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Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Year 1840

Latticed Window at
Lacock Abbey, c. 1840,
William Fox Talbot
The year 1840 is something of a milestone in the development of western art.  Two things occurred that would forever change the way we create, look at, and enjoy art. First, it was about this time that photography moved from the realm of science to embrace art. First efforts were crude, the equipment cumbersome, the chemistry close to prehistoric, but the art of picture-making would never be the same again. Within a single generation, artists were using these new "light writing" images to paint from and to look at life in new ways. The "snapshot" even influenced the way artists composed their paintings. No longer was it forbidden for the subject of the painting to be cropped by the edge of the canvas.

Impression: Sunrise, 1874, Claude Monet
Also in 1840, Claude Monet was born. This obstinate, headstrong youth grew up near Le Havre on the French coast of  Normandy. It was as if the bright colors of the sun, the shore, and the sea were somehow indelibly stamped in his brain. No artist in history has more influenced the way we see nature, paint nature, and look upon art. At the age of 34, his painting, Impression: Sunrise, thanks to a contemptuous critic, gave both a name and substance to the first truly "new" way of painting since the Renaissance. Monet was and is Impressionism. He was there at its birth, nurtured it through a troubled adolescence, reaped the rewards of its maturity, and all alone, guided it into a brilliant old age, long after every last one of his fellow "color daubers" had moved on or simply died.

Water-Lily Pond, 1926, Claude Monet
(possibly his last painting)
When others were at best only superficially impressionistic, or grew disillusioned with its limitations, Monet bravely soldiered on, probing those limitations, expanding them, challenging not just the way artists painted nature but the way in which they saw what they painted. His "series" paintings are sometimes seen as monotonous, but in reality, they bear witness to a man's search for something approaching "God" in art and nature. Whether it was water, water lilies, haystacks, poplars, cathedrals, people or poppies, there was a religious fervor in his 86 years of devotion to this cause that somehow makes the nickname "Father of Impressionism" seem inadequate. A better moniker might well be "The Eye of God."

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