The Reluctant Revolutionary

One of our greatest artistic inventions is the image of what it takes to be a great artist. They stare down on us from the walls, with blazing eyes and hair swept by the wind. The revolutionaries. The rule-breakers. The pushers of envelopes. From Caravaggio through Goya to Gauguin and beyond. Picasso and his gang. Here’s to the crazy ones.

Pop culture has fanned the sparks of that myth into a firework display. If you are so inclined, you can currently pay three figures to go and see the Rolling Stones pretend to be a street gang, although we all know they have been millionaires for more than fifty years

And this isn’t restricted to the Arts, by the way. Look at Einstein. He wouldn’t look half as clever if he’d brushed his hair.

Image is all. To be a revolutionary, you must get your image on message.

So what a relief it is to see one of the greatest, most influential, most popular and most radical of all artists who has no image at all.

Of all the world’s great painters, Claude Monet is the one we know the least about.

That’s not because his life was any great secret — it was recent and well-documented. It’s because we don’t care.

So how is this possible? How is it that one of the world’s best loved artists, probably the single most copied and reproduced painter of all time, is of so little interest to his vast audience?

The answer is in the work itself. His pictures were his own worst enemy. They are easy live with. Too easy. He made the whole world pretty. Pretty haystacks. Cathedrals. Railway stations. He even bathed the dirty old Thames in a mysterious golden glow.

The National Gallery have gathered seventy eight of his pictures for the exhibition Monet and Architecture

We know Monet’s pictures so well that we have completely lost sight, through the artful fog, of the man who painted them. What impressions we have are as shadowy and ambiguous as the few figures who appear in his work.

Of course, there are the photos of the Grand Old Man in his studio at Giverny. But they don’t count. A put-up job by his dealer. Unnecessary too — he was famous by then and had been painting for more than sixty years.

But because his pictures make us feel happy we unquestioningly suppose that he was happy painting them. This blithe view ignores his well-documented suicide bid and the fact that his friends were constantly concerned that he would have better luck next time.

Every painting is a self-portrait. It cannot be anything else. But with Monet it is sometimes hard to see the man inside the work. We must half-close our eyes to see through the glowing surface to the shadows beyond.

And there is darkness there: depression engulfed him like the mists in his pictures. It was not until the very end of his life that he was at peace with himself.

It is worth sketching the framework of that life. It was very French, very fin de siècle. He married young. His pregnant girlfriend did not impress his father, who promptly disowned the young couple, disregarding the fact that he was supporting his own pregnant mistress (I warned you it was French. And it gets worse.). Monet loved Claudette and they had two children before she died, an agonising and protracted death, in their poverty-stricken home.

Monet was emotionally desolate and financially destitute (see Papa Monet, above). He moved into the splendid home of his patron, Hoschede. This gentleman had five children and within a short time the sixth, a son, was born. Hoschede then left for Paris to sort out his various shady deals and Monet and Madame Hoschede then went on to live together, with the eight children, for the rest of their lives. C’est la vie. C’est la guerre.

(M Hoschede is worthy of a footnote. He was an entrepreneur — then, as now, a posh term for a wide boy with a huge opinion of himself — which sometimes worked out and sometimes didn’t. On this occasion the gendarmes wanted to discuss, amongst other matters, the fraudulent occupation of a magnificent chateaux, a crime for which I confess a sneaking admiration. But Monsieur H was as resilient as a basketball and came bouncing cheerfully back. The fact that Monet had taken over his wife and children would never get in the way of their friendship and in the years to come he would from time to time pop up and buy a picture with a large cheque. I don’t think I need to go into the details of what happened when Monet presented these cheques to the bank. It’s hard to get a French bank manager to laugh aloud, but it is possible.)

So Monet’s life was not without incident. And this was not Paris. It will surprise many who love his pictures that Monet hated Paris. Apart from his time as a student, he never lived there. How often have you heard people say that it was Monet who taught them to love Paris? Well he may have taught them, but he never managed it himself. All this drama took place in small provincial towns where the net curtains were fluttering like flamingos at this exotic behaviour.

He was a great, great painter. He didn’t grow to become one, it was there right from the start. Like Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra, he could just do it. He couldn’t help himself.

He painted every day. He lived until he was 86 and his catalogue raisonne has more than 2,000 pictures. Very few sketches and drawings: it was all about paint. He was a painter.

That is important. Because he is never painting things, he is painting light.

Very early on he had the insight that illuminated his long life and, in time, influenced thousands and thousands of artists who came after him. Things are nothing: light is everything. Colour is an illusion, created by light. So in this show we are not looking at buildings, we are looking at the effect of the light for one particular moment.

When asked why he had painted twenty five versions of a haystack he replied that he could have painted thousands. In one day, he said, he could have painted thousands. Light was time, it flickered by and then was gone, never to return.

He had two fascinations. Transient things: clouds and water. And permanent things: cathedrals and cliffs. But for him they were the same thing. The ancient façade of Rouen Cathedral was yellow one day and blue the next. Vermillion. Lilac. And sometimes it would fade, shapeless, into the grey sky.

So he painted, every day of his life. He was ready to work at dawn, which meant rising early. In summertime this meant 3.30. When he was happy, he painted. When sad, which was much more often, he buried himself in his work, painting until the light failed and he stumbled home, exhausted in the dark.

And right from the start, he was one of the great ones. This exhibition is arranged thematically. So pictures painted fifty years apart can be within a few feet of one another. It’s hard to tell. It isn’t that he was good and got better. He was great, and stayed that way.

And, of course, the Impressionist movement was named after him. Or rather, after a sarcastic remark by a critic: that he was not painting things, but impressions of things. It was Renoir who exultantly proclaimed that this was not a joke, it was a brilliant observation.

The other painters knew. All his life he was supported and encouraged by a huge range of his fellow artists. He was the real thing, and they knew it. He was effortlessly turning out the very thing that they were desperately struggling to find. He had his own style. His own way of seeing. His own voice. His picked up a brush and a Monet appeared. It couldn’t be anyone else.

They could not believe that anyone could make things that were so beautiful. And they could not believe that the world could not see that they were. Looking at these pictures now, it’s easy to understand why they felt that way.

But success was a long time coming. For the first twenty years Monet lived near to starvation, unable to fed his children and spending his nights writing begging letters to his family.

But, unusually for art history, it is a story with a happy ending. He becomes the Grand Old Man, living at Giverny in the wonderful oriental garden that he created.

This is an uplifting, life-enhancing show. To see an artist with such absolute certainly about what he is doing, such confidence, is inspiring. He was not a philosophical painter. He was not interested in being revolutionary. He just saw things differently, and painted what he saw. Now, of course, we can all see that way.

Then there is the simple joy of walking though the life’s work of a master craftsman. Seventy years. These pictures are utterly, sensationally beautiful. If you had one, your entire home would be decorated. You could paint the rest of it white and throw the TV in a skip.

And you feel him exploring his subjects. But he never explains, never lectures, never theorises. He is more poetic than that. His cathedrals are misty with nostalgia, looking back to a time of certainty and chivalry and decency and honour. A time when men could build something that was intended to stand forever. And our Parliament building looks imposing and dignified, like a tower from the Lord Of The Rings. But then he was in London to escape the Franco-Prussian War and with the Germans on the outskirts of Paris democracy must have looked like a noble idea that was worth defending.

You can tell something about a person by the way that he lives: you can tell everything by the way that he dies. Claude Monet died quietly and modestly.

He was offered a state funeral, but refused. The State tried to insist, but he would have none of it. He hadn’t been grandiose in life and he wasn’t going to start now.

In his papers, it was discovered that he had politely and privately declined every award imaginable, up to and including the Legion D’Honneur. Well, it would have meant a day trip to Paris and that’s a day he could have spent in his garden.

He had two very simple rules for his funeral — no guests and no religion. Just family, and no God. For the painter of so many cathedrals this may seem surprising, but he was an atheist. He loved the buildings and their atmosphere, but he didn’t fall for the story. Interestingly, he only ever painted exteriors: there are no religious interiors.

At his small, unpublicised, funeral (a dozen locals, in working clothes or Sunday best) the Prime Minister, Clemenceau, showed up as a private citizen and close friend. He swept the black cloth from the coffin and insisted that it be covered in a floral bedsheet “We cannot bury Monet in black”. Monet’s housekeeper, who knew him better than anyone, thought he would have approved.

His last great series of masterpieces (not in this show, but in the Orangerie) are, of course, the waterlilies. Vast canvasses, drenched in colour and flowing with light, they shimmer and glow. Here is an old man’s meditation on time and the fragility of life — and what could be more frail than a waterlily? By now the forms have almost dissolved away so that all we have is colour and colour and colour poured onto colour and colour leaking into colour.

And yet the subject is water, which has no colour at all.

Forget everything you think you know about Monet and go and see this show. Go and meet a quiet, modest genius who set the world aglow.

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