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Rachel Cohen


Les Débâcles, first

Les Deacutebacirccles first

Claude Monet, Le Débâcle, 1880, Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille

débâcle: the violent flood that follows when the river ice melts in spring

In the winter of 1879-1880 the weather was unusually stormy and cold.  All along the Seine there were record quantities of snow and ice.  That winter, Claude Monet was at Vétheuil, a village near Argenteuil and to the northwest of Paris.  Monet was living in straitened circumstances with his children; his beloved wife Camille had died earlier that year, in September.  The remaining Monets were sharing a household with Alice Hoschedé and her children.  The winter was so fierce that even at Christmas it was impossible for them to be joined by Alice Hoschedé’s husband, Ernest, who had been one of Monet’s important supporters and collectors.  Ernest Hoschedé was suffering through his own difficult period; he had gone bankrupt two years before, and his entire Impressionist collection had been sold at disastrously low prices.  It is not entirely clear how the merging and transformation of the Hoschedé and Monet households took place, but this grim winter was to prove a turning point both in Monet’s life and in his work as a painter.

I have been reading about that winter, and the paintings Monet made then, for nearly a year.  Reading very slowly, chiefly in one catalogue called Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point.  The catalogue caught my attention in a used bookstore here in Cambridge, in part because the show that occasioned it was held at the University of Michigan Art Museum in Ann Arbor, where I am from, and in part because the subject of the paintings is winter.  My father died in Ann Arbor in early February of 2013, during a bitterly snowy fortnight.  This February, two years later, I am again confronted by mourning and by snow. Although I have been thinking about these confluences for many months, I am not making any progress on drawing them together as an essay. So I have decided to try writing a series of broken pieces instead.

During the winter of 1879-1880, Monet painted a series of canvases of the snowbound river and of the eventual catastrophic breakup of the ice.  The series of paintings, called Les Débâcles, take their name from the river floods that followed the thaw in early January of that year.  Until this point, much of Monet’s work had been of urban landscapes. There had also been portraits and still lifes; the work depicted or implied the presence of people.  But this winter, he painted landscape alone, deliberately removing the boats and industry which photographs from the time show to have been part of the landscape at Vétheuil.  Instead, the viewer of the painting is alone in nature; the subject of the pictures is the terrible majesty of winter and its devastations.    

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Monet, Le Débacle, 1880, University of Michigan Art Museum

Second in a Series

Second in a Series

The Bath, Mary Cassatt, Fogg Museum

The Bath is a print, or a series of prints, made by Mary Cassatt in 1891 – at the height of her powers and at a moment when her interest in Japanese prints opened a wonderful set of visual ideas in her mind.

Her powers were considerable.  When Pissarro visited her studio in April of that year he wrote of her work to his son Lucien (the two Pissarros had been experimenting with prints themselves.)

You remember the effects you strove for at Eragny?  Well, Miss Cassatt has realized just such effects, and admirably: the tone even, subtle, delicate, without stains on seams: adorable blues, fresh rose, etc…. the result is admirable, as beautiful as Japanese work, and it’s done with printer’s ink! [Letters to Lucien, p158]  

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Many of Cassatt’s prints are now regarded as technical masterpieces.  She pulled sheets herself in her studio, and also had the help of an extremely talented printer, Modeste Leroy, whom she took the unusual step of crediting, as is the Japanese tradition.  The prints are marked Imprimée par l’artiste et M. Leroy / Mary Cassatt.  

At the Fogg Museum right now, one may see a sequence of nine versions of The Bath, the first print in a set of twenty-five.  Cassatt worked on The Bath in a great many stages because, as she said, “I was entirely ignorant of the method when I began.” [Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, p45]  The whole series originally had the subtitle “an attempt at imitating Japanese printing,” although she later dropped this description.

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Cassatt had studied Japanese prints for twenty years, and owned many of them by the time she undertook the series; her interest in Japanese style had been given new point by an important exhibition of Japanese works that took place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890.  In a well-known letter to Berthe Morisot, Cassatt exhorted her to see the exhibition:

… you could come and dine here with us and afterwards we could go to see the Japanese prints at the Beaux-Arts.  Seriously, you must not miss that.  You who want to make color prints you couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful.  I dream of it and don’t think of anything else but color on copper.  [letter from Cassatt to Morisot, quoted p36 of Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints.]

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The Japanese influence on The Bath is evident right away.  You can see it in the particular shade of blue that makes the basin of water a significant equal weight in the picture, in balance with the mother and the child; it is in the pattern on the yellow dress that has gone from being penciled in to being part of the plate; and it is in the outlined figures that seem almost cut out and then laid over the background.

Cassatt’s color prints are stylized and also about style.  Here style is not ornament.  The hallmark of these prints may be their tenderness, but here style is paring down and juxtaposing in order to achieve a kind of force.

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Monet at Work

Monet at Work

Monet, Houses of Parliament

I hadn’t appreciated what it meant to Monet to work in a series.  I knew the haystacks and the cathedrals and the water lilies showed different times of day – that you could see the morning in the yellow light along one edge of a bridge or doorframe and the evening in the lavender along the other – but I hadn’t really thought through how Monet would then actually have to work on them. I assumed, I think, that he began, say on a morning painting of haystacks, finished that one and then moved on to one of the afternoon. But he was painting actual haystacks and of course the effects he was interested in were only visible for perhaps an hour, or much less on any given day. He had to work on the whole series at once, and he switched from canvas to canvas as the light changed.

This is an extraordinary feat of concentration, like playing simultaneous chess games.  Although the paintings in a series all had cathedrals in them each one was different in cast, in the range of color and emotion. Imagine working simultaneously on ten essays and switching every hour. Watching Monet, surrounded by his canvases, made a vivid impression, and he and his friends left wonderful glimpses of what he was like at work.

Monet apparently began working in series as early as 1885, when he went back to locations where he had painted with Boudin, Jongkind and Courbet.  Guy de Maupassant, who had that year published his second novel, Bel Ami, remembered watching Monet at work at Entretat:

I often followed Claude Monet in search of impressions.  He was no longer a painter, in truth, but a hunter.  He proceeded, followed by children [possibly his own and Mme Hoschedé’s] who carried his canvases, five or six canvases representing the same subject at different times of day and with different effects.  He took them up and put them aside in turn, according to the changes in the sky.  Before his subject, the painter lay in wait for the sun and shadows, capturing in a few brush strokes the ray that fell or the cloud that passed….I have seen him thus seize a glittering shower of light on the white cliff and fix it in a flood of yellow tones which, strangely, rendered the surprising and fugitive effect of that unseizable and dazzling brilliance.  On another occasion he took a downpour beating on the sea in his hands and dashed it on the canvas – and indeed it was the rain that he had thus painted…. (1)

There were some further ways in which Monet conceived of ‘working in a series.’  Although he was wary of talking about studio work, far from the plein air that was the Impressionists’ rallying cry, still the series were finished in the studio. To feel balanced and deep, a picture needed the period of further consideration possible in the studio. There, too, he worked on what might be called their “seriesness,” laboring to distinguish each from the others and to assemble a set of impressions and effects of light that made sense as a group. This meant that none of them were finished until all of them were finished.

The group often referred to as the fundamental series is those of the haystacks, perhaps because the method was there worked out completely, or because Monet intended to show them as a group, and did, with Durand-Ruel, in 1891. He had apparently thought he would have just two canvases – one was to show sunlight and the other gray weather. But, as he worked, the effects he wanted to catch, those that demonstrated what he called “instantaneity,” multiplied, and in the end he showed fifteen pictures. These were a financial success, the dealer was able to sell them for between 3,000 and 4,000 francs.  

Monet was then fifty-one; Impressionism had won its initial battles, but it was still not easy to make a living.  The idea to work in series emerged as Monet was beginning to be a successful artist, and the success of the series themselves helped him to continue working in this unusual way. It required a substantial outlay for him to get the canvas and materials to begin so many pictures at once, and then he continued working on them for years before the group could be ready for sale.  As he wrote to his wife Alice Monet from London, “I have something like sixty-five canvases covered with colors…What a bill I’m going to have at Lechertier!” (2)

The London series (those of Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament, done between 1899 and 1904) are the culmination of the method. As he matured, Monet chased increasingly fugitive effects. “I adore London,” he told the dealer René Gimpel, “it’s a mass, an ensemble, and it’s so simple. Then in London, above all what I love is the fog.” On another occasion he said, “without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it is magnificent breadth.  Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak.” In 1901, he wrote to Alice, “I can’t tell you about this fantastic day.  What marvelous things, but only lasting five minutes, it’s enough to drive you crazy.  No, there’s no land more extraordinary for a painter.” (3)

A lovely exhibition catalog for the show Monet in London with text by Grace Seiberling points out that this adored fog was the result of heavy pollution. Monet sometimes let the industrial browns and greens go, but he saw it all, as he explained to an interviewer, also in 1901:

The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs…. Objects change in appearance in a London fog quicker than in any other atmosphere, and the difficulty is to get every change down on canvas. (4)  

He was beset by difficulties.  His friend Sargent would come to visit him at the Savoy Hotel, where Monet stayed in part because of the balconies directly over the Thames.  There, Sargent said he “found him surrounded by some ninety canvases – each one the record of a momentary effect of light over the Thames.  When the effect was repeated and an opportunity occurred for finishing the picture, the effect had generally passed away before the particular canvas could be found.” The situation was almost ridiculous.  He would sit among his hundred canvases, an elusive effect would appear there before him over the river and he would search, he told the Duc de Trevise, “feverishly,” among the leaning paintings for one that matched the effect.  In the end, he would “choose one of them that didn’t differ too much from what I saw,” and then, “despite everything, I altered it completely.  When my work was finished, I would notice, in moving among my canvases that I had overlooked precisely the one that would have suited me best and which I had at hand.  How stupid!” (5)

His friends and his wife became familiar with the anxious state of waiting for a longed-for effect to return.  And then, these effects, even the sun itself, moved with time, and might well appear in a different part of the sky.  “Around 4 o’clock,” he wrote in a letter, “the sun finally showed itself from time to time and I was thrilled for the motifs at the hospital, but there I was completely disappointed; a few days without seeing it, the sun, and it appears a kilometer from my motif; there is no longer any hope on that front, and I’m really distressed about it!  It would have been so beautiful to do!” (6)

He hurled himself into work, faulting himself for only having the energy to work eleven hours at a stretch.  He took his canvases home to the Savoy and studied them until he went to sleep.  One couldn’t be an artist, he told an interviewer later, “if one doesn’t have his painting in his head before executing.” (7)

This interview was quoted by Gustave Geffroy in his book about Monet and his work, published in 1922.  Geffroy had himself been to see Monet working in London in February of 1900; he had arrived with Monet’s old friend Georges Clemenceau; they found Monet at work on the balcony:

From time to time, he stopped.  “The sun isn’t there any longer,” he would say….All of a sudden Claude Monet would seize his palette and brushes.  “The sun has come back,” he said.  He was at that moment the only one to know it.  

The others on the balcony looked intently for the change Monet had seen, but could not find it.

We still only saw an expanse of woolly gray, some confused forms, the bridges as if suspended in the void, smoke that quickly disappeared, and some swelling waves of the Thames, visible close to the bank. We applied ourselves to see better, to penetrate this mystery, and, indeed, we ended up by distinguishing we didn’t know what mysterious and distant gleam, which seemed to be trying to penetrate this immobile world.  Little by little, things were illuminated with a gleam, and it was delicious to see, feebly illuminated by an invisible sun, like an ancient star, this grandiose landscape that then delivered its secrets.  (8)  

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(1) Guy de Maupassant, La vie d’un paysagiste, Le Gil Blas, Sept 28, 1886, quoted in Rewald, p517.

(2) Monet’s letters are designated by the numbers given them in Daniel Wildenstein’s catalog raisonné, this one is w.1532]

(3) Quotes from René Gimpel are from Diary of a Picture Dealer, p73 and p129, quoted in Monet in London, exhibition at the High Museum of Art, text by Grace Seiberling, p55. Letter to Alice of 1901 is w. 1593, quoted in Seiberling, p58.

(4) E. Bullet, “MacMonnies, the sculptor, working hard as a painter,” The Eagle (Brooklyn) 8 September 1901, quoted in Seiberling, p62.

(5) Charteris, John Singer Sargent, p126, and Duc de Trévise, “Le Pélerinage de Giverny,” Revue de l’art ancient et modern 51 (1927), quoted in Seiberling, pp68-69.

(6) 24 March, 1900, w. 1537, quoted in Seiberling, p59.

(7) Interview with Marcel Pays, Excelsior, 26 January 1921, quoted Seiberling, p70.

(8) Geffroy, Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, 1922, quoted Seiberling, p64-65.

A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames, 1901

In a book on Monet’s series paintings of London (between 1900 and 1904 he made almost a hundred paintings of three subjects: the Waterloo Bridge, the Charing Cross Bridge, the Houses of Parliament) I read this cursory paragraph:  

The successful portrait painter Sargent, who urged Monet to show in London in the early 1890s, may have encouraged the artist’s professional interest in London.  He was very much in evidence when Monet was in London and assisted him in making arrangements, dined with him, and provided social contacts – some of whom may have been intended as potential patrons. [1]  

They had known each other some time, apparently, and Sargent was good at, and generous about, practical arrangements.  

In a letter from Pissarro to his son Lucien written in 1891, “What you say about Sargent doesn’t surprise me; Monet had told me that he is very kind.”  Monet, though, seems to have had more feeling for Sargent as a compatriot painter than Pissarro did.  In the letter, Pissarro continued, “As for his painting, that, of course, we can’t approve of; he is not an enthusiast, but rather an adroit performer, and it was not for his painting that Mirbeau [the novelist and critic] wanted you to meet him. He is a man who can be very useful…” [2]

There he is -- Sargent -- darting about in the background of Monet's life.  Encouraging, facilitating.  Both men were extremely rigorous, both worked incessantly, both were fastidious in their artistic ideas and tastes.  What did they mean to each other?  

[1] Grace Seiberling, Monet in London, High Museum of Art, distributed by University of Washington Press, 1988, p36.
[2] Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien, edited John Rewald and Lucien Pissarro, Da Capo, New York: 1995, letter of October 6, 1891, p183.

First in a Series

First in a Series

“The Bath,” 1891. State: xvii/xvii: color print with drypoint, softground and aquatint.

On a fleeting visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art late last December – five women of three generations, including the baby and her much-admired five-year-old cousin L. – I caught a first glimpse of something that seemed suddenly very interesting, or rather it was as if I had already for a while been interested and had come upon the occasion when a dim returning attraction becomes a definite line to pursue.

We were a small cloud of Brownian motion bounding and rebounding in that museum’s great atrium, recently-completed, and its great white rooms – it was almost by accident that we found ourselves in a small exhibition of Mary Cassatt’s prints. On one side of a hallway a room with works on paper having to do with life in Paris – something of Degas, something of Toulouse-Lautrec. And on the other side of the hallway the room of Cassatt prints. Their fine yellow, slightly Japanese in tone, women seated, stillness, design.  In the different impressions, deliberation. I didn’t have time to look comparatively, and envied the men and women spending a careful hour in that room.

Last weekend, at the Raven bookstore, a find: Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, by Mathews and Shapiro, for an exhibition in Boston, DC, and Williamstown, 1989-1990.  And last night, reading late, found the thought I might have had, or begun to have, that dark December day.

In 1879, at the invitation of Degas, Cassatt began exhibiting with the Impressionists.  Later that fall, she made a trip to the Alps – I imagine one of those trips during which vision is clarified and from which one returns full of the energy to redouble one’s efforts. She found that Degas, Pissarro and Bracquemond had the idea for a new print journal, La jour et la nuit. She joined in.  “At the moment,” Degas wrote to Bracquemond of the project, “Mlle Cassatt is full of it.”  

At the Impressionist exhibition the following spring, Degas, Cassatt and Pissarro showed etchings they had been doing over the winter.  Interestingly, they showed early “preliminary” states as well. [The states of an etching are prints made at different stages from the same plate, often there are considerable changes both because the artist may draw and scrape out aspects of the design, and because the plate itself changes and wears in the process of being printed.]

The Impressionists were unusual in valuing preliminary unfinished states, and this bears an important relation to their understanding and depiction of time.  As Shapiro and Mathews point out: “States thus must be seen as a larger work of art; in a sense they form a “series” as in other Impressionist groups of related works.”  Cassatt, they continue, “keeps reworking the plate and redefining the lights and darks in endless variation as if to capture the changing light of the actual scene.”