Even a vague familiarity with Monet’s work renders one in awe of his mastery. Stacks of grain, trees, mountains, valleys and gothic cathedrals are the hallmarks of his series paintings. To the untrained or less perceptible eye, this natural common thread may appear repetitive. However, the exhibition of Monet’s 1890s series paintings reveals that light is the authentic theme.
Although Claude Monet painted numerous stacks of grain from the same exact position, upon seeing them displayed collectively, it becomes obvious that the light changes with each new painting. The progressivity of light intensity and variation is not as perceptible when viewing the paintings separately as when comparing the works collectively. As the stacks of grain are viewed repeatedly across several canvases, they recess to the background while, simultaneously, the variation of light is brought to the forefront of the viewer’s perception. This delicate evolution of light exhibits the appearance of air, sky and nature in motion, producing a sensation of physical movement in the keen observer. In fact, it was Monet’s intent, as well as the will of the French people, to keep the 1890s oil paintings housed and displayed together. Eventually, the works were separated as each was purchased by a different collector and displayed in a variety of locations. To see Monet’s 1890s series paintings in collective exhibition is, undoubtedly, the preferred way to observe them.
Reproductions of Claude Monet oil paintings also lack the intensity of light created by the numerous short brushstrokes for which Monet is famous. It is impossible to replicate the physicality with which Monet painted. His depth of perception, as evidenced by the slight variations of light in each otherwise repetitive stack of grain, simply cannot be produced by flat reproductive methods. Each tiny stroke of his brush displays a qualitatively different pressure, evoking an element of sensuality completely lost in reproduction. Just as each stroke seems dependent on its relation to every other, each series painting depends on its successor to complete what it lacks when viewed separately – the variation in light, the air and the movement. This is the true gift of viewing an exhibition of Monet’s 1890s series work, as the sense of interdependence of the elements of the natural world is easily translatable to the human experience. When viewed together, Monet’s series paintings reveal his exquisite sense of perception, opening the observer to a similar sense within themselves. The interdependent nature of one’s relationship to air, sky, land, rivers and mountains becomes palpably evident, and the observer is moved.
Monet produced 31 paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, each in different light or weather. Whether cast in blue or brown, the paintings convey an obvious harmony when viewed collectively. His two paintings of Mount Kolsaas, one unfinished, depend on each other for completion. His series of the Norman cliffs reveal movement via boats and birds in concert with stationary cliffs, each detail requiring the other. Only when viewed collectively in the 1890s exhibit, do Monet’s series paintings evoke the movement that connects the observer to his/her interdependency with the natural world, and this is how they should be viewed.