Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. Two names that would be carved into a Mount Rushmore of artists if there was one. However, there isn’t, and instead Monet and Cezanne have been left to the history books, or the paintings themselves that can be seen adorned on museum walls; possibly even side by side. Like Turner and Constable, Monet and Cezanne are two artists who possess a common thread, but are different in their execution and ideas. It is especially important to realize these distinctions. After all, who is an “Impressionist” or “Post-Impressionist?” Monet is always considered an Impressionist, Cezanne always a Post-Impressionist, and on both counts, rightfully so. Of course, these labels only exist in the imaginations of people, like me, who try to explain the landscape of art history without trying to baffle people. These labels provide a map in which to study periods throughout art history without feeling overwhelmed. Although I think it is good to have an outline in mind, Monet and Cezanne did not think of their ambitions in terms of labels or theories, for that was something they were trying to get away from. What mattered to them were the subjects, methods and even obsessions they had obtained while painting in the open air. It is with those intentions in mind that one is best able to understand their art that played such a vital role in the development of modern art. Before delving into the specifics of these two respective artists, I think it would be best to examine the origins that led to their particular styles.
The story of the Impressionists has, over the years, reached legendary heights. The name, like many other art movements, stems from derision. The term was coined by the French art critic, Louis Leroy, after viewing Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (above):
Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.
This excerpt reminds me of Moliere’s vicious attack on Gothic cathedrals. Like Moliere’s criticism, Leroy’s scathing indictment is hardly revealing. The vitriolic last sentence has been paraphrased in so many different ways when any new artist or movement comes along, that its usage has definitely become cliche and meaningless. Indeed, critics from the past do have the tendency to be remembered for their failed judgments. It’s easy to chastise them when they are wrong in hindsight, but that’s just the thing: posterity has the benefit of hindsight. During Impressionism’s early years, ridicule and rejection were the common reactions. Impressionism was basically art to be laughed at. Many people could not understand the lack of refinement. The basis for French academic art had been the exact opposite. No less could people understand why these young artists had decided to depict not conventional mythological scenes, with gods and goddesses, but instead contemporary France with its bourgeois dandies and absinthe drinking cafe goers.
Academic painters at this time, through their own established and derivative means, were trying to recapture the grandeur of the Renaissance. By staying aligned with an accepted tradition, artists were attempting to make art that would inevitably display the cultural influence of Napoleon III’s French regime. It was art that would be respected by other nations and not mocked. Works such as Alexandre Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus,” epitomize this throwback to the Renaissance. Well received in 1863 at the state run Salon exhibition, admirers of the painting were fascinated by the ambiguity of Venus’s eyes, which, at first glance, seem closed, but upon closer examination, reveal she is awake. Despite the work’s “lascivious” erotic nature, it proved to be such a success, that it was promptly purchased by Napoleon III. Although a fine painting in isolation, this artwork is not even remotely as significant or revelatory as one derided work that was in the “exhibition of rejects.”
There were so many artists that were denied admission to the Salon that Napoleon III intervened by ordering an exhibition of many of the 4,000 artworks that had been rejected. There was one painting that caught everyone’s eye. While many had been impressed by Cabanel’s “Venus” at the regular exhibition, those same people were perplexed and hostile towards a radically different painting done by Edouard Manet. Amidst a wooded area, a young woman is sitting down, devoid of any clothes, and stares out from within the frame, as if she were looking at the viewer. Two debonairly dressed men in frock coats recline beside her. Another young woman, in the background, is bathing in a pond in her chemise.
The work is “Luncheon on the Grass.” It caused quite a stir at the Salon of Rejected Painters. Few understood this painting by Manet. Many simply didn’t want to, because it was just too confrontational. Art goers at this time were used to a certain type of picture, and “Luncheon on the Grass” undoubtedly was not it. They had come to expect a painting that would provide an allegorical veil of sorts. A work of art that could be interpreted moralistically. But Manet didn’t care about morals. He must have been at lost to why those same viewers who lambasted his “dirty” picture could at the same time praise Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus.” Bizarre indeed.
The reason why they singled out Manet and not Cabanel was due to technique. The more conservative critics were abhorred by the lack of polish that was applied to this proto-Impressionist work. With “Luncheon on the Grass,” the gauntlet had truly been thrown. Where else earlier academic artists had tried to render their handling invisible, Manet was making his brushstrokes clear to the viewer. And he had portrayed real subjects in a real world. Impressionism was born.
After Manet had lifted the veil that had stunted progress in French art, a group of young artists felt inspired by his direction. Stunned by the achievement of “Luncheon on the Grass,” artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frederic Bazille and Alfred Sisley were left wondering how they themselves could achieve the immediacy that Manet had captured so well. Their solution: to paint outdoors. But to paint outdoors with a catch. To do so in the 1860’s was, despite the en-plein-air legacy of the Impressionists, not revolutionary for its time. Before the likes of Monet and Renoir, artists had been working directly from nature. The difference is, they would make sketches and then go back to their studios and work from memory. Those artists did not start and finish a work in one sitting. In contrast, the Impressionists would go out and produce a work in a single attempt. That was the key to success, or immortality, for Impressionism. They had toppled the barrier between the artist and his world.
Claude Monet, the one who most deeply followed the en-plein-air approach is the purest Impressionist. He, more than any other Impressionist, personified the liberating effect of this movement. His canvases shrouded in mist, floating waterlilies and idyllic luncheons by Argenteuil riverbanks, are the heart and primary appeal of Impressionist works. His lithe brushstrokes suggest an eye that is powerfully at odds with making style rendered invisible. He set himself the Herculean task of seeing objects or subjects as they are, affected by how he sees them. When he depicts a haystack or a cathedral, he does not show them unaffected by his retina or the constantly changing atmosphere in which these objects lie. Beyond trying to depict what he truly sees, he is also – most importantly – aware of how the atmosphere is never static.
Monet’s tenacious attention to detail did not escape his contemporaries. Cezanne once declared, “If Monet was only an eye, what an eye!” It may seem like a strange proclamation, but Monet was truly obsessive. I presume he was naturally inclined like most artists to an inherent way of looking at the world, however, this doesn’t change the fact that he was compulsive when it came to depicting light. Indeed, Monet professed that he wished he had been “born blind in order to gain his sight and be able to paint objects without knowing what they were.” In other words, he wanted a totally clear picture, and by that, he would have to disregard established ways of looking at an object. Almost any Monet painting would do as an example, and the one I have chosen is a work from his haystack series. In a wonderful interplay of light, the orange rim of the haystack in the foreground is contrasted with the azure shade on the top of it. The radiance of the subsiding sun is rendered with the ease that Impressionism is associated with. The obsessive desire for these kinds of details can hardly be seen in photographs, for this was based entirely on feeling and perception.
And when I say “obsessive,” he truly was. When his wife Camille died, he had at that point become so obsessed by light that he painted her right after she died. His depiction is characteristic of his lack of regard for form. Her face seems to float above gray, blue and purple ripples of paint. The life has faded away; the throbbing glow of life replaced by the submissive melancholy of death. Here, the complicated matter of the transient takes a whole new meaning. Monet may not have expressed himself like the tumultuous, emotional Vincent Van Gogh, but here he showed he was more than capable of showing emotion.
It is clear Monet did not care about form. He cared, above all, about conveying color as light. Monet’s works, especially his later ones, can be seen as the harbinger of the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko for instance. In Monet’s oeuvre, visibility is not static, but rather, in a state of constant metamorphosis seen from different angles, in different times of the day, no matter the weather. He showed that tone and color can supersede composition and drawing. Overall, it is with these Herculean tasks he set himself to that history favorably remembers him for.
Though if Impressionism isn’t complex enough, Post-Impressionism is even more so. It is indeed much harder to pin down, because this movement involved conflicting personalities and ambitions. Generally though, Post-Impressionists recognized the necessity for immediacy in art as seen with the Impressionists, but, for all their various reasons, the Post-Impressionists wanted to go beyond the limitations of Impressionism.
Enter Paul Cezanne. More so than Monet, Cezanne dictated the direction of modern art. Artists such as Picasso and Braque were profoundly influenced by his explorative style. Matisse and Picasso were even said to have remarked that Cezanne “is the father of us all.” By “us,” both were referring to a new wave of modern masters that had emerged in the beginning of the 20th century, which they were the spearheads. Not long after Cezanne’s death in 1906, he had become popular with those artists. Soon, critical opinion that had once savagely taken him to task, had turned for the better. A half century after Cezanne died, the art critic John Canaday declared he was “the most revolutionary painter since the dawn of the Renaissance.” “Revolutionary” is a word that, by its very nature, can rarely be mentioned. In light of what I have written about Monet, even he might be considered utterly original. But before Monet had produced over thirty canvases of Rouen Cathedral in its varying conditions, so had the English landscape artist, John Constable, produced hundreds of transitory studies on cloud formations. Constable became just as concerned with atmospheric effects as Monet was going to become. He had even anticipated the method of applying thick paint to the canvas, which would become a trademark of Impressionism. With all this in mind, Monet’s works do suffer from some dimming of importance.
While Monet was obsessed by painting color as light, Cezanne was concerned with making “Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” This comment may sound strange at first. It can only be best understood in conjunction with his remark on one of his favorite artists, the French Baroque painter, Nicolas Poussin. Cezanne wanted “to do Poussin over again, after nature.” As John Canaday once wrote, Cezanne was putting “imposition of order onto nature, without any loss of nature’s vibrance, its quality of life and growth – in short, its naturalness, so dear to the Impressionists that they had once been willing to sacrifice everything else to it.” Thus, by making art “like the art of the museums,” he was searching for a way to combine Poussin’s “perfect interrelationship of forms in space,” with the realization of the “haphazard” in nature.
This duality is likely the principal source of Cezanne’s greatness, but translating his ideas onto canvas was a careful process, for each brushstroke was deliberately weighed. For him, creating art became a strenuous struggle and as a result, it emerged as a source of frustration and self-doubt. He was though inspired by how Impressionists like Monet used short, broken strokes of color to convey light, which is particularly apparent in Cezanne’s landscapes. However, Cezanne did not care for the atmospheric effects of Impressionism. This was the limitation that he sought to go beyond, while utilizing their technique. In Cezanne’s work, “Pot of Primroses and Fruit,” he, characteristic of his output, displays his admiration for simple things, with the still life being the practically perfect vehicle for that love. As seen with the title, the subject of the painting is self-explanatory, but what’s not nearly as straightforward is how Cezanne chooses to depict the objects. In the painting, there is a sense of distortion. This can be particularly seen with the window shutter on the right. But in all, there’s this combination of closeness and abstract elements overriding realistic ones, light that is more lasting and static than would be seen in Impressionism that, overall, it creates an effect that is purely original.
Indeed, Cezanne said he wanted to not “reproduce nature,” but “re-create it.” Even over a hundred years later, those words still sound stock raving mad and unintelligible. For what is truly radical about the art of Paul Cezanne is how decisively he had broken the ties with tradition. Sure, he wanted to emulate Poussin in his own way, but that method was so unique that it was a “recreation” of standard practices. Cezanne’s use of distortion, his favoring of abstract elements over more realistic ones, went against linear perspective. It was Cezanne who, in an almost God-like manner, proclaimed the artists’ right to subvert the laws of representation; to essentially do away with the literal mind in favor of the perceptive mind. More than Monet, Cezanne had widened his grasp of abstraction to such an extent that it ignited – more than Impressionism – a whole new form of art: modern art. Knowing this, it makes it all the more puzzling why he was so loathed to begin with.
Rather selfishly then, as a would-be critic, I realize how spurious these artists make my judgments seem. Monet and Cezanne make the critics from their era seem silly. For Monet and Cezanne, the disparaging reviews came with a great personal and professional disappointment for them, because who really likes to be criticized? Especially in the fashion they were criticized. Sadly, this has been the case for many great artists. They have been either doomed to obscurity or ridiculed into submission to the conventional. This does make me wonder about contemporary or past artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Of course, they are not small targets, but maybe I am wrong in negating their worth. Nowadays, with the exception of Warhol who is dead, they are very well known artists. But there was a time when they had just begun to enter the fray. Their world then would have been much different, and more fraught with sensitivity, no matter how insensitive their work became.
The cynical part in me is reminded of the assembly line fashion of their production. From a traditional standpoint, they’re an exceptionally far cry from Monet and Cezanne. The likes of Koons are not nearly as invested physically and maybe even mentally in their work. Of course, even during Ruben’s time, to deal with commissions, many a popular artist had assistants to help in the completion of artworks. It’s an interesting thought, for maybe artists like Rubens and Koons have more in common than we think. If Rubens did not take part in every single one of his works at every single stage, then maybe the stamp of the artist, or his style, is the truly important part. However, even if that is true, artists like Warhol, Koons and Hirst lack cerebral intensity. And I don’t just say this due to the capitalist or minimalist message they are sending. If anything, that’s what I don’t want you to think. Monet and Cezanne’s art was very much about the means in which they made their works, and I believe that standard should still be upheld to artists like Koons. Monet and Cezanne had to personally invest themselves in their work to the point that they were most likely fraught with self-doubt. I’m not impressed by artists like Koons who detaches himself from his work by regurgitating Pop-isms and images that have been seen repeatedly. In the end, I still much more appreciate the sensitivity and perceptiveness of the work of Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. But I guess that goes without saying.