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An Ongoing Commentary on the Importance of Observation of Nature to Painting

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

The world loves Monet and his peers – bringing colour and light into the world – an optic sensation.

Like all great movements, the French impressionist painters of the late 1800’s did not receive overnight acclaim when they first exhibited in Paris in 1874. Today, however, 150 years later, the French Impressionists painters are well loved and enjoy a universal fascination, capturing the imagination of viewers around the world like no other painting movement in history. Their revolutionary practices were to change the face of painting for all time as they broke with the principles of classicism and heroic romanticism of earlier painting movements in the west.

In my opinion this is largely due to the importance they placed on the ‘observation of nature.’ and their communion with the practice of painting ‘en plein air.

Probably one of the best known and loved impressionist painters is Claude Monet, 1840-1926 whose painting Impression, Sunrise 1872. gave rise to the name Impressionism. While Monet, has captured the worlds imagination for his paintings around his home and garden in the village of Giverny, France, there were many more painters who embrace the impressionist style in their individual ways, like Cassatt, Morisot, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Seurat, Signac and Sisley.

The impressionists, as a whole were interested in the science of colour, light and vision, being influenced by the advent of the camera in the 1840’s and the research by the scientist Chevreul, on the physics of colour. Their broken or rainbow palette minimized presence of earth colours, black and greys. Instead, the bright hues were neutralized with complementary colours, giving luminosity and animation to the play of direct reflected colour.

While diverse in their style the French Impressionists painters had one main underlying principle and that was to capture contemporary life and portray a truth according to their individual visions. It was their own individual impression of the moment in time, recording the atmosphere, light and essence without extraneous detail.

One of the characteristics of the impressionists was to paint directly on to a canvas in the outdoors, this method called ‘en plein air’ painting giving their work a spontaneous freedom never found before in the history of art.

Monet, a prolific, exemplary of ‘en plein air’ dedicated his entire life to capturing on canvas the many aspects of light and weather conditions. he was devoted to the ultimate form of naturalism, being the truth of retinal sensation and it is noted the pains to which he would go to achieve his objective. For example, tying himself to rocks in a stormy sea or arising at 4am, to punt out into the Seine to await the dawn He is aptly described by Rachel Barnes …..’One cannot help but feel the warmth and passion of his paintings governed by his immediate response to the visual and the way light and atmosphere falls’. And Cezanne is said to have described him as ‘only an eye, but my God, what an eye’.

Monet was not influenced by his predecessors, but by his contemporaries, of which Jean Renoir was a lifelong friend with whom he painted ‘en plein air’. Monet’s aim was to paint directly from nature to impart his aesthetic response to the transient light, atmosphere and colour of a moment-in-time, disregarding subject matter and totally maintaining an objective viewpoint, believing that what he knew about the subject was not necessarily what he saw.

An example of Monet’s ‘en plein air’ painting is Vetheuil .1879, the National Gallery of Victoria, is one of three in a ‘serial of paintings’ by. Monet ( a serial being the same motif at a different time, season or weather conditions).

Vetheuil painted by Claude Monet 1879

Monet was living in Vetheuil when he painted the series of ‘Vetheuil’, although the view point of this painting is unknown, he possibly painted it from an island or from his studio boat on the Seine.

To understand the implications Vetheuil, and other impressionist paintings. had on the conventions of previous movements, there is no better comparison than that of the 17th century Baroque painter Claude Lorraine ( below) whose idllyic mythical landscape paintings became the canon for classical landscape ie. strong tonal range of light and dark producing an illusion of depth and a triangular structure, called the ‘golden means’ ie. large mass (tree) on the right or left, small mass( building )on the opposite side to hold the eye of the viewer inside the painting and lead the eye through the painting from left to right and back into the focal point. Furthermore colour was suppressed over tone to produce the illusion of depth and any reference to red dropped out as the painting receded into the background.

Like most of Monet’s paintings Vetheuil gives us sense of intimate connection which is non judgemental and accepting of’ what is’. Monet endears us to the scene by capturing of transient light and colour sensations in a fresh and spontaneous way. With small brush strokes of juxtaposed colour (opposite colours) lavishly applied in a high keyed lacey pattern of light falling softly over the river, the village of Vetheuil and the sky. The river flows gently onward across the picture plane with no attempt to contain it within its space or manipulate an illusion of depth. Almost lost in the rivers reflections is a small island placed centrally on the canvas, which serve no purpose other than it happened to be there when Monet painted the scene. The village too just happens to be there, its little white houses with red roofs extend across the picture plane but also nestle around the central motif of the church steeple which like a spearhead of defiance (breaking of convention) rises into the gentle sky where clouds unceremoniously float out of the picture on their way to the mountains somewhere.

As we gaze at this painting we are mesmerized by the little blobs of colour and light that come together in our universal hearts and minds in one vibration to take us to that time and place. We need go no further we are there in Vetheuil with Claude Monet.

Claude Monet: Vetheuil in the Fog 71x 60cm Musee Marmottan Paris, France.

Vetheuil in Summer, 1880 by Claude Monet

Learn More about Claude Monet: Vetheuil in the Fog  71x 60cm Musee Marmottan Paris, France –

Learn More about  Vetheuil in Summer (60×99.7cm) 1880

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