Yesterday I introduced my students to Claude Monet’s gorgeous 1872 painting Impression: Sunrise. It is a powerful work, one which is crucial (at least to me) in understanding Impressionism as an art of, well, impressions based on individual experiences of light and color. And there’s something so beautiful about the way that Monet here uses paint to evoke the thin lacy mists of a seaside morning, the jagged – one could even say visceral – strokes of a red dawn’s sun on the water, and the wavering faint silhouettes of boats and buildings.
In fact, I would argue that these silhouettes create the illusion that all that is truly real is the water and light, and that all the boats and buildings and people are just so many additions to a world structured through light and color – those impersonal yet immutable natural facts over which people from the dawn of time right down to the present have tried – and mostly failed – to control. Impressionism for me is more than just emotion and individuality, more than the rise of the modern Avant-Garde against the demise of the ailing Academies. Instead, when I look at one of Monet’s Impressionist works, I see the self-conscious nineteenth-century European struggle for mastery over the world and the environment. In the end, I see Monet’s perception of a self-proclaimed modernity defined by the power of man over nature, and the artist’s consequent attempts to restore to nature its power through the visionary qualities of a painted canvas.