Ah, the impressionist landscapes of Monet. How pretty. How charming. How nice.
Lest you think my praise scornfully faint, let me say at once that I appreciate Monet’s work. It is flawlessly colored, deliciously textured, and unfailingly cheerful. Nevertheless, I argue that his canvases represent the beginning of the end, at least temporarily, of landscape painting; that they are, in themselves, remarkably vapid; and that they supply further evidence of the decline of religious belief in the modern world.
Harsh? Perhaps. Indefensible? Well, let’s see.
Measure of a Moment
Here is a representative landscape by Monet, Church at Varengeville, Grey Weather, painted in 1882, not quite 10 years after he had agitated the art world at the Salon des Refuses with the fledgling Impression, Sunrise. By this time he had fully abandoned his early fascination with scenes of urban and human life to concentrate on the natural world. Still to come were the great haystack and water lily series, but here already the technical features of his mature style are in evidence: the unblended daubs of color, applied with deceptive but practiced freedom, the indistinct and fragmentary forms, and the wide palette of hues and tones, in which dark blue frequently substituted for dead black in the shadows. Monet pictures a hillside above a deep valley, with some shrubs and two smokily diaphanous trees rising in the foreground, and a church atop a distant hill overlooking an uncertain sea. The effect is unaffected and satisfying.
What is the subject of this painting? The title highlights the church and the weather, but it is beyond doubt that Monet had no interest whatsoever in the church as anything more than a compositional element—and a minor one at that: Put your thumb over the church, or turn it into another mass of trees, and the whole is little changed. No, the subject here, as in all impressionist paintings, is light and color; specifically, the light and color as it prevailed at a particular moment of time, as seen from a particular place. Monet is especially interested in depicting the tonal contrast between the bright sea and sky and the cool shadows of the land and vegetation, an effect inadequately treated by earlier painters. Indeed, the attention the impressionists lavished on transitory phenomena and the shifting effects of time, weather, and the seasons, with the goal of capturing authentic visual experience, was a revolution in the history of landscape painting.
Nature, Front and Center
That history, at least in Western art, is comparatively brief. There are scanty but tantalizing remains of landscapes executed by Roman muralists, but after the triumph of Christian civilization, visual art in the Western world until the 16th or 17th centuries had hardly more than two subjects, usually intertwined: God and man. Landscape, like all else, animal, vegetable, or mineral, was relegated literally to background or ancillary status; more often than not, it was done away with altogether, replaced with a lustrous expanse of gold leaf. When it did appear, it was never more than a stage setting for the deeds performed by human and divine actors, and, like a stage, it was not expected to intrude upon the drama, or become in itself an object of contemplation. Its role was, in other words, symbolic, so naturalism could be ignored: The typical medieval practice was to model mountains or hills on small rocks brought into the studio, or a piece of cloth draped over suitable props. No need to look at or attempt an imitation of the real thing. Not until the Renaissance did artists begin to tackle the problem of reproducing the actual appearance of hill retreating behind hill, or river snaking past rolling farmland and walled city, toward a far-off blue horizon. But even then, the landscape was bound to the service of the foreground biblical or mythological narrative.
The real history of landscape begins only in the 17th century, when it emerged from its servitude, fresh and confident, to take the spotlight by itself. Well, almost by itself: Even though as a secular genre it was no longer required to support religious subjects, it was still considered necessary, generally speaking, to people the scene with at least one or two figures. These could be human, or animal, or both, perhaps very small, or else with some sign of human intervention, like a road, a bridge, or a church spire. These elements, known as "staffage," provide scale and stand-ins for the viewers, who may use them to imaginatively project themselves into the scene.
The Dutch baroque landscape, vast and flat, led the way, joined by the French ideal landscape, and a little later by Italian view paintings. Artists of this period usually specialized in subgenres like seascapes, cityscapes, skyscapes, and so on, though like their medieval precursors, all their scenes were essentially inventions of the studio, possibly derived from sketches, but generally not painted directly from life. It was the romantics, in the second great period of landscape painting, with their wild and sublime visions, who first regularly worked outdoors with the natural landscape before them—though they invested it with unnatural divinity, and emphasized its most extreme and exotic faces. It remained for early modern realists like Corot to begin the drive to paint nature "as it really is," uncolored by romance, nostalgia, or idealism, and for the impressionists to take the final step of painting it "as it really looks," with a full dynamic range of tonalities and hues.
Sense without Meaning
Of course, in terms of precision of detail and illusion of depth, impressionist paintings don’t really look like what we see. Forms are blurred, space is flattened, and the heightened and nuanced colors are those detectible only by certain rare eyes as subtle as a connoisseur’s palate. Monet and the impressionists wished to paint light and colors as they appeared to them, and they were far from ordinary viewers. That makes their art extraordinary, but it also exposes the underlying problem with impressionism. It is an art of phenomena—light, colors, and appearances. There are no deep insights, no imaginative flights, no story to tell, no attempt to look into the spirit of reality beneath the visible surface. Even human feeling or emotion is none of its concern.
Certainly, the phenomena presented have the organic warmth expected from data filtered through the human sensory apparatus—compare the impressionist result with the mechanical coolness of late-20th century photorealism, for example—but the data are never processed through the higher mental functions in order to bestow them with meaning. Impressionism is a form of art with nothing to say. Sir Kenneth Clark, the British art historian, wrote that "to confine painting to purely visual sensations is to touch only the surface of our spirits" (Landscape into Art, 96). It may be that the romantics went too far the other way, but the great romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich was not entirely incorrect when he said "the artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him."
Monet was a true modern. He had no interest in the traditions of the romantics or the Old Masters—Renoir had to drag him through the Louvre—nor did he ever make copies of their work. He once told a student that he "wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he would have begun to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him." (In fact, in his later years Monet underwent several surgeries to correct blinding cataracts.) Staffage, subject matter in general, and form itself, are, for Monet, fundamentally inconsequential.
When he painted Rouen cathedral, Monet had no interest in its religious or historical significance: The building merely furnished him with an interesting objective study in tones and textures evolving through the day. The only reason landscape appealed to him was that it reliably supplied him with luminous phenomena to render with paint. In fact, his late canvases are so abstracted from their natural inspiration that they become pure and glorious swirls of color. Advancing from his example, other modern artists explored color fully divorced from natural light, dropping all pretense that their colors had any connection with visual experience. Landscape melted away in some quarters, along with all subject matter.
What You Will
We have arrived at a situation exactly opposite that of medieval art, with its concern for eternal realities and truths. Eternity can assuredly be found in the here and now—that is the lesson of still-life painting—but while the impressionists worked very hard to produce faithful snapshots of reality in the landscape, they delivered ephemera—often superficially beautiful—but ephemera nonetheless, with neither God nor man anywhere in evidence. Once, God and man had stood splendidly in front of the landscape. Then, God was absorbed into the landscape and man reduced to a speck. Finally, there was nothing but the landscape, and then even that disappeared. This reductionist strand of modernism leaves us at last with nothing but matter and phenomena—paint sustaining color.
Not all modernists went down this path. Post-impressionists like Van Gogh brought emotion and meaning back—though at the cost of increasing their aesthetic separation from nature via expressionistic effects—and landscape itself survived through the 20th century: "Reactionary" or " retardataire " artists stubbornly continued the older traditions; regionalists like Edward Hopper or Georgia O’Keefe updated it; and in recent decades environmentalists and postmodernists have reinvented or rediscovered it.
Impressionism, too, remains enormously popular. Even I enjoy it— honestly—despite the foregoing. Can we ignore the criticism and see in Monet’s work whatever we like? For example, all the impressionists’ talk of light must surely remind Catholics of the theology or symbolism of divine light. Perhaps that is why we may in fact rate his paintings as beautiful, and not merely pretty after all. Does it matter that Monet intended no symbolic associations to vibrate from his shimmering daubs of paint? Do we do violence to his aesthetic vision if we infuse the spiritual into his perceptual landscapes? Intentionality is a open question in art: We don’t always know what an artist’s intentions were, and often when we do, we may not perceive or agree with them. Their motives are not to be ignored, but works of art, once completed, are no longer bound to the artist’s service, and we may interact with them freely. So look at the world through Monet’s eyes, if you like. You may find God in his landscapes, or truth or beauty, for these may be found, as I have argued before, in the essence of all art, including impressionism.