Rachel Cohen



Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1900. Art Institute of Chicago. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday and today, in our extended family, as for many families, our children graduated. Our children and their cousins left behind nursery school, second grade, kindergarten, sixth grade, a year of daycare, and the fourth grade in a planned home school. Their teachers and families made a moving effort to mark these changes which this year do not seem as visible, as tangible, as usual.

Thinking about graduation, and gradual movement, my mind went to Claude Monet, who was one of the first painters I loved, and whose paintings our children love to look at. I wanted to make this postcard for our children who are graduating.


For a while, Claude Monet lived in cities and traveled around a lot, but eventually Claude Monet lived in the country. He had a house and a garden in Giverny, and this painting was painted in his garden. In a marshy area, he made a pond and over time the pond got more and more beautiful.

He planted water lilies and other plants. He admired Japanese gardens and brought in plants from Japan, and actually had to fight with his neighbors and the village government to be allowed to plant what they called “foreign” plants. He built this bridge which was designed to look like the Japanese bridges he admired.

Claude Monet painted surrounded by children. There were eight children in the household he made together with Alice Hoschedé. He painted outdoors a lot, and the children would come with him.

He was interested in trying to get paintings to show certain times of day, certain qualities of weather and effects of light, not the way a place usually looked, but the way it looked, say, on a sunny day in July around one o’clock in the afternoon.

When he went to paint outside, he would often set up a whole series of canvases. He would work on one at ten o’clock that showed the way the light looked around then, and, when the light shifted, he would move on to the next canvas and work on the eleven o’clock one, and when noon came, he would move on to the next painting. Part of what is beautiful and still surprising in his paintings is the way that you can really see time in them.

Usually, when we, your parents and teachers, celebrate the moment where you are moving on to the next painting, you know this is happening because of the world around you – because you are crossing the street to the bigger school, because you are hugging your friends, because your teachers are handing you folders with all the work and art that you have made, and you are hanging your work up around the house.

When we are not in the world in the usual way, it can be hard to feel that a change is really happening.

I imagine that Claude Monet watched the faces of his children with the same kind of attention that he watched the water lilies in his garden, and the same kind of attention that your parents and teachers and grandparents watch you with.

In the year this painting was painted, 1899-1900, Monet painted the water lilies eighteen times. Over many years, he drew and painted the surface of the water with the water lilies reflected in it so often he stopped counting. He went to look at them every day, year after year. He knew so much about the way the light and the water moved together, the way the plants grew and filled out the pond, the way the bridge weathered.

Amazingly, even on the screen, we can see it. We can see the changing light in your faces. It is gradual, but it is clear. You have grown like plants, and you are as much part of the world as the gardens you draw and tend and the bridges you will build. You really have graduated.


For Sylvia, Tobias, Lillian, Hazel, Zinnia, Sage and Avi.

Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Giotto, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers, Arena Chapel, Padua

What was stolen were my minutes, fifteen of them. I’d been under the mistaken impression that for my twenty-seven euros – thirteen each for me and for M., one for the baby – we were to be vouchsafed half an hour in the presence of one of the greatest fresco sequences in the western world. I knew that we were to spend fifteen minutes cooling down in an air-conditioned portal prior to being allowed entry to the sacred place, but I counted on half an hour to try to snatch a few glimpses of Giotto’s eternal understanding. The bell, though, rang after fifteen minutes.

The whole thing of course is absurd – each panel, and there are dozens, ranks among the greatest paintings we have – any one could be profitably studied for many half-hours. For how long is it right to contemplate Giacchino asleep with the angel curving down his vision and the shepherds, still and aware? Five minutes tracing the steady tender robes of the figures presenting the baby Christ at the temple would not be wasted. Nevertheless, there would be a settled internal logic to spending fifteen minutes in general awe and survey and a further quarter of an hour in contemplation of a few moments. Robbed of this latter experience I could hardly feel that I had seen the paintings at all.

“Cynical,” M. said after we had left; they had simply given up on whether their visitors would have a real experience of the paintings and focused on how to get a maximum of funds in short increments of time.

But then again, in another way, one does apprehend the greatness of Giotto almost instantly. What Giotto founded for the next eight hundred years of art to struggle with was the sense that his figures existed, feet on the ground in front of us, in time. He was the master of significant form. As Bernard Berenson rightly pointed out, Giotto’s genius was for significance, for what would read immediately:

With the simplest means, with almost rudimentary light and shade, and functional line, he contrives to render, out of all the possible outlines, out of all the possible variations of light and shade that a given figure may have, only those that we must isolate for special attention when we are actually realizing it. This determines his types, his schemes of colour, even his compositions.… Obliged to get the utmost out of his rudimentary light and shade, he makes his scheme of colour of the lightest that his contrasts may be of the strongest. In his compositions he aims at clearness of grouping… Note in the [picture] we have been looking at, how the shadows compel us to realize every concavity, and the lights every convexity, and how, with the play of the two, under the guidance of line, we realize the significant parts of each figure, whether draped or undraped… Above all, every line is functional; that is to say, charged with purpose… Follow any line here, say in the figure… kneeling to the left, and see how it outlines and models, how it enables you to realize the head, the torso, the hips, the legs the feet, and how its direction, its tension, is always determined by the action.  {Berenson, Bernard, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, vol. II, New York: Phaidon, 1968, 6-7.}

Rendering his figures in time, Giotto gives the wondering viewer the sense of freshness, of “just now.”

On the way art has for many centuries mediated relationships between time and money there is of course much to say. (I tried to say something about this in a piece for The Believer, at http://www.believermag.com/issues/201211/?read=article_cohen). A few things, though, come directly to mind. The Arena Chapel, famously, was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, who was known to practice usury, which was at that time prohibited by the Catholic Church. When Giotto undertook the commission, around 1300, it was understood that the family chapel was to be a sort of lavish expiation. Giotto’s friend Dante, who admired the chapel greatly (and who, one feels sure, spent more than fifteen minutes engrossed there) mentioned Giotto in the Divine Comedy and also had Enrico’s father, Reginaldo, as the head of the usurers in the seventh circle of hell. On the chapel’s great fresco of judgment toward the bottom the figure of Enrico Scrovegni offers up a painted maquette of the chapel in which the viewer is standing.

There is an alchemical irony in the fact that Giotto’s act transmuted Scrovegni’s gold into something as nearly eternal as the individual human being can manage and that that divinity is now changed back, by latter-day Scrovegnis, into gold. I wrote, in “Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering,” of how, just around 1300, time began to be measured incrementally, of how this was part of the understanding of purgatory, only incorporated into church doctrine in the 13th century, and then given masterful form by Dante. Purgatory creates a passageway between heaven and hell through which you can move step by step in both time and money. And the incrementalization and measurability of time was also very useful in building the practice of usury – which calculates how money will grow, from itself, over time.

All this, which I spent years studying, was in the background of my aggravation when the bell rang at the Arena Chapel. But what’s really caught my mind in the days since is the relationship between my feeling about time and my feeling about money – captured, I think, in that complex word, “to spend.”

“To spend,” derives from the Latin expendere, “to weigh out money, to pay down.” (The tangibility is interesting in the old word, from a time when money had a specific gravity.) Expendere was generally borrowed by all the Germanic tongues and became in Old English spendan (with forspenden meaning “to use up.”) As explained by etymonline, “In reference to labor, thoughts, time, etc. attested from c.1300.”

It is interesting that, in one of those cosmic shifts of understanding that periodically encompass the globe, at precisely the moment Giotto was painting the ground on the Arena Chapel, in English people began to spend time. But, at least in my ears and usage, in the phrases “I spend time,” and “I spend money,” the “spend” is not congruent. The difference becomes more evident as quantities and further objects are adjoined. “I spent a lot of time with the painting.” “I spent a lot of money on the painting.” It is absolutely clear that in the first case the net result is an augmentation and in the second a depletion. Time is not money. Time spent is something gained. Even wasting time has more so to speak profit in it than wasting money.

In some profound sense, one understood, I feel sure, by every figure in the Arena Chapel, my time is not my own. And not just because it is borrowed from some person or deity to whom it really does belong but because it is that in which we all live and move. It is the awareness of the movement of time that makes significant form possible. Lines and significance are drawn out, corporeal existence has its structured purposes, in time. And, even though the time in which we move cannot be ours, ironically I think it is only when time bears this relationship to significance that we can feel that time has been stolen from us. If I look at a carved wooden Madonna from 1100, my heart full of rebellious fury at how my father, dead at sixty-seven, was robbed of his time, that Madonna looks on incomprehendingly. But all the people in Giotto – the sleeping guards, the Madonnas with their hands outstretched, the Judas and the woman who look on – all of them, they know.

rcohen 33

Giotto, Noli me tangere, Arena Chapel, Padua

Tiepolo's Time

Tiepolo039s Time

Tiepolo, The Chariot of Aurora, 1760s

Reading Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink persuaded me to look carefully, for the first time, at the Tiepolo oil sketches that fill almost a room at the Metropolitan Museum. As ever, I had less time than I would have liked. Was astonished by their upwardness. Sense of being drawn up into the sky – the whole company, nymphs and swans and chariots upward, upward, into the vast swirl of the heavens.

rcohen 107

Calasso’s book in a revelatory sense about time.  Father Time a recurring figure in Tiepolo’s oeuvre – and shown here.  I believe the older man in blue between cherub and swans.  (The hours are with Aurora in her chariot.)

rcohen 107

The sensation of time in looking at these oil sketches was very peculiar.  In the heavens, the time is divine time, the time of myths and disporting, and this time is circular, though not without sequence. Particular moments have been shown, dramatic moments, but the whole story, known to the gods, if not to us, is implicit there.    

This is part of the feeling of mystery, the story is known, but it is not clear that it will be known to us, as we might like to believe, “in the fullness of time.”  Can’t escape the feeling that these powerful inscrutable faces, intent on the project of carrying forward day and light, are in an intractable relationship with the narrative flow of their story in a way that does not even resemble the way we recount the incidents of our days to one another.

rcohen 107

Catalog of Time: Time and Tide

Catalog of Time Time and Tide

Eugène Boudin, Low Tide at Deauville, MFA, Boston, iphone detail

Suspension, one of the time-qualities a painter may achieve, is particularly pronounced in Boudin’s Low Tide at Deauville.  Sky over the land, figures near and in the water, boats awaiting the wind.  Just at low tide there is a pause, the water holds steady, and then it’s as if the whole scene takes a next breath, and everything begins to flow the other way.

rcohen 136

Time and tide, I find, are not the distinct words I always took them for.  Time and tide wait for no man.  Those two great forces, I always thought, time and the sea, the hours of the sun, the pull of the moon, the ineluctable powers of the heavens drawing movement from the earth.  But no, tide in old English was time, with no thought of the sea.  The expression began as a repetition of synonyms, two words for time, it tarrieth, they used to say, for no man.  We have this older sense, the tidings of season and time, in yuletide, noontide.  Tide came to take a sea sense probably in the 14th century, time was still its primary valence, the time of the waters.  To me the earlier version of the expression almost seems to herald the coming differentiation – it is only when ‘tide’ has a sea meaning that the expression has its great breadth and completeness, its sense of mortality.

rcohen 136

Boudin painted this picture in 1897, the year before he died.  Looking at the details I am struck again by the way the figures, especially the one who bends to look at the water, seem to dissolve into the air.        

rcohen 136

A little further with Degas

A little further with Degas

Edgar Degas, Before the Race, The Clark Museum, c.1882

Many of Degas’ paintings and drawings of racehorses have titles that name the same moment.  The one at the Clark Museum is called “Before the Race.”  Degas, we are often told, wanted to capture the feeling of motion in painting.  The moments before a horserace are astonishingly dense with motion, not the wild free motion of the race, but the expectation of it.  I think people who love races love the combination – before and during – the anticipatory pausing steps, a taut potential that then gallops free. Great paintings work continually along the tense edge between stillness and motion, and painting seems well-suited to giving the hesitating about-to-be-motion that comes before.

At the Clark, “Before the Race” caught all of our attention.  Little S., two, likes animals in pictures.  M. and I also found ourselves momentarily absorbed in the little picture, the elegant animals, the bright-silked riders. We never know how long we have in a gallery and I hurried to document what my eye seemed to be noticing.  Here are my six details, in the order taken:

rcohen 132

rcohen 132

rcohen 132

rcohen 132

rcohen 132

rcohen 132

It was only in looking at the pictures afterward that I noticed that I had been repeatedly drawn to what I can now see is the fulcrum of the painting: the horse’s head almost awkwardly outstretched, the red and yellow jockey pulled forward in his saddle.

In his essay on Degas, Paul Valéry points out that Degas was one of the first to study the equine photographs of Major Muybridge, which gave the painter the chance to see “the real positions of the noble animal in movement.” (Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, Bollingen Series XLV 12, p40, translated by David Paul)  Before these photographs, as Valéry says, we thought we knew what we were seeing, but, although “it seemed possible to picture the positions of a bird in flight, or a horse galloping…these interpolated pauses are imaginary.” (p41)

The way our family saw “Before the Race” is twice related to this observation of Valéry’s. At the age of two, the world is motion, wild and free, with pauses, such as the one we take before this picture.  And in this little interpolated pause, I hurriedly take a few photographs that will allow me to decipher what was inside the continuous impression my eye took.

Before I saw my photographs, I knew that the painting conveyed to me a sense of excitement at once elegant and awkward, but I would not have been able to point to instances.  Afterward it seemed important that the first time I photographed the horse’s head I left it in isolation, and the second time I included the beautiful patch of lavender paint to the right of the horse’s muzzle, which shows that the horse is reaching toward.

The first photograph was taken at 12:18.25,

rcohen 132

three seconds later I took this image:

rcohen 132

and four seconds after that:        

rcohen 132

In that seven seconds, and, more importantly, in looking at the negative space among the horses’ legs, which gave me the sense of the ground – the ground of the picture, and the fundamentals of this world – I got hold of something about the relation between the stretching horse and his universe, and when I photographed the horse's head again I framed the shot to include the clues Degas had left. Between the horse’s nose and the patch of purple is lure and distance to be overcome, something, nostrils quivering, to reach toward and something that will receive the hooves in motion.

Degas, Valéry says, “is one of the rare painters who gave due emphasis to the ground.”  (p42)  It is in the way a painter does the ground, he says, that one can see color “no longer as a local quality acting in isolation… but as a local result of all the different sheddings and reflections of light in space, passing and repassing between all the bodies contained in it.” The ground gives a unity, one that is “quite distinct from [the unity] of composition.” Working in this way alters the painter’s “idea of form.” (p43)  

Although Valéry doesn’t put it in these words, I think you could say that when the picture is united by these “sheddings and reflections of light in space, passing and repassing between all the bodies contained in it,” then new possibilities for achieving a sense of movement are conveyed to the looker.  These passings and repassings are what we feel as we follow a tripping small girl into the next gallery, and what she herself is exhilarated by as she learns to understand her own movement in space.  In painting so conceived, as in the moment before the races, the potential of movement is in every trembling shadow and patch of ground.   “Pushed to its limit,” Valéry concludes, “this method amounts to impressionism.”  (p43)