Romanticism and Materialism (part VIII)

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Manet reveals to Pissarro the secret of painting frankly and without shadows; Pissarro, in turn, carries Manet with him to the fields, and shows him by his example, and especially by that of the virtuoso of the group, Claude Monet, that the open air suppresses not only modeling, but the very contour of the forms, and substitutes for local tone an infinite interchange of dancing reflections, tangled and indivisible, wherein the form hesitates and is submerged in the tide of the universe. Manet, following his new friends, will, after that, paint but little save in the open air. There shall be no more studies combined in the studio, whose attenuated and mournful light stifles the vibrations of open space, changes the color relations, renders pronounced the fixity of forms to the detriment of their moving surfaces, and condemns the eye to return, little by little, to its old habits of progressive gradations from the too artificial light to the too gloomy darkness. Now you plant your easel right out in the fields, and carve out a section of nature for the picture, which shall be painted all out of doors. Here is the woodland of Courbet, with its green penumbra and its dark leaves spreading over pebbles and brooks. But the sun pierces the branches, sends upon earth and flesh bright, moving spots, and the shadow vanishes. Then the eye of the painter, at first dazzled by the sun's illumination, becomes steadier, insists, gradually recovers its vision, and distinguishes a phantom of shadow where at first it could no longer see anything. The shadow itself is light, it is transparent, it is airy, and the colors of the prism, according to the thousand tones standing next to one another, and according to the angle of the light, are decomposed in the shadow and transmuted there into gamuts of ever subtler shades which no one had ever observed before. Soon the object no longer has its personal color; the play of sun and shadow, all the wandering reflections in their network, and the variations of the season, of the hour, and of the second, impressed by the passing of the wind or the interposition of a cloud, sweep over the surface of the object a thousand changing and mobile tones which turn the husk of the world into a vast moving drama.

When the young men will have seen Boudin's paintings, in which the sea air holds in its meshes rigging and sails, and trembles with the vapor and the spray, when they have studied the water-colors of Jongkind, the Hollander, in which air, water, ice, and clouds are one liquid gulf, as deep as the ocean and as transparent as the sky, when Claude Monet and Pissarro have discovered, in London, the dancing fairyland of the wedding of the sun, of the twilight, of the mist, and of the sea, with which Turner's canvases dazzle the eyes, the renewal of painting will have been effected in their instinct. While Pissarro is striving to formulate principles, and recommends choosing the spectrum colors alone, proscribing any mixing of them, and advising that they be juxtaposed or crossed in separate, comma-like spots, Sisley, Claude Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne practice their eye upon the discovery of the incessant movement on the surface of life, and its changes from minute to minute, depending on the march of the sun and of the infinite and trembling gulf of subtle passages, of complex reflections, of lights in their interchange, and of the fleeting colorations for which the universe of the air is forever the theater.

Pissarro continues his apostleship into the inhabited landscape. Painting the red roofs, half-seen behind the apple trees, and the low hills edged by the curtain of the poplars and by the river, he demonstrates that even when, by means of a severe technique, one obtains the maximum of aerial vibration and of luminous splendor, one may remain the most discreet poet of the intimacy of things, the friend of poor houses, a man who knows that the trees have a thousand admirable adventures between their winter poverty and their summer wealth, a man who tenderly unfurls the humble movement of the plants grown on the hill slopes, and their spontaneous and mobile harmony, always in keeping with the light and the weather. Later on, when he sees all this less distinctly, he selects some high place from which to paint the great cities, the façades behind the leaves, where a thousand lively and subtle tones quiver in the diffused silver, the golden vapor on the river, and the distant swarming on street and sidewalk. Renoir delights in decomposing the grayest atmosphere and the most neutral light into opalescent prisms, in which the carmines, the strong reds, the pinks, the blues, and the violets of the jeweler, and the gems reduced to powder play, with the sun, over nude flesh, in order to pursue its contours into the transparent shadows, and to rediscover, little by little, and with increasingly startled emotion, its profound volumes. Sisley tells the tale of fêtes on the water, of flaky skies where the storm is collecting, of the vast shudder of the air and of the rivers around masts from which pennants fly, of suburban regattas, of the light wind blowing through the leaves and the grasses on the bank, and of the tremble of the particles in space, uniform and gray. Claude Monet is intoxicated by the light and at a distance of two centuries replies, through his lyricism under the excitement of free expanses, to the lyricism of Claude Lorrain inclosed in the rigorous architecture of the will and of reason.

He perceives the sun before all the others, even when it has not yet risen, and even when the sky is covered. Piercing the clouds, or from beyond the curve of the earth, the sun floods the universe with a powdery rain of rays which his eye alone sees. The sheet of light spread by the sun over the world is for him like an innumerable crowd, through which there wander, along intricately crossing paths, a hundred thousand colored atoms, which other men see in a block. He distinguishes the winter sun from the summer sun, and the sun of springtime from the sun of autumn. The sun at dawn and the sun at twilight are not the same sun as that which shone during the ten or fifteen hours elapsed between its rising and its setting. From minute to minute, he follows its appearance, its waxing and waning, its sudden eclipses, and its abrupt returns to the immense surface of the life whose character and pitch and accent are changed by each season, each month, each week, and by the wind, and the rain, and the dust, and the snow, and the ice. Here are a hundred images of the same water, a hundred images of the same trees, and they are like the laugh, and the smile, and the suffering, and the hope, and the disquietude, and the terror, on the same human face, according to whether full daylight or broad shadow reigns, according to all the gradations which separate broad shadow from full daylight. The form is still there, certainly, but it flees and steals away like that of those faces so mobile that the expression of their eyes and of their lips seems to float before them. In the work of this man, so much alive, what part does theory play? None. It adapts itself closely to the need of the moment and, in order to justify the form of art which, with Pissarro, for example, it presumes to govern, it utilizes the scientific systems in vogue at that moment. But what matter? The thing before us is water, sky, and an immense and changing light, in which there appear vaguely palaces, bridges, trees, cliffs, and towers, which tremble in the sea and in the river in a universal exchange, subtle, and dancing with reflections all tinted by other reflections, by moving and transparent shadows, and by sudden, unexpected bits of darkness and of light. Here are stretches of sea, here are sails, here are clouds floating between sky and water. Here are gloomy depths and illumined foam, and here are phantoms of flowers under the surface of the ponds. Here is the shadow of flowers mingling, in lively brooks, with the undulation of water plants. Here is everything that passes and trembles, that no one before him could arrest, and that continues to pass and to tremble when he arrests it. Here is the fog. Here are rime and frost. Here is the trailing smoke from trains and from boats. Here is the odor of burnt grasses, of flowering grasses, and of damp grasses. Here is the sudden cold vibration with which the wind freezes the colors of the world. When he paints the stones of the façades, the play of the sun and of the shadow and of the mist and of the seasons causes them to move like the surface of the trees, like the clouds of the air, and like the face of the water. He is the painter of the waters, the painter of the air, the painter of the reflections of the air and the water, of the water in the air, and of everything that floats, oscillates, hovers, hesitates, and conies and goes between the air and the water. A shadow passes, and deep in it one sees only the palpitation of a vague gleam, a distant spire, or the crest of a small wave; the light reappears, and everything comes back with it for a second, only to dissociate itself immediately and be bathed in the sun. Here Venice is his subject, here London, here some river of France, some canal of Holland, here the sea in Normandy, and everywhere the limitless empire of the air, of the light, of the dusk, and of the water.

Certainly, Claude Monet saw the Japanese prints, which Ingres had sought already, and whose influence, manifest in Manet, in Guys, in Whistler, in Degas, in Redon, and in Lautrec, increases from year to year in Europe, from about the middle of the century until toward its end. Like them, it tends to express the play of feature on the face of the earth, and the reflections of space in its eyes, which are the river and the sea. But whereas Hiroshige or Hokusai collects into a single image a hundred thousand impressions, scattered over his days from one end to the other, Claude Monet, in the impression of a second, gives a hundred thousand possible images of the season and of the hour when that second occurred. And the Oriental convention and the Occidental analysis arrive at the same result.

For the first and only time, doubtless, in the history of painting, the name given to this movement [In 1874, the public itself, in its indignation, spontaneously created the word Impressionism, from the title of one of Claude Monet's studies, "An Impression."] is well applied, at least, if one limits it to the works of Claude Monet and of Sisley, to the larger part of Pissarro's works, and to the first efforts of Cézanne and Renoir. It is the flashing visual sensation of the Instant, which a long and patient analysis of the quality of light and of the elements of color, in their infinite and changing complexity, permitted three or four men to seize. It neglects the form of things; it loses from sight, in its search for the exchanges of the universe, the line which limits them and the tone which defines them. It no longer sees anything but the luminous and colorful vibration of the husk of nature. But when it subsides and is transformed, it has cleansed the eye of the painters, enriched their senses by an enormous treasure of direct sensations which no one, previously, had known to be so subtle, so complex, and so living; had endowed their technique with a firm and new instrument; and, by its very refusal to compromise, had worked for the future liberation of the imagination which, until then, had been the prisoner of a plastic idealism and of a literary constraint whose fruits had all been gathered in the four or five hundred years before.

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