Monet's Love Affair with Japanese Art

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Monet worked in the Netherlands not just in 1871, but again in 1874 and 1886, and biographers offer wildly varying accounts of that first, life-altering Japanese print he bought: it was in Amsterdam, or Delft or Zaandam; at a food shop or a porcelain store; it was being used as wrapping paper or hanging on a wall. Monet himself recalled: "My true discovery of Japan, the purchase of my first prints, dates from 1856. I was 16. I spotted them at Le Havre, in a shop that dealt in curiosities brought back by foreign travelers." But even here the timing is suspect, improbably soon after Japan's opening to the West.

More rewarding is to speculate about how art opened Monet to Japan. Printmaking is a more cumbersome and less forgiving process than painting, so Japanese artists developed a remarkable economy of expression. Utamaro, for instance, could with a mere line or two describe the course of a river or the fullness of a women's breast. Thus could Monet — in Impression, Sunrise (1873), the painting that gave Impressionism its name — conjure up a boat with a mere squiggle of the brush.

Monet also shared his Japanese predecessors' fascination with nature and informal scenes of everyday life: compare Monet's two girls at the beach in Les Cousines (1870), downstairs at the Marmottan, to Utagawa Toyokuni's Three Women on a Boat Lamparo Fishing (before 1825), upstairs. Monet's snowscapes, like those he did of Argenteuil, are indirect descendants of the snowy fields and mountains of Hiroshige and Hokusai. The unconventional, asymmetric "snapshot" composition favored by ukiyo-e artists became a hallmark of Impressionism: a good example is the Marmottan's La Barque (1887), in which Monet places the barque, or boat, at the edge of a mostly empty canvas. Hokusai's powerful (and famous) The Great Wave Off the Coast at Kanagawa (ca. 1831-33) is an aqueous cousin of the waves Monet splashed against the rocky coasts of Normandy and Brittany. And while Monet captured the changing light on the façade of Rouen's cathedral in more than 30 paintings, Hokusai rendered Mount Fuji at least 36 times, at all hours and in every season.

Perhaps the greatest gift Japan gave Monet, and Impressionism, was an incandescent obsession with getting the play of light and shadow, the balance of colors and the curve of a line, just right — not the way it is in reality, but the way it looks in the artist's imagination. "I have slowly learned about the pattern of the grass, the trees, the structure of birds and other animals like insects and fish, so that when I am 80, I hope to be better," Hokusai wrote 16 years before his death at age 89. "At 90, I hope to have caught the very essence of things, so that at 100 I will have reached heavenly mysteries. At 110, every point and line will be living." Monet spent the last decades of his life painting his water lilies, and then painting them again, until he lost his sight in quest of an elusive, transcendent perfection that might best be called Japanese.

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