The Menil Collection has a beautiful building devoted to the works of Cy Twombly. The day before seeing this collection I had given a talk on Monet, so I wasn’t surprised that he would jump to mind when I saw these paintings. While the rigorous movement of the paint, which Twombly did with this his hands, had all the hallmarks of a depiction of a pond, what screamed Monet to me was the shape of the canvas. This shape is the same one that Monet used in some decorations for Ruand Durel”s home.
Books of Interest:
Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected. What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? For me, it is meeting artists in the environment in which they work, getting a sense of their connection to the place, its history, the other artists who surround them, and connecting all that to who I am as an artist, both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.
My Path to Monet and Giverny
There were ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny. When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public. But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.
It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated. It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, deKooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.
Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.
Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up. As it turns out, he was making up precious little. To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced. What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.
Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.
Before Giverny, I was making paintings based on images from Giotto, Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light. What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.
Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.
My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.
The studio is practically empty. I sent eight large paintings to my dealer in Houston. The rest of the work is out to summer shows in museums and regional galleries. The walls are very white and very empty.
The work I sent to Houston is mid-project. I know that there are more pieces in that series, but for the moment I have turned my attention to a large canvas where I am working out the latest manifestation of The Print Project. I spent over a year developing several permutations of a four color lithograph inspired by a painting called “Almond Tree – Biot”. Michael Williams helped me further deconstruct the image into a digital format. With him I was able to separate colors and change them in ways that were antithetical to the original image of a tree in bloom. As we printed out a large print, about 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet, it became obvious to both of us that the print wanted to be larger, much larger. So, that is exactly what I did, I started translating this print back into paint on a large canvas.
I want these paintings to act like Monet’s Rouen Cathedrals, but with a twist. I want the color and the scale of the painting to create an atmosphere — a sensation, something you almost feel before you see. Yet, I want to do this with colors that are not exactly taken from nature. I have sliced and diced the color until it has a certain feeling and a certain light. But the color is not true to what would be the local color in nature. In my first version there are flowers that would be white in nature, that are black in the painting. And yet, over all, you still have the sense that the image is from nature.
Working on the first of these paintings, I have run into endless problems with the alignment of the colors. I will paint a color in one day and out the next. I have kept my brush strokes bold and gestural, but at the same time I am working with very small brushes — so the strokes are as small as they might be on an Impressionist painting. At each stage, I feel as though I have ruined it. Is my brush stroke right? Is it too messy. Will I be able to convey what I hope to? One moment I am certain that it will all work out, the next minute I am wondering who I can hire who can really paint this.
I won’t know if this is any good until I am done, and perhaps not even then. My vision requires that I do several versions of this before I decide if it works or not. So, at mid-year I feel in mid-air, falling, falling, falling.
Monet, “Rocks at Port Goulphar, Belle Ile”
In 1897 and 1898 Henri Matisse visited Belle Île a remote island off of the Brittany coast. John Peter Russell, an Australian artist who was living there, introduced him to impressionism and to the work of Van Gogh (who was relatively unknown at the time). Matisse’s style changed radically, and he would later say “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained color theory to me. [Wikipedia & Hillary Spurling, “The Unknown Matisse”]
Russell, “Belle Ile”
Matisse, “Belle Ile”
Russell had been friends with Monet, who also came to Belle Isle to paint. But he is perhaps best known for his portrait of Van Gogh. He believed in Van Gogh and had several of his drawings.
John Peter Russell, “Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh”
According to Hilary Spurling, at some point the Australian gave Matisse one of his Van Gogh drawings — something that he had never done before, and would never do again, which “suggests that he found in no one else the depth and strength of Matisse’s response.”
Vincent Van Gogh, “Townhall of Auvers”
Letter from VanGogh to Russell:http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let627/letter.html
If you go:
Books of Interest:
Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at IndieBound.org
Some of you may think that I am obsessed with Monet, and you would be right. Clues I have found in his paintings have sent me on adventures to sites in France, Italy and even Japan. Currently I am reading a book on Monet’s relationship with his first wife, Camile Doncieux, Mary Mathews Gedo’s, “Monet and his Muse”.
While spending time looking at Monet’s two early monumental paintings “Le Dejeuner sure l’Herbe” and “Woman in the Garden” I was struck by the dresses the women were wearing. We know that Camille posed for all of the women. Is this, then, her wardrobe? Or did Monet, as some have suggested, take these dresses from contemporary fashion magazines that Camille, as a seamstress, could have introduced to him.
Claude Monet, “Le Dejeuner sure l’Herbe”
Claude Monet, “Women in the Garden”
Fashion Plate Showing Clothes Designed by Madame Breant Castel, from La Mode Illustree, 1864
The dresses in the two paintings, in fact, appear to be the same dresses. Let’s do a quick match-up between the dresses in “Women in the Garden” and “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe”.
The Stripped Dress
The Dress with Polkadots
Dress with Black Trim
Yellow Dress Front and Back
The fact that Monet was developing his ideas around painting en plein-air, where everything was dependent upon being out of doors and reflecting the light and atmosphere of the moment, it seems unlikely to me that he would then make up the clothes that his model was wearing. I am more inclined to think that these are Camille’s clothes, perhaps made by her own hand and influenced by the fashion plates of the day.