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guest writer: Christine Despas 'Monet and the passage of time & the constancy of light'

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

From Monet's lightly mechanized Jardin à Sainte Adresse I get a flash that he is painting in a moment when the 19th century is turning into the 20th century. Painters have the power to paint what's there that we can't see, whether it be social criticism, for instance, or a person's character, or truth. Then, why not the passing of time as well?

painting by Monet
Claude Monet. Jardin à Sainte Adresse (1867)

Jardin à Sainte Adresse is a pre-World War I painting with steamships off in the distance, on the frame's horizon, piping steam into the sky. At the moment, a cirrus cloud is possibly passing over the sun, tempering glare and enhancing blue-white, with a breathing morning sky above everybody's heads.

Earlier that morning there was perhaps the customary breakfast tea in the garden. Soon to obsolesce, soon to evaporate like mist from the wrought iron tea table exposed to the changing winds of time.

The sensation of standing in the present and observing it dissolve and be replaced by new parameters seems like an illusion. But it isn't. Artists depict it deliberately. I call it 'the Downton Abbey effect'. It overrides the real illusion, that of permanence and stability. We rub the fabric of passing time between our fingers, see it disperse before our very eyes.

Time, a fundamental constant of nature, is hard for us humans to envisage. We get confused and even fooled about it constantly. To us it seems sometimes illusory, sometimes non-linear, even circular. It's our home, we dwell in it, like the water fishes swim in, we are inside it, see through it and so aren't perhaps fully equipped to see its properties from an external point of view.

What Monet embodies in Jardin à Sainte-Adresse is the sensation of direct awareness of major historical change. One can feel and see this aplenty in certain moments of Downton Abbey. In that show, things of the scripted present step in and stand next to things of the scripted past, whether things of the present be objects like modern appliances, characters' remembrances or the new way of doing things.

painting by Monet
Monet. Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare St. Lazare (1877)

By the time of another lightly mechanized piece ten years later, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare St. Lazare, one feels an acceptance of accelerating mechanization in the new, modern life.

There's one other fundamental constant of nature that Monet takes for his material. Equally discomforting, it's the subject of light.

I'm not an artist who paints (although I yield a serious quill), yet I seem to have a precise observation here, for I find in the Wikipedia.Org 'Claude Monet' article a quote from Helen Gardner's amazing book, Art Through the Ages. (p. 669):

Monet, with a scientific precision, has given us an unparalleled

and unexcelled record of the passing of time as seen

in the movement of light over identical forms.

With Caravaggio and Tintoretto, light seems to mean lighting, a means to accentuate drama, whereas with Monet, it’s about the science of optics and how photons – defined by physics as both particle and wave – affect the observer’s brain and emotion, while producing illumination.

Light is radiant energy, it travels in waves, and waves carry information. What kind of information does light carry that evokes particular emotions?

a apinting by Monet
Monet. Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son (1875)

In Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son, the time of day is the subject. The declining sun peels away the substance of clouds overhead, they seem to dissolve before our eyes.

Certain times of day, then, produce repeated sensations in our brain each time we see the illuminated scene whether painted by Monet or directly in front of us.

painting by Monet
Monet. Morning on the Seine Near Giverny (1897)

As further confirmation, with Morning on the Seine Near Giverny, I never knew it was morning. I saw the jpeg long ago and grabbed it off the web because when I saw it, I was there then, a half-finished cup of coffee left behind on my imagined kitchen counter, the stillness of the river serene, the air vigorously cleansing my mind.

It's only now, years later as I draft this essay that I notice the title of the painting confirms the depicted time of day: morning!

Which demonstrates another 'precise observation' that Monet’s paintings make for us and then tell us about sooner or later. Perhaps great paintings are tapestries woven from secrets, quietly revealed. Often, later is better and more fun.

Perhaps their sublime mathematics of optics is why the emotions evoked by Monet's works seem precise and unvarying every time. The quizzical science of light, that we are so fortunate to have embodied in his timeless context of pure beauty, poses questions perhaps more suited to asking than answering.

Christine Despas is a widely published UK-award-winning artist and belletrist. She has fans here, has published with the US previously and recently is expanding her geographic range abroad. She is the first guest contributor to The Painter's Eye.



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