Monet’s painting of Ice Floes on the Seine at Bougival is a masterpiece in 50 shades of grey…
It’s a delicious irony when an insult can be adopted as a badge of honour. It completely confounds the intention of the people who hurled the insult, often to their own intensified fury. It worked when the Nazis called the dug-in Australian troops in North Africa the Rats of Tobruk. The Aussies readily adopted the name amid great hilarity. And the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, positively luxuriated in being called the Iron Lady by the Soviet gerontocracy.
There’s a history of sarcastic name-calling being embraced by the targets in architecture and painting, too. The now-admired soaring ‘new’ architecture of medieval cathedrals was acidly criticised as being barbaric when it first appeared in north-western Europe from the 1200s. Yes, we’re talking about the stunning Gothic style here. Architectural purists of the time insisted that the then-common squat, dark and brooding Romanesque style was true religious architecture. The new, brighter and lighter style that reached to the heavens was an abomination, worthy only of the barbarian tribes who attacked ancient Rome, including the Goths and the Vandals. The name ‘Gothic’ was adopted by the architects of the ‘new’ style and the term lost its sting of criticism. (The Vandals are still with us today – and always in a negative sense).
In the 1870s, the prevailing classical taste of the haute bourgeois French art establishment in Paris was challenged by a group of furiously condemned ‘lunatics’ including Claude Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Sisley and most outrageously, a woman, Berthe Morisot. Their emerging and original style in art was described by horrified critics as being not legitimate art at all, but simply crude, sloppy and vulgar ‘impressions.’
What was valued at the time by the Parisian art establishment was technical exactitude: in brush strokes (not visible); perspective (perfect); subject matter (elevated and respectable); and clarity (fidelity to observable reality). Criteria such as these determined what was acceptable as ‘art’ and what was not. And what these ‘Impressionists’ were doing was most definitely ‘not art.’ As such, their paintings would be excluded from ‘the Salon’ – the establishment’s official annual art exhibition in Paris. At the time (and until the 1890s) it was the most prestigious annual art exhibition in the world.
Initially, at least, the Impressionists didn’t call themselves Impressionists. That was an insult flung at them by critics who declared that their paintings were merely ‘impressions’ of fleeting moments, often captured not in the studio but (weirdly!) outdoors or en plein air. The artists who became known as Impressionists launched their own rival art exhibition, under the long-winded title of Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs. Not exactly a snappy title: adopting the term ‘Impressionists’ would do the trick.
Claude Monet’s painting from 1871, Ice Floes on the Seine at Bougival (or Glaçons sur la Seine à Bougival) was an Impressionist masterclass of what the art establishment hated. The brushwork looked hurried and visible, especially on the edges of the floating ice, while the trees on the left bank were little more than simple strokes. The human figures, seemingly peasants engaged in manual labour, were just crude daubs, lacking any sense of bourgeois respectability. And the overall effect of the painting was indistinct, fuzzy and shadowless, with no definite sense of where the light was coming from. In a technical sense, all those criticisms might be true – but they miss the point. We might consider an aphorism: ‘don’t blame the cat for being such a poor sort of dog.’ That is to say, the new ‘cat’ needs to be judged on its own catty terms, not condemned for how little it resembles the old and familiar ‘dog.’ From that, we might say that it’s pointless to impose old artistic criteria in making judgments about a new form of painting.
To the modern sensibility, Ice Floes on the Seine at Bougival can look like a highly evocative and successful artwork. We live in an era that values artistic exploration, free expression and spontaneity – all evident in this painting. Yet also in this painting is an underlying foundation of superlative technical skill, if we take a moment to really look. To consider just one instance, a contemplation of the complexity of the dappled grey colours in the painting’s winter sky alone is enough to assure us that we are viewing a work created by an artist of the most sublime genius. Well, that’s my ‘impression.’
Monet’s Ice Floes on the Seine at Bougival can be viewed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…