This afternoon, through chance and happenstance, I revisited a place I had last set foot in almost half my lifetime ago. As a young man, honeymooning with my lovely new bride in the city of romance, we first visited the Museé de l’Orangerie. For those not familiar with the art museums of Paris, this is a purpose built gallery, created from a disused orange growing greenhouse in the Tuilleries, which is now home to a remarkable permanent collection of Impressionist paintings. However, the showpiece, which consists of two spacious oval rooms, is covered floor to ceiling, three hundred and sixty degrees, with some of the finest Monet waterlily paintings in existence – a gift to the French nation, painted in the artist’s final years, when he was at the height of his artistic powers. You are literally surrounded by paintings of such exquisite, breathtaking beauty that you cannot fail to be moved. Twice.
When I last visited these eight paintings, twenty five years ago, I was not yet a painter and would not attempt to become one for the next two decades. However, the feeling of seeing those amazing waterlily paintings stayed with me. You are bathed in pastel light, with stunning feature moments and a calming colour balance. It immerses you, as the viewer, into atmospheric play-of-the-light effects of sky and foliage on becalmed water. You never actually forget the feeling of seeing these works for the first time. Coming from the far-flung antipodes as I was, I had, quite literally, never seen anything like it before, nor anything on the same scale. The sensation was (and still is) overwhelming, saturating your visual sense with gorgeous, subtle, soft effects of nature, represented in oil paint. The effect is nothing short of magical. No reproduction in a book can prepare you for the fizz and vibrancy of the colour moments and the striking contrasts that, though rendered in small scale, blend optically at a distance to create a soothing, yet stunning colour effect of superb delicacy.
We know that technique now as optical colour mixing and the Impressionists were the first to use it extensively. Look closely at the tree trunks represented as reflections in the water and you see flashes of pure blue, bright red, deep purple and flaming cadmium orange. Step a few steps backward and these bright colours merge into the totality of the colour. It’s brown, but a very visually appealing one. Not flat at all. It leaps out of the canvas.
Coming back to these paintings now, having learned a little about painterly technique, I had the opportunity to cast a more analytical eye over the works. I was intrigued to see if I could even approximately second guess how the master had created his masterpieces.
The first thing that close inspection reveals (I was warned to move away from the protective railings at least once) is that Monet is a painter of texture as much as he is a painter of light (I’d have taken close up pictures if I could, but photography was strictly forbidden). Most artists don’t appreciate the power of texture. They paint onto their canvas, using flat colours, using only the canvas as any sort of tooth or relief. As a result, their paintings look like…well… paintings. They have a flat smoothness to them. They don’t grab you viscerally.
Some of us painters have experimented with heavy structure gels and modelling pastes, working with these impasto media when they are tacky and sticky (nearly dry). You find that you can lightly move a palette knife over the surface and you get a lovely, rough, broken surface. If you then paint with other colours on this dried texture, using an almost dry brush and light touch, you can get the paint to stick to the peaks in the texture and leave the valleys the original colour. If the two colours complement or contrast, the effect is lovely. You get something that looks highly detailed and intricate, but it takes only a few brush strokes to create. Move a little further from the canvas and the optical mixing effect comes into play.
Looking at the Monet canvases, it was revealing to see that in the corners, where the artist had left the canvas showing, the surface was decidedly smooth. The ground appeared to be high-quality linen of some sort, gessoed and prepared to give an almost totally smooth finish, with a tooth due only to the weft and warp of the cloth. It was almost as smooth as a good cartridge paper. However, in the middle of the painting, there were areas of very rough texture, corresponding more or less to the featured elements in the composition. Where had this roughness come from?
It certainly provided areas of the painting that contrasted texturally from the smooth, reflective water. By making the compositional features rough, it meant that the water, which reflected the sky, the clouds, sunlight and foliage hanging above the pond, looked even smoother and shinier than it really was, having been rendered in paint on canvas. Because it was comparatively smooth, compared to the rough texture applied behind the waterlilies, tree trunks and shadows, it seemed even smoother and calmer – just like a real pond surface.
I looked very closely at the surface texture of the rougher areas of the canvas. A first guess might be that they were the result of successive applications of nearly dry oil paint, as the artist painted the same area over and over again, working toward the final composition and colour balance. However, that explanation didn’t seem convincing. For one thing, it would take forever and cost a fortune in paint that was destined to be covered and provide nothing more than the texture. What a waste of pigment and time. I noticed that there were some areas of texture that looked as if they had been applied with a sponge, or rag-rolled on (perhaps even placed on the surface with old rags), whereas other areas had brush strokes perpendicular to the brush strokes of the feature they were ultimately the under-painting for. In those areas, where brush strokes were present in the texture below the painting, it was clear that large, coarse bristled brushes had been used to create the texture.
Still other textured areas looked drizzled on, as if by a Jackson Pollock technique, with the canvas flat on the floor. Interesting that Pollock should have cited Monet as an influence on his own work. Could Monet have used a very thick gesso paste or some other texture medium, applied it to delineate the main blocks of his composition and then applied colour over the top of the dried textures to produce his effects? I don’t really know, but it seemed to me to be a plausible approach.
If this was how it was done (and I am conjecturing wildly now), then it makes sense that the artist could produce such wonderful dry brush effects, with a single stroke, using medium to large brushes. You see that all over the place, particularly when rendering the lily pads and the weeping willow foliage and bark. Raw colour is scumbled over the texture to create a broken paint effect that is charming.
For the finishing touches, the highlights of the composition (e.g. the petals of the flowers) are applied with a very fully loaded brush, in single strokes. This leaves a lot of colour on the canvas and provides yet another texture contrast, as the thickly applied paint holds the brush stroke texture and the little blobs of paint sit proud above the canvas. There is little evidence of rework and much evidence of a deft, one time stroke. Colours rarely mix on the canvas, where these compositional highlights are concerned. They are, instead, placed adjacent to each other and your eye does the work of mixing them optically. Once the strokes are placed, they are never touched again – for eternity, as it happens. They are left to dry the way they landed. In contrast, the smoother areas of the painting show some evidence of blending and softening. Once again, texture is all important.
On rare strokes, you can see that Monet had two sometimes complementary, sometimes contrasting colours loaded on the opposite sides of the bristles of one fully loaded brush. By rotating the handle of the brush, as the stroke is placed, the colour can be made to change from one to the other, in a gradual mix. You can’t see this in a book of printed reproductions of Monet’s paintings. You only notice it if you are 30 cm away from the surface of the actual work and know what these two colour brush effects look like. Bob Ross used to paint rocks in streams this way. Monet used the same trick, rather more sparingly and less obviously, to render waterlilies.
The dry brush over textured ground technique means that there are no distinct, hard edges or lines. Everything is diffuse and indistinct. Elements are suggested rather than didactically delineated. This is what, to my mind, gives the best Impressionist works their everlasting, signature look.
For the flatter areas, that are supposed to represent reflections in water, the brush stroke directions are the key. There is a lot of circular movement and a light touch. Colours are daubed on and subtly blended together at the boundaries, but not too much. What you can’t fail to notice is how pure the areas of colour are and how subtly and gradually other colours are introduced into these larger areas. You rarely see colour contamination or accidental mixing of colour.
Colour highlights are used sparingly, but always to good effect. A little yellow moment in a predominantly peach coloured reflection of a cloud seems to lift it off the wall and into your eye. Using a highly reflective, pure white ground also explains, to some degree, why Monet’s pastel and deeper, purer colours all jump out at you.
So that was how I spent a couple of wonderful hours this afternoon, with my wife and two children. We were all glad we had gone. It became clear to me that Monet was not only a superb colourist, especially with pastel tones, a compositional master second to none and a painter of delicate light effects, but he was also an accomplished texturalist. They don’t teach that in art schools very much.
In fact, looking at the rest of the exhibition, my son noted wryly that most of the works hung as part of the permanent collection (a mixture of Derains, Picassos, Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, Modiglianis and Soutines) would be rejected by the average high school art teacher as being of insufficient quality to meet the requirements of the examining board. How wrong they are.