Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lessons From Monet

I just finished reading  Monet's Landscapes by Vivian Russell. The book was lent to me by my artist friend Jill Berry whose beautiful paintings remind me of Monet. The surprising information in the book was also exactly what I needed to read now. Thank you Jill!

There are plenty of books on Monet out there. I've read a lot of them. I've read stories indicating that he felt no guilt, at least in his youth, about living beyond his means. There's the story of how in his student days he insisted on wearing fancy cuffs on his sleeves. When his tailor pleaded with him to settle his bill, Monet declared that if the tailor continued to harass him, he would "withdraw his favor". There are the stories of poverty,and how he and his family were forced to flee leaving his paintings behind when he was unable to pay his rent bill. Most books also point out Monet's business savvy. I've never heard of any other artist who sold his works outright to a dealer and then collected a percentage in addition when they sold. This was exactly the arrangement he had with dealer Theo Van Gogh. Most of the accumulated stories seem to point out a sense almost of entitlement on Monet's part.

I love this painting! Look how Monet painted greys and oranges into the back- lit rock. A lesser skilled artist would probably have painted it black or nearly black.

Monet's Landscapes by Vivian Russell approaches the story of Monet from a different angle and shows a very different side of Monet. The book concentrates on Monet's letters to his second wife, Alice. What stood out the most to me as I read, was how much Monet struggled with his paintings, and how often he was dissatisfied with the results. This excerpt of a letter quoted in the book is from a letter Monet wrote when he was already established and successful.  
I am becoming so slow in my work it is despairing, but the more I go on the more I see that one has to work a lot to arrive at rendering what I am looking for; instanaiety...the same enveloping light that is spread everywhere, and now more than ever, easy things done in one go disgust me.   (Monet's Landscapes by Vivian Russell)

It's interesting to make the contrast between Monet's concept of what was necessary to turn out a good painting, and the conviction of so many of today's painters who work outdoors as Monet did. The prevailing attitude among plein air "purists" is that a plein air painting needs to be executed quickly, and entirely outdoors to be valid. There are countless week-long plein air events built around this idea. The fact seems to have become lost that the purpose for speed is to nail down  values. The rest of the painting can be done later. Monet routinely finished his outdoor canvasses in the studio and he took as much time as he felt he needed to finish them. 

Another point that stood out to me as I read, was how hard Monet worked. A painting day to him wasn't two hours at his easel here and there sandwiched in between other activities and only when inspiration hit. His painting day was more often eight hours long and consisted of the endless battle between the man and his canvasses to capture the effect he was after as the light changed around him. He tirelessly painted the same subject again and again in the effort to understand his subject and express his vision.

Haystacks End of Summer Morning

Monet typically spent weeks or even months on location away from home working on his motif. Often his efforts didn't meet his standards. Sometimes the results weren't commercially successful. According to Russell, Monet's haystack series sold out almost immediately. Yet when his cathedral series were first exhibited, none of them sold. This next quote from Russell's book is Monet's reply to one of  Alice's letters urging him to abandon a location that was giving him trouble.
I'm not sure that what I bring back will be to everyone's taste but what I do know is that this is the side of it I am passionate about... one should try everything and it's for exactly this reason that I congratulate myself for what I am doing. (Monet's Landscapes by Vivian Russell)

So what lessons can be taken away from Monet's example?

1) Work Hard. Work really hard and don't accept something that is less than what you are striving for.
2) When the demons of negative voices tell you you're an incompetent painter, or that you'll never get it, realize that you're not experiencing anything different than other artists, even the greats.
3) Paint for what you yourself are trying to accomplish or express. No one else can tell you what this is.
4) Not all paintings work. So don't expect them to and don't give up.

Now, get back to your studio or out in the field, and keep working it!


  1. Replies
    1. Looking forward to seeing you with the Plein Air Painters of Pensacola this week birthday girl!

  2. Great lessons from a master, thanks for refreshing my memory on these. (ps- Keep up the struggle, it is a worthy one. Each artist's journey is a personal path that only they can travel.)

    1. Thanks Jill! I couldn't not keep painting, even on those days when the results are disappointing.


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