Cezanne and late Monet
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) is considered to be at the forefront of modern art as we know it. His paintings gave impetus to Picasso’s early paintings that developed into cubism, which then led to a range of non-natural pictorial representations as well as to abstract art. Cezanne was also a major inspiration for Matisse and thus one of the influences for the Fauves.
What do we see when we look at one of Cezanne’s late paintings? Firstly, we see color harmonies that are based on nature study and an impressionist influenced paint application. Then, as we continue to look, we can see lines askew and out of place, distance and space ambiguities, and a different way of dealing with the modelling of three-dimensional forms. We realise we are not seeing what we call photo realism, but we still see something that has a realist presence and a connection with a lived-in environment.
Cezanne is not trying to fit realism into a composition. Instead, he is letting the painting be a more autonomous thing. He has shifted the meaning and therefore the joy of the picture, more than any artist previously, away from the actual subject represented (the picture object) to the pleasure of the paint construction (color and composition). The subject of the painting shifts from the content represented to the manner of its construction. Thus any meaning attached to the painting has to be reasoned with reference to this.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) was the leading light of the style that became known as Impressionism. Fairly late in his life, he began to paint in series using the same subject in each painting while varying the color for a particular time of day, climate or season; most famously, the haystacks and Rouen Cathedral series. The paintings are clearly not about haystacks, nor about a cathedral. He, like Cezanne, is treating the object represented as secondary, and the subject is the light and the abstract pictorial concerns.
Later, Monet takes these concerns even further by actually constructing his garden subject for the water lilies paintings.
In my view, when Monet starts to paint these series and, like Cezanne, starts to treat the object in the painting as less relevant, his painting is becoming weaker. He still has the wonderful color harmonies which make the paintings very visually decorative, but something is less in our emotional response to the paintings. Even the choice of a cathedral does not make up for this loss. There is no feeling for the cathedral, all his interest is in the detail of the light effects. The sentiment element is the light effects (ref my post “Art Elements“).
The sentiment element that is part of his other paintings, particularly his earlier work and those that include figures, is now missing. (Ref my article Art History, Impressionism.)
However, the choice of the haystacks and the cathedral make an interesting pairing for these series of light considerations. The choice may have been a conscious pairing or a sub-conscious one for Monet. The haystacks can be thought of as part of the ordinary, mundane, practical side of our human existence, while the cathedral is a sign of our spiritual preoccupations. Both are treated equally without any emphasis on the subject represented. Again this can be seen as a modern feeling for a world where the influence of the church is less, a world that is becoming more middle class with a greater concern for pleasures and the consumption of material goods. Though, I’m not sure that these thoughts have any bearing on the sentiment element in the case of these series.
Cezanne’s early works are very interesting, and require their own article. If his late works can be considered as precursors for much that was done in the 20th century, then his early works also prefigure a lot that we might call up-to-date today. The dramatic content and heavy impasto paint application that we see in these works can be seen in many paintings since and today.