Artists in Later Life, Part 1: Monet Stayed Inspired

French impressionist Claude Monet — who painted well into his 80s, even after his vision was clouded by cataracts — created some of his most well-known works in the last decades of his life. After a long career as a renowned and financially successful artist, Monet retreated to the beloved gardens of his home in Giverny, 20 miles outside of Paris. His gardens became his artistic obsession.

The passion an artist brings to the work of his later years is no different from the fire that drove him at thirty: a compulsion to express — in form, line and color; in the written word, and in melody. In an excerpt from Lastingness: The Creative Art of Growing Older by Nicholas Delbanco, (2010, Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group US) we are offered sharp insight into Claude Monet’s last and perhaps most lasting work, according to some. See what you think. It’s a little long, but hang in. It’s an absolutely fascinating discussion of the dimensions of vision.

In Monet’s last landscapes we see the final outcome of a lifelong development, during which the subject matter was gradually absorbed by an ever more conspicuous texture, fully realized in his water lilies, his footbridge paintings, and other late works. Essential to our appreciation of these works, however, is the fact that, despite the radical transformation of the subject matter, all the fullness and wealth of experienced reality remains present. The greatest possible range of artistic content reaches from the concreteness of the individual things of nature to the uniformity of the artist’s all-encompassing view.

Born in 1840, Monet died in 1926, and only in the final months, when entirely enfeebled, did he cease painting. One of the six founders of Impressionism as an artistic movement, he had a long embattled history (of exclusion from juried exhibitions, then inclusion in the vanguard and acceptance by collectors). The slow shift in status from outsider to elder statesman describes the arc of a career that’s not so much an arc as a straight upward trajectory. Less and less did he care for commercial success, staying home in Giverny, a village on the River Seine, forty miles northwest of Paris. By preference Monet showed pictures only to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, and a trusted circle of friends; at the last, one has the sense he painted for himself, and himself alone.

As early as April 27, 1907, he wrote Durand-Ruel:

I’m very dissatisfied with myself, but that’s better than producing things that are mediocre. I’m not postponing this show because I want to exhibit as many pictures as possible. On the contrary, I feel I have too few works worthy of being shown to the public. I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least thirty. . . . As time goes by I recognize those pictures that are good and those that should not be kept.

The paintings “that merit consideration” remain; they are objects preserved while a morning cadenza or scrap of rhymed verse disappears. Imagine for a moment what would happen to the record of Impressionism if the work of this artist’s old age had been non-selectively destroyed. A canvas is an artifact that can outlive its maker, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who now stand rapt in front of his water lilies would have astonished Monet; he labored in a privacy that grew near absolute.

Some of this had to do with his horror of the First World War, the catastrophic conditions abroad. Some had to do with deteriorating health, in particular his rheumatism and the cataracts that afflicted his sight. (As with Edgar Degas, whose eyes failed, or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose arthritis required he wedge the paintbrush to his fingers, the physical decline of Claude Monet had pictorial ramifications; his outlines grew less definite, his colors more pronounced.) One of the ways an aging artist comes to terms with physical change — as suggested by Casals — is to shift the locus of endeavor, and the painter narrowed focus to the point of near obsession. When young he had painted in all sorts of weather; now he no longer felt compelled to work outside. Increasingly reluctant to leave the house in Giverny, and solvent enough to maintain the establishment (he employed six gardeners), Monet fashioned a sequence of oils exponentially more numerous than the series of bridges or poplars or grain stacks or cathedrals he had already produced. Before, he had traveled to locate his subjects; now canvas after canvas reported on home ground.

In this regard, his “final” period is a function of geography: the farmhouse and its teeming garden in the town of Giverny. Monet afforded to his flowerbeds the kind of close attention he had earlier paid railway stations or rivers in winter or outcroppings of rock — with the important distinction that all these preexisted his attempt to capture any “impression” they made.

The cities of London and Venice, it goes without saying, did not require his pictorial rendition in order to be viewed. In his farmhouse, however, he was both principal witness and maker; the lily pond was his to shape, the garden and Japanese bridges to build. And if his vision now was less than twenty-twenty, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy; his final efforts prefigure abstraction, making clinical exactness seem beside the point. The aesthetic of “Impressionism” must have helped him here. The notion, for example, of the shifting play of light (as opposed to unaltered illumination) would have enabled the old artist to rely on what he saw while looking — this even when his eyesight had gone dim. As he told the American painter Lilla Cabot, “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field.”

The pictures of the Nympheas take advantage of the wavering imprecision an oculist might hope to mend, so that vision — in its secondary meaning — may make luminous a blurry scumbled scene.

The poet Lisel Mueller has captured all this brilliantly, in “Monet Refuses the Operation.” As of 1919, the painter was urged (among others, by his friend Georges Clemenceau) to have the cataracts attended to; in 1923 he had operations on his right eye, and glasses improved his eyesight — but only briefly, fitfully, and he had trouble distinguishing color.

Mueller’s poem begins:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being . . .

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