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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Thursday, September 29, 2022
Eye for Art: Ryerson sunsets and Monet
Claude Monet, "Sunset at Pourville," 1882 oil on canvas, Private Collection.

One of the major joys of this splendid summer in “our town” has been watching the spectacular sunsets at Ryerson Park.

Every night has continued to bring a small number of spectators to quietly contemplate the changing colour, light and shadow of the setting sun across the lake.

It has been reverential, a deep connection to nature too often lost in our preoccupation with daily concerns. The “big city” has been pleasingly invisible, lost in the summer haze of the horizon.

Contentment has come with watching a stately line of eight geese paddling slowly across tranquil waters.

Wonder has come with the large resident muskrat continuing to munch grass near the rocks, comfortable enough to be photographed by nearby curious humans.

Enchantment has come with the unexpected sparkle of fireflies flashing brilliantly through the bushes in their amorous pursuit of love. This is our world.

In 1882, Claude Monet, agreed by all to be the greatest of the Impressionists, decided to return to the coast of Normandy to paint seascapes for the summer. Dieppe being too busy, he retreated to the small village of Pourville.

Although he had grown up on the Channel in Le Havre, he began his career as a caricaturist, until he was mentored by Eugène Boudin, who encouraged him to paint outdoors. There he would remain, no matter the weather, temperature or season.

In 1886, he was on the Atlantic coast of Brittany painting versions of the rocks at Belle-Île. In a letter to his fellow Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte, he wrote, “I’ve been here a month and I’m grinding away. I’m in a magnificent region of wilderness, a tremendous heap of rocks and sea unbelievable for its colours; well, I’m very enthusiastic.”

It was a challenge he acknowledged by saying, “I want to grasp the intangible.”

Monet’s paintings seem simple but try to copy a Monet. Can his art be described or is it what art historian James Elkins calls alchemy, “art that knows how to make a substance that no formula can describe.”

Let’s try by looking at his colour, light, brushstrokes, composition and structure. In the dazzling “Sunset at Pourville,” a boldly streaked sky of fuchsia, purple and yellow takes precedence and is reflected brilliantly in the gentle movement of the Channel waves.

The brushwork is energetic and visible, forceful then suddenly gentle.

In the “Rocks at Belle-Île, Port-Domois,” a soft orange sky with pink clouds slides into the horizon line of the sea. Brushstrokes are shorter and more layered, making it impossible to see what paint is on top, what beneath, shifting tints of light, marks going in all directions, yet balanced.

A serpentine “S” line of the sea moves through the rocks until the inbound choppy waves turbulently crash against the rocks. An artist cannot paint light but can create an illusion of light.

Monet does it by strong contrasts in colour temperature: warm pinks and oranges against darker, cooler colours. Such contrasts in light and dark and gradations of colour, deep blue of water linked with dark rocks, create depth and structure.

In Monet’s work we see continuous mutations of texture, colour and intensity. The compositions may seem simple but are exceedingly complex.

And so, as we dream of idyllic shores of the past or those longed for in our pandemic world, evident joys remain here, still waiting to be discovered.

Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian, lecturer and writer living in Niagara-on-the-Lake.