A recent trip to the Met got me thinking about time and rivals. I was there for three hours and spent almost all of that time in one corner, with 3 paintings. Monet’s “The Four Trees,” a painting from his Rouen Cathedral series, and a painting from his Haystacks series.
Nadal and Federer. USC and UCLA. Apple and Microsoft.
Rivals are more than a thorn in our side–a pebble in our shoe–a thwart to our plans. Rivals challenge us, ironically, they even encourage us to be greater than we are now, so that we may be greater than them.
“There is no being–only becoming.” –Plato
Monet, a master of impressionism and painting.
Monet, just a man no different than most of us.
He fought time–he didn’t run and hide from it, but faced it head on and went to battle. His paintbrush as his rifle, paint as his artillery, haystacks and water lilies his battleground, and ambition was his armor.
Monet painted during a time when many of the great impressionists bonded much like a family–Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Auguste Renoir, and a few others. The impressionists showed homage to the others by painting each other, painting each others’ paintings, and even setting each other up (Manet introduced Morisot to her husband, Manet’s brother).
But, to say this close-knit group of artists were rivals is ill-fitting. Especially when it came to Monet. Monet’s rival wasn’t Degas or Manet. Monet’s rival was the same as many of ours, time.
Time spent with his family.
His beloved wife Camille died at a young age. Monet painted her, even on her deathbed. Knowing that her death was imminent, his brush strokes were broad and quick. After Camille died, Monet never painted another person. He instead focused on inanimate objects.
Time to capture a single moment.
A thawing lake, the shimmer of light on a leaf, a ripple in the water of his Japanese garden–Monet was determined to defeat time by attempting to capture fleeting moments. That determination became an obsession, sparking a 20 year long war between himself and the intricacies of painting the water lilies. But the war wasn’t really between Monet and his beloved paintings, it was between Monet and time.
When Monet decided to delve deeper into “impressionism,” and attempted to capture fleeting moments, the object of the paintings became irrelevant. Instead, the object was merely a gauge to reflect other changes–the morning fog, light, haze, or color.
While painting this cathedral, Monet set up a row of over 30 canvasses. He would start in the morning at the first canvas, and as the conditions would change, he would move down the line. He would return the next day and do the same thing–frustrated because dusk on Tuesday would be ever-so slightly different from dusk on Wednesday.
Monet chose 20 paintings from this series to exhibit in Paris. These paintings were meant to be seen next to each other; however, they have been purchased by private collectors and museums all over the world. Seeing this one painting at the Met made me want to experience the series in its original splendor.
Monet painted a series of these haystacks, much like the Rouen Cathedral. These too were first exhibited in Paris, all together, and were meant to be viewed in that manner. It is only then that the viewer will understand that the painting is not of the haystacks themselves, but of the seasons, time of day, and other conditions that cause slight variances in our perception of the world.
I should petition the 20+ museums around the world to lend one of their most prized paintings, so that these paintings can be exhibited at least once in our lifetimes in their original splendor.