About the Painting
The renowned Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise painting was born inside the artist’s bedroom in 1872 while the sun was just about to announce its presence to the world. Inspired by Le Havre’s sunrise as viewed from his window, Monet tried to capture both the breaking of dawn in the skies, which, at the same time, was also reflected on the harbor waters. When the painting was up for exhibition in 1874, the artist hesitated to name it after the landscape is rendered. Instead, Claude Monet called his masterpiece Impression: Soleil Levant.
In 1985, Philippe Jamin and Youssef Khimoun broke into the Marmottan Monet Museum and took off with Monet’s painting. Five years later, it was recovered and has been kept safe since. An attempt to steal is a testament to the value of an art piece, and such regard is shown for the Impression: Sunrise. Why not? It is invaluable not only as a painting but also as a major character in the history of art because it has given rise to a new breed of artists with a genre of their own: The Impressionists
Ironically, this was not the case in the beginning, as Monet’s painting received, not praises, but panning from its first beholders. To understand the negative reactions it generated, a student of art must have a picture of the artist’s milieu. Claude Monet is a break from the traditional mold. While most artists of his time placed emphasis on form, color, and structure, Monet took to liking the composition, saturation, and movement of light, as it interacts with other elements in the landscape. For him, light is the primary subject.
His was a technique satirized to the extent of rejection, however. His early works of art were showcased through an independent exhibition that was put together with other like-minded artists. In particular, the Claude Monet Impression Sunrise painting received the spotlight, and not quite flattering words were said. Most noted of them was Le Charivari’s critic, Louis Leroy who, in his written review of Monet’s Impression Sunrise, considered wallpaper, in its “embryonic stage,” worthier of attention.
But it’s the kind of reception shared by all things ahead of its time.
Impressionism: Monet’s Technique
The key characteristic of Monet’s technique is short and quick brush strokes. He and other kindred-spirit artists do not mix their colors to form gradations, but that is not to say that their paintings lack subtlety. Impressionists do not wait for the paint to dry before applying the next hue. Hence, the mixing of colors takes a natural course, guided by outside elements such as wind, humidity, and gravity. This organic production of shades all happens on the canvas.
Impressionists perform their art with a degree of rapidity, almost as if they are trying to catch up with the light as it travels from its natural source to an object. In the case of Monet’s Impression Sunrise painting, it is the sun’s morning rays as they hit Le Havre’s waters. Although the ginger sun appears to be in contrast with the gray waters, they are both on the same level in terms of photographic brilliance. This is more apparent when the sun becomes almost invisible to the observer of the same painting produced in black-and-white.
Artworks of Monet and other artists like him tend to gravitate toward capturing on their canvasses the impressions of light on the mundane, such as morning sun in a harbor, idleness along a riverbank, and ladies in a garden, to mention a few. Landscapes seem to be the most preferred by impressionist painters. Perhaps, their passion to express and interpret the “play” of light compels them to render panoramic views of meadows, mountains, street scenes, and gardens.
A Stroke of Genius
The Claude Monet Impression Sunrise painting does not seek to impress the eye, but rather to play with it. Its first critics had been adamant about the painting’s seeming lack of form, lines, and shades. To be certain (and fair), the painting in question does have some semblance of form. On the waters are what looks like a small boat, and it is quite discernible too that on board are two figures of people. The blotch of orange paint above should be apparent to all that it is no less than the sun.
Indeed, there is form, but one that leaves room for the human brain to work and the intellect to interpret. It encourages the brain to fill in the gaps between the impressionist’s short brushstrokes, and then refine the image inside the confines of the mind. This gives an illusion of movement while a person stares at the painting for some time. The painting, then, comes to life, so to speak, and becomes “real” for the beholder, although the experience tends to feel surreal.
But the magic behind the short brushstrokes of Monet is that it doesn’t say so exactly. There is a degree of ambiguity that solicits subjective perception. So, to a twenty-first-century bloke who does not know a single thing about Monet and his milieu might provide a different interpretation of the silhouetted figure at the bottom center of the Impression Sunrise. Given that there is no law to the subjectivity of art interpretation, people can go as far as they wish in adding personal significance and symbolism to the painting, regardless of which period of time they belong.
Appeal to the Subconscious
Monet’s artistic impression of Le Havre bypasses the visual cortex of the brain, which is responsible for color perception. His painting, although appearing to show an element of color contrast, has the same level of brightness down to the last square inch of the canvass. A different part of the brain registers this information about light—the primal, instinctual part, according to neurobiologists. It is that portion of the brain shared by both people and animals. That the painting brings sapiens and wild beasts in equilibrium is probably what makes it offensive.
Nonetheless, the painting is closer to the natural in this sense, hence, more real. It taps into the subconscious mind, which makes it provocative. It is no surprise that during its first public show, Impression Sunrise elicited strong emotions from people, albeit negative. When a work of art transcends through an experience of meaning and not just awe, it endures the test of time and passes down to later generations as a classic.
A Radical Message – Then and Now
Colors alone do not give an accurate representation of what life is about. They do not have a monopoly of providing meaning to it as well. More often than not, the only thing necessary for a person to be illuminated to the reality and beauty of life is the presence of light. In one sense, the painting by Monet is a return to this simplicity by using the most basic of colors (except black) and letting nature have its way on them.
Even though it is an 1872 masterpiece, the message of Claude Monet Impression Sunrise painting is as relevant as ever: Things are not always what they seem. The human eye can be tricked and deceived. A busy street in the morning will look like another street altogether when evening comes. The common phrase “to see is to believe,” passes as an old adage. A person’s perception of the world should extend beyond the borders of the visual cortex. It must be felt, heard, smelt, and experienced. It is a work of not only an impressionist but also a relativist.
For further information, visit:
– Wikipedia on Monet Impression Sunrise
– Analysis of Monet’s Impression Sunrise
– Marmottan Museum Collection of Claude Monet
About the Author:
Clare Tames is a self-employed freelance graphic designer, formidable cook, an avid reader. She has written on contemporary and classical art in various print publications and is just now beginning a writing career online. She works out of her home office in California, where her two children attend high school.