Rachel Cohen

7. Morisot Following Black

Frederick Project: Closed and Open

Frederick Project Closed and Open

Berthe Morisot, English Seascape, 1875, European Private Collection, Detail photos Rachel Cohen

The first Morisot I ever really paid attention to was a small watercolor from the Clark Institute of Art (currently closed) that I happened upon in an exhibition of works on paper at the Frick (closed) in New York.

Berthe Morisot, Before a Yacht, 1875, Clark Art Institute, 8 1/8 x 10 9/16 inches.

I was taken by it.

And then, that afternoon, saw five of her paintings in a show on Impressionism and fashion at the Met (closed). By this fortunate set of circumstances, I was, in a single day, persuaded that I had missed one of the great painters in history, in a period I had studied extensively. It turned out that I was seeing an edge of transformation, after a century of consistent neglect, institutions and scholarship were beginning to attend to Morisot.

I set about repairing the absence in my own understanding – searching out her paintings in Paris (Musée Marmottan Monet, closed), in Chicago (Art Institute, closed), and then getting to spend many days in the 2018-2019 Morisot retrospective, which I covered for Apollo.

Now I could talk to you about Morisot for a day and a night. And I want to tell you everything, because there has never been anyone who handled paint with more freedom, and once you really begin to look at them, they blow space open.


This morning, I went back to my photos from the Morisot retrospective, which I first saw in the luminous installation at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts de Québec (MNBAQ closed). I wanted to follow the blacks of yesterday’s Hokusai, those night-time blacks, which had an extraordinary boldness and freedom.

Katsushika Hokusai, Courtesan and Paper Lanterns, 1798/1800, the Weston Collection.
Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

Morisot would not have seen the Hokusai, but she was familiar with Japanese work of the Edo period, which was avidly collected in Paris. Some of the collectors were Morisot's friends Degas and Monet, and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, another marvelous painter of black.

My eye lit on this harbor scene, English Seascape. It's probably from the same trip to England, in 1875, when she made the watercolor that first caught my attention. Morisot would go down to the harbor and sometimes go out on the boats, enjoying the challenge of working while she went up and down with the waves.

I don’t have a picture of the whole, but this is all but the left edge:

Berthe Morisot, English Seascape, 1875, European private collection, 17 inches x 25.
Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

Black holds this together. Stretches the space apart.

You stand at the lower left, with these two figures:

And before you is a great ship, dissolving into air:

And just look at this space:

Delacroix's Palette

Delacroix039s Palette

The Palette of Delacroix, from the Musée Delacroix

The final studio in which Delacroix worked is also, spatially, the last in a series of seclusions.  It’s a wonderful large square, lit by immense skylights, and surrounded by gardens that Delacroix filled with a profusion of flowers, their colors of his own careful choosing.  The studio building is behind, and separate from, the apartment in which Delacroix lived. This apartment is itself on a private courtyard holding quiet entrances for a few buildings.  The courtyard is off a small quiet square, really a slight geometric expansion of a narrow street, the Rue Furstenberg, an untrafficked byway not far from the great church of St. Germain des Pres.
          The studio was recommended to Delacroix by the restorer and color merchant Etienne Haro, who knew that the artist, unwell in his later years, needed to be within walking distance of St.-Sulpice, where he had undertaken a last sequence of great murals.
          When he was young, Delacroix once said to his friend Charles Baudelaire, he could only work if he knew he had somewhere to be that evening, a ball, music, but as he grew older, the discipline of work grew in him and he worked indefatigably.  He had visitors, but not so very many, and he kept his last illness private.  Even a good friend like Baudelaire was shocked by the news of his death and wrote sorrowfully of how they would no longer find him in that grand square space "where reigned, in spite of our rigid climate, an equatorial temperature."1  

*  *  *

A study in hot and cold, Delacroix as a personality and an artist was in continual motion between shade and gleam.  He was revered for his color sense, both daring and precise, and the palettes now on display at the Musée Delacroix make his color sense dramatically visible.    

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          Here you can see, unusually, not a rainbow or color wheel, but hot colors intermingled with cold ones, and dark contrasts grouped together with corresponding brights.  The artist mixed his shades in advance and kept careful notes of each one’s composition.  In Les Palettes de Delacroix (1930), Léon Piot noted that when Delacroix was ill, he would have his palette brought to his bed and spend the day there mixing colors.  Baudelaire wrote, “I have never seen a palette as minutely and delicately prepared as that of Delacroix.  It resembled a bouquet of flowers, knowingly arranged.”2   On its website, the Musée Delacroix points out that as time went on the artist, “fragmented more and more the tones, focusing less and less on real color as opposed to shadows, halftones, and reflections.”  
          Baudelaire evidently felt sympathetic to, and recognized by, the atmosphere created by Delacroix’s color.  “It seems that such color thinks for itself, independently of the object it clothes,” Baudelaire is said to have said, “The effect of the whole is almost musical.”3

*  *  *

This palette

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was said to have been given by Delacroix to Henri Fatin-Latour, a great admirer of Delacroix.  Fatin-Latour, angered by the lack of official commemoration of the master’s death, painted an Hommage à Delacroix.

The group portrait includes Fatin-Latour himself (in white blouse), James McNeill Whistler (standing center,) Edouard Manet (standing immediately to the right of the portrait of Delacroix) and Baudelaire (seated right corner.)  

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Six years later, Fatin-Latour painted a similar group portrait, called A Studio at Batignolles that, with its depictions of Manet, Renoir, Zola, Bazille, and Monet, stands as both manifesto for and document of the Impressionist movement in something like the manner of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence:

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          The palette that may have belonged to both Delacroix and Fatin-Latour was eventually donated to the Musée Delacroix by the granddaughter of Léon Riesener, and the Riesener family, through its friendship with the Morisot sisters, provided another, personal, conduit by which the palette of Delacroix was transmitted to the Impressionists.

*  *  *

This summer, the Musée Delacroix has an exhibition of works that show the influence of Shakespeare on Delacroix.  Like Berlioz, Delacroix was greatly moved by the force of drama in the works of Shakespeare and there are wonderful etchings of instants of great intensity from Hamlet (Hamlet on the terrace approached by his father’s ghost, the moment before the stabbing of Polonius, the moment “up, sword” of deciding not to kill Claudius at prayer).  There is also an oil sketch of Léon Riesener, a cousin and confidante of the painter, himself a painter, and a legatee of Delacroix’s.

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          This portrait shows a broad and sympathetic face, tones all of brown and white.  In the background and upside down are discernible sketches for another picture, Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery with the skull of Yorick.

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Bequeathal, and legacy were vexed issues for Delacroix, who, says Baudelaire, was increasingly preoccupied with which of his contributions would endure.
          Walter Benjamin notes the aptness of Léon Daudet’s phrase for Baudelaire.  Daudet writes that Baudelaire had a “trap-door disposition, which is also that of Prince Hamlet.”4  I take this to mean a theatrical, or a magician’s, feeling for circumstances and their manipulation.  Appearances and disappearances, sudden dispersals, going within to get out.  There seems to be something of Delacroix in the phrase, too.

*  *  *

Another inheritor of Delacroix was Berthe Morisot, who, in an early summer of her training as a painter was working side-by-side with her sister in the town of Beuzeval in Normandy. Their father had rented for them a mill belonging to Léon Riesener, and the Morisot sisters were soon close to, and much encouraged by, the whole Riesener family. In her notebook, Berthe Morisot recorded an anecdote they related: “Delacroix composed his palette with such precision that he could have it prepared each morning by Jenny, his maid, while he was painting his Apollo ceiling or rather while he had Andrieux paint it as he remained below.  One day, he called out to him to use a No. 2 pink and Andrieux thought he would catch him out with a No. 3. ‘No, no, exclaimed Delacroix, I said a No.2.’ That is absolutely the sensation of a musician.”5

*  *  *

I see two ways out of this series of reflections: one is to try to see further inside the man, the other to try to see further into the legacy of his works.  These efforts do not amount to the same thing, but perhaps could be displayed immediately next to each other.
          Walter Benjamin, whose interest in Delacroix grew in part from Benjamin’s profound relationship to the works of Baudelaire, notes that Delacroix was interested in photography, and that his paintings “escape the competition with photography, not only because of the impact of their colors, but also (in those days there was no instant photography) because of the stormy agitation of their subject matter. And so a benevolent interest in photography was possible for him.”6  The ever more profound and fragmentary sense of color, and the idea of creating motion through the juxtaposition of contrasting colors, these went on being a significant part of how painting responded to photography through the rest of the 19th century.
          Baudelaire said that his friend Delacroix was a peculiar combination of the “sauvage,” and the “homme du monde.”  He was, writes the poet, “passionately enamored of passion, and coldly determined to seek out the means of expressing passion in the most visible manner.”7  In his austere seclusion he would, Baudelaire wrote, find the colors in which to bathe his scenes so that they had their own life.  “As a dream is placed in the colored atmosphere proper to it, so a conception, become a composition, must moves in a colored milieu particular to it.”8  

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Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery, Musée du Louvre

1 Baudelaire, Critque d’art, “Eugene Delacroix, son oeuvre et sa vie,” p421, translations mine.
2 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p408
3 from Ernest Seillière, Baudelaire, (Paris, 1931) cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, edited Tiedemann, translated Eiland and McLaughlin, (Cambridge, 1999) p277.
4 Daudet, Les Pélerins d’Emmaus, Paris, 1928, p101, cited in Benjamin, Arcades Project, p265.
5 Morisot, Notebook, 1885, 1887-8, p12-13, cited in Marianne Delafond and Caroline Genet-Bondeville, Berthe Morisot or Reasoned Audacity, Paris, 2011, p16
6 Benjamin, Arcades Project, p678.
7 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p418, p406.
8 Baudelaire, p408.

Toward Spring

Toward Spring

Pissarro, The Public Gardens at Pontoise, 1874

In The Times this morning, an item suggesting that blossoming in the New York City parks will be unusually overlapping this season.  I remember this from certain springs.  In general it would be so carefully painted in Central Park – first the yellow forsythia, then delicate whites and rose of cherry and dogwood, then the heavier magnolias.  But that occasionally these would run together.  The effects could be beautiful, but sometimes I remember thinking that the palettes jarred, and that I preferred the slow procession, each tree gravely taking its turn to step forward.

Here, though, we long for spring, hurried or deliberate. Three brave clusters of dark purple crocuses in our yard, in a particularly sunny and warm place close to the house, are the only flowers I’ve seen. Today, when the baby and I went out to the country for a walk, we saw forsythia so tight and ashen that it seemed weeks away from bloom. Staring now out the study window, by dint of straining, I can begin to pretend that the faintest shade of yellow-green limns the edges of the severely closed branches.  

Struggling to recall the sensations of public parks in spring, I was put in mind of a Pissarro I looked at last year at the Met. The Public Garden at Pontoise painted in 1874.

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Perhaps those massed bushes would be rhodedendrons?  And lilacs?      

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The people do not seem especially joyful – their faces are deliberately not given in detail.  But they move about in an air that is full of leaves and flowers, and the people, too, look at the coming-and-going clothes of the boy on the left, are not bound tightly anymore but are carried by the fullness of spring.

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And when they climb to the heights of the hill to look out across the water, the light among the treetops is radiant.

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In a different spring, from Paris, Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien -- it was the first of March, 1884 -- of how he looked forward to being in the house that they had taken in Eragny. It had a garden and fields. “It is about two hours from Paris.  I found the country much more beautiful than Compiegne, although that day it was still pouring torrents.  But here comes the spring, the fields are green, outlines are delicate in the distance.”  

I have been imagining how that delicate green arrival felt to him.  Look at this, from the lower left, where the painting becomes a pure study of color:

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Quotation from Pissarro, Letters to his Son Lucien, edited by John Rewald and translated by Lionel Abel, p58.

Feeling the Air, II

Feeling the Air II

Constable, Hampstead Heath with Bathers, 1821-22, iphone detail

In New York in the fall, making my way through the reorganized back rooms of 19th century European art at the Metropolitan Museum, I was pleased by two landscape recoveries.  Wonderful oil sketches by Constable that used to hang scattered in obscurity, somewhere past the Corots, have been hung together, with prominence.  And three Daubignys, for many years unviewable, now hang in a row, constituting a quiet assertion, long missing at the museum, that this is a painter worth contemplating.
    Constable and Daubigny are tied together in various ways.  An important exhibition of Constable’s oil paintings at the Salon de Paris in 1824 had an impact on the French landscape painters who were to become the Barbizon School, of which Daubigny was a part. Daubigny himself would have been seven years old at the time of this exhibition, but other contact with the work of the great British landscape painters was of significance for him at several key moments in his development.

Intersections are not only biographical.  A nice passage comparing the two painters turns up in a 1903 monograph on Constable by Robert George Windsor-Clive, earl of Plymouth.  Daubigny, writes Windsor-Clive, loved “the quiet tones of early morning and evening effects on the French rivers from a barge on the Oise or the Seine; translucent skies and clear reflections.  He seemed generally to prefer the bright though tender colours of spring and early summer, to the heavier and more sombre tones of August.”  Not so Constable, who chose “the sharper contrasts of midday light, the angry storm-clouds broken by bright flashes of sunlight, and the heavy greens of midsummer.” Nevertheless, the two had something significant in common: “both artists approach Nature with the same honest intention of painting her, so far as they are able, as they see her.” [itals mine]  This was to be accomplished “not with the warm brown foundation and limited colour-scheme of the old school, but with the full perception and enjoyment of local colour both in shadow and in sunlight.”
    The phrase “as they see her,” could be put into the present continuous to bring out something of the painters’ particular quality – as they are in the act of seeing her.  These two, I think, have an unusual genius for making the viewer feel the air. Two of the works I studied at the Met may help me to try to say what I mean.

John Constable’s oil sketch “Hampstead Heath with Bathers,” was one of about a hundred such sketches that he made in that rural location in 1821 and 1822.

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The project was to suggest particular effects of atmosphere.  The text at the Met notes a beautiful fact, that Constable “called this practice ‘skying.’”

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The museum text also points out that Constable “often included a strip of land to contribute a sense of scale and depth.”  This sounds technical, even mechanical, as if it describes a scientific manual that overlays diagrams with little black stripes of measurement. But here, actually, is no mere strip of land, but a protected cove for bathers who are to be seen standing waist-deep in the water.

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The feeling of the sketch (it is a small one, slightly less than ten inches by a little more than fifteen) is that one is oneself wading in the water while the vast sky rushes overhead.  

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The sensation comes partly from the white brushstrokes over the blue of the sky, partly from the way the water gathers and reflects the other colors of the scene, partly from some elusive but definite feeling that the painter molded the paint to reflect the day he was in. The wind was in his eyes.  He wrote on the back of the picture, “July—noon—Hampstead Heath—looking north—wind south east.”

The Daubigny, as the Earl of Plymouth might say, eschews these sharp contrasts of noon and midsummer.  Here is a first sighting.  Distracted by the frame, the shadow cast by the museum’s overhead lights, the photo has the not-knowing-where-to-look quality of the first encounter:

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[Although my iphone pictures have their awkwardnesses, I still prefer them to the Met's online reproductions of these two works, which are curiously bleached of color.  The Constable is lacking the reds and purples that give the heat and excitement of the day, while the Daubigny is missing the cool, dark greens that settle the eyes for darkness.]

In the Daubigny, as in the Constable, figures come to water.  But in the Daubigny our imagination makes us not bathers, but someone who watches the cows returning to the village in the evening.

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The water feels entirely different in the two pictures – one all salt and wind, the other mild and still, for slaking thirst and for repose.  Nevertheless, the presence of water is of great help to both these painters, wishing, as they do, to paint the sky and its movements.  Reflections give a second view, and the looker-on, measuring the sky and its image together, may find it easier to guess and enter the feeling of the day.  One of the great beauties of the Daubigny painting is the way all its gentle forces meet and are reflected back to one another in this central convergence:  

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The light has a luminous yellow arriving from the sky.  Effects of light are entirely different depending on where you look in the picture. A lovely passage of sunset is here:

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I think it is this variety of atmospheric effects within the work that eventually gave me an experience I associate with Daubigny. After looking slowly and with consideration, the painting seemed to show a later time, and to have become more tranquil.  As I became accustomed to it, it had the very effect on me that one sometimes observes in oneself in the evening.  Standing still, looking at the sky, or, especially, the sky and the water together, one feels that the world has, before one’s eyes, grown a shade darker, and that one is oneself aware of the world and a small part of it.  When I photographed what felt like my last understanding of the painting, it came to this:

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Feeling the Air, I

Feeling the Air I

Sargent, Santa Maria della Salute, 1904

I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are not that interested in painting. They say, reasonably, that in museums they are overwhelmed by the profusion, or that only really contemporary painting is strange enough to compel their attention, or that in front of paintings long and loudly admired their eyes feel veiled by expectations and history.  

It feels odd to say in the face of these large and genuine concerns that when I am at a museum I am often merely after a small, fine sensation.  The movement of light and air.  That’s all.  I know this feeling is of a family of quite ordinary feelings – on a good day one may have something like it walking to the grocery store.  But, though common in life, it is rare in art.  In very great literature, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” But not, for example, in photography.  It might be almost a definition of what distinguishes painting from photography that one does not feel the movement of the air in looking at photographs.  Even in front of Ansel Adams, what one feels is majesty, not air.  But in front of a painting the movement of light and air have held someone else’s attention in a way that lets me feel it and at the same time know myself to be feeling it.

The presence of the Sargent watercolors in Boston this season has focused my attention on how it is that painters offer this sensation to us.  Why, looking at Sargent’s quick-stroked boats along the edge of a Venetian canal do I suddenly feel the soft air?

My guess is that this sensation is one of the aspects of seeing paintings in person that cannot be rendered in iphone details, but I’m going to try to illustrate what seem to me to be two sides of the answer.

It seems first of all to have to do with things jostling and overlapping. The two gondolas to the right here are at rest, but must be bumping each other.  The figures standing on the stone are, in action, distinct but are shown overlapped by the long greenish boom of a boat, and the figures themselves and their shadows bleed into one another.

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Boats, water, Venice, all ideal for this because it is not in any of their natures to be still.

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We know the light reflected on the underside of the bridge to be dancing, as are the waves given in motion below.  Jostling, overlapping, playing over, this gives the sense of motion, permeability, change, within the picture.

On the other side, the angle and motion of the viewer are also significant.  Look at these two shots, almost identical of Portuguese Boats.  I think that the sense of motion comes across better in the photo to the left, taken at a slightly stronger angle, then in the flatter front-on one to the right, in any case, shifting rapidly between the two may give something of the sensation.

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The shift makes a small suggestion of how one sees the picture as one is oneself in motion.  Of course when you see a painting in person you cannot help but move in front of it, if only to walk up to it.  The spatial experience of a photograph changes much less as you move around in relation to it.  I suppose because of the fixed position of the camera.  The painter is constantly moving around in relation to her canvas and constantly changing the perspective.  It must be the sense that space is changing around you that you have when you walk to the grocery store.    

Looking for Daubigny

Looking for Daubigny

Landscape with Ducks, Metropolitan Museum.

For a long time when I went to the Met with a feeling for Daubigny, I went to the basement.  Although the museum owns thirteen paintings by Charles-François Daubigny, only one was on display, a part of the Robert Lehman Collection, itself displaced during years of construction. The painting was of an evening scene by a river. Across the river were two small figures, women, I remember them as washerwoman. Nearer, and more prominent, a line of dark ducks who swam purposefully toward their evening’s rest.  Nearer still, three birds on the bank, who have already settled. The sky’s tints of yellow and rose, seen again in the river’s last reflective shades make of the whole that tranquility one feels in the evening, lingering in its harmonies before returning home.    
    The Daubigny hung in a dark area, sort of an alcove made with temporary walls, alongside a Corot, and not far from a surprising Degas of some quite orange rooftops. Sometimes, uncertain about my own pleasure, I would look at the Landscape with Ducks and think 'it's too quiet, too pink,' and point out to myself that there didn’t seem to be a compositional difficulty, a challenge to go on thinking about. At other times, taken with its feeling for life, and the way the sky and space open up as sky and space really do, with a sense of air and moisture and of people and animals moving about, with the power of the yellows and the darkened trees, these questions didn’t worry me.  

The seeming easiness of seeing Daubigny is part of the difficulty of seeing him and this has to do with history as much as it does with his gentle, unassuming canvases. He was a part of the Barbizon school, at the time a group of innovative painters (Corot, Millet, Rousseau), who didn’t agree with the Academy that the only worthy subjects were regal men and women in neo-classical poses painted with exacting, lugubrious accuracy. Daubigny was actually the only one among the Barbizon painters to regularly paint outdoors, and he even constructed a barge studio in which he painted while drifting down the Oise, but all of them sketched outdoors and brought the refreshing plein air of nature into their work. These were mentors and models who mattered enormously to the Impressionists who came fast on their heels and, with their more radical innovations, soon eclipsed their Barbizon peres.  
    The rapid succession of changes made Daubigny and Corot something of a short link in the chain, easy to pass over in favor of what came after. The Barbizon paintings were loved by dilettante American collectors, and it became a badge of honor among the new critics of the 20th century to despise these works. Daubigny himself was overshadowed by the greater scope and popularity of his close friend Corot.  
    Still, I thought that after the great Corot show at the Met in 1996-7, more interest in Daubigny would soon follow, but he goes on being very difficult to get any sense of. About four years ago at the Musée d’Orsay (which holds nineteen Daubigny paintings), I asked at the information desk if any of them were seeable. The man at the desk seemed somewhat surprised as he paged through the records on his computer to discover that they were all either in the “fonds,” in storage, or loaned out to the regional museums in the French system.  All except La Neige, of course, and that one we both knew well.  

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The only really prominently displayed Daubigny is his astonishing Snow, sometimes called Winter, painted in 1873, a year or so before his death.  Long a supporter of the Impressionists (he stood up for their paintings at the Academy and introduced them to Durand-Ruel, who would be their gallerist and champion), Daubigny was, as he matured, not afraid to be affected by the work of these younger men.  More than any of their other predecessors, he might fairly be called a late-blooming Impressionist himself, and a few of his late works have a force and power and idiosyncrasy of vision comparable to those of the much better-known Impressionists.    
    It is hard to convey the impact of La Neige with a reproduction on a screen.  It is a very wide painting, hung low, and it hits you in the chest when you see it. The desolation, and the exhilaration of a winter landscape in the shortest days of the year. The mood like being in a Thomas Hardy novel: you’ve walked all day, your feet are cold and damp. You come upon a great field of crows having their sociable end to the day, calling out news to one another as they step briskly about on the damp ground, landing in the trees they share as nighttime roosts. The sun is almost down and in the thick gray sky, a few clouds are of a sudden lit, a dash of rose. The long stretch of drab white snow, the mud showing through, bits of broken grass, the sense of the road, the heavy talkative presence of the birds, the thick cold sky. No one has ever done this better. And yet we hear almost nothing of Daubigny.  

Reading Toward Renoir

Reading Toward Renoir

Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil, 1873, Wadsworth Atheneum

Renoir to me has always been the outlier – the one among the Impressionists without austerity enough to make room for me.  Too sweet, too voluptuous.  All skin, no air. But loved by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, who understood Cézanne’s apples right away. When he and Gertrude split up the household they had for decades shared, both wanted the apples, but were content for her to keep the Picassos, him to take the Renoirs.


Stein was a man for whom sensuality was difficult and I’ve wondered if Renoir seemed to offer in an uncomplicated way, enjoyment.  It sounds from the memoir written by the son, Jean Renoir, as if the painter was a rare person, fundamentally tolerant of himself and of other people.  It’s true that his paintings show people taking pleasure in life. Who else does that?  Perhaps some Dutch painters, though there is often a suspicion that Frans Hals is laughing at his revelers.  In Renoir they take a quiet pleasure.  Jean Renoir says the sitters have “serenity.”  They are settled, but they are still full of the activity of being themselves; they look out on their surroundings and see much to interest them.  


When the son spoke to the father of different women he had admired and painted, a great variety of women, society ladies and street walkers, the painter was full of appreciation, his greatest commendation, “she posed like an angel.”  In the portraits, the sitter and the painter seem to share a lively and devoted understanding.


There is a Renoir of Monet in a garden painting. I wondered when I saw the reproduction recently if it were a Renoir or a Monet. The flowers have a lot of whites reaching upward in a way that I thought might be Monet, but when I checked the back flap I was not really surprised to see that it was a Renoir. The way to tell would have been to look at the figure, the painter in his hat, all his energy turned toward his craft.  Features, soft, almost indistinct, but the impression of the face is of concentration and happiness.  He could be humming.  


Apparently Renoir loved all craftsmanship.  He had himself begun by painting porcelain and then window shades.  His father was a very good tailor.  Renoir used to lament the passing of know-how and the replacement of hand industries by machines.  He had felt grateful to grow up in the old Tuileries neighborhood before it was torn down – all the stairways and niches and small corner carvings of the buildings bespoke the loving care of craftspeople.  Women, he told his son, at their daily tasks, know how to live.  “Around them I feel happy.”  


In a state of happy engagement people are very close to the surface, much closer then we usually are able to be even with close friends, whose faces barricade them in reserve. Perhaps what I have taken for too much luster, too much skin, is really more unsettling, the close presence of people in a state to which we are no longer accustomed, as we may find the unsanitized smells from earlier eras – a barnyard, a field of clover, dried lavender in sheets – overwhelmingly, almost intolerably, sweet.  

Thin Air

We are in the air. The baby and I. She sleeps in my right arm; I type with my left thumb. Clouds below discrete cotton floaters, at our level cirrus band and behind that at sky's horizon higher piled.  Despite glimpsed majesty, in airplane capsule thoughts inward, my mother, her grief, my father's study, which I cleaned while home, naturally, as if straightening a desk nearly my own, books and notes, small discoveries, the text by Confucius, a picture of my sister her head thrown back in happiness.

I forget that I am often in the sky. The way clouds look from above doesn't occur to me; I have to force myself to think of it. They're cut out of life, these air interludes.  But I notice the baby thinks of the sky as a place one can go. When the elephant jumps the fence or the bear sneezes and the animals go flying she holds the book up in the air as she does her tiny wooden plane when we talk of flying. This week she missed her Dad intensely and it seemed she had the idea that he had gone, not to a conference in Greece, but to the moon. 'Moon,' she said when we spoke of him, and once late, unable to fall asleep, she insisted we go out and look for the moon in the night sky.

She has a book in which a little girl asks for the moon and her father climbs a long ladder and brings it down for her. I had forgotten the book earlier this week, the night of the rare equinoctic moon, apparently larger and closer than in decades, which I wanted badly to get up at four in the morning to see, but instead dreamt of getting up to see and in the dream caught only the last sight, huge, pale orange and planetary, with rings like Saturn, slipping over the horizon. In the dream I told my mother and sister how beautiful it had been. I did then wake up and go out to look but it was already gone. The next day I told them of the dream and felt my father, planetary, hovering. But not to be reached by the baby and me, so far from these clouds even as we descend through them, much farther I think than Confucius was from his skies or I would not have written this into my cell phone as we fly.