical color mixing and loose, rhythmic brushwork and applied it to painting a convincing depiction of architecture.  Architecture is no easy subject to paint in the first place, but to paint it with an impressionistic style is astonishing to me.  It is quintessential impressionism in that it does not rely on giving us the full story of intricate details, but it edits down those details and gives us the important facts about the architecture of the Cathedral.  In other words, it gives an impression of the architecture that is convincing without seeing every detail.  And again, this has to do with the way in which Monet has depicted the light.  In all of art, the key factor and often times what separates a bad painting from a great painting is dependent on the lighting, and the balance between light and shadow.  After all, light and shadow are the two things that give us color in a painting.   His harmony between warm lights and cool shadows are what make this, and many other paintings by Monet so great.

Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight
oil on canvas

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