The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Monet's The Seine at Bougival (1985)

Update (Edmonton Art Gallery), Vol. 6, #5, (September - October, 1985) pp. 17 - 18.

Some years ago, during a casual dinner at his house, a very rich friend asked me to bring a certain half-empty bottle of wine from the larder he called his "food closet." I think we were eating hamburger; I expected nothing from the wine. But as soon as I tasted it I knew something was different. It didn't even taste like wine to me, not the wine I knew. It was special. It was, so I was later told, a Grands-Echezeaux 1955, one of the great Burgundies in a good year. No matter that it was too young to drink and bit off from several days as a left-over, and a bit off. I had tasted a great wine. Anticipating my usual Chianti Classico, I got a shock of pleasure. I still remember it, and I'm still grateful I did not know what to expect.

Something similar had happened years before that, when I was 11. I saw a Ben Nicholson reproduced in the Sunday magazine section of the New York Herald Tribune at my grandmother's house. It hit my eye like the wine would hit my tongue. I didn't know who Nicholson was, or that he was meant to be a "good artist." I hardly knew what art was. All I knew was l liked the picture enough to cut it out and tack it up in my room.

So it should always be with wine and art, and perhaps with everything we experience - everything safe, anyway. It is not easy to bring oneself to art like a child after years of being told what's good and not so good and what to like and what not to like. By the time we get serious about art we have been intimidated right out of the very attitude art demands and all too seldom gets, that innocent eagerness which expects nothing and is ready for anything, which lets everything in along lines of feeling to a place that is personal, private and closed to words. Art will not yield to knowledge, desire or good intentions. You get it when you hunger for it, for the good it has, when you need it instinctively like a bee needs nectar, and like the bee, delight in it and take it in whenever you find it. It is just that simple, and just that difficult.

Here's a painting from the pure regions of delight: Monet's The Bridge at Bougival. I'm not sure it is my favorite painting. Maybe I can say that it is my favorite panting when I am looking at it, and that there may be a hundred others I feel the same way about. Playing favorites with the best is a precarious indulgence. Distinctions that are clear at lower levels swim in and out of focus when the art is this good. You make your judgements on the way up. Now, in Yeats' words, "Be secret and exult."

Monet was 28 when he painted this picture in the summer of 1869. He was desperately poor, living in a ramshackle house in Bougival, a small village on the Seine just west of Paris, driven off the Brittany coast by high summer rents, rejected by the Salon, an outcast even among some of his close colleagues, begging Bazille for money, eating bread Renoir snitched from his parent's table, unable to buy paint or properly take care of his mistress and their two-year-old son Jean (whom we see nearest us on the bridge). It was a down time in Monet's up-and-down career. As much as I like to gripe about the inequities of the current art business, Monet here makes me feel like a plutocrat.

Apparently his poverty did not affect his art. Cézanne said Monet was "only an eye, but what an eye!" And what a picture this is! Monet saw with that child's eye because he looked and looked, over and over again, until his eye reduced everything to freshness. It's like saying a word over and over until the meaning comes apart and dissipates and you are left with a strange, naked sound. Monet looked so much, and so hard, that the facts of nature - all the properties of things we "know" are there - shred and dissolve into simple sensation. Try it yourself. Look around as if you are seeing everything for the first time, as if you know nothing about anything. All the pure eye has is light, dark and color. Monet made himself into a photographic plate, a thing oblivious to identification, volume or depth. All it saw, and all it reported, was what happened when light hit.

The dominant presence in this picture - the sun - is not in the picture. It is low in the sky (an early morning in June I'd guess) rising over Paris several miles to the east, dappling the road, flickering across the rippling river water, past bright patches on the figures ambling across the bridge to Bougival. To paint this picture the eye had to be on the scene, not back in the studio with sketches and memory. Look at the way the sun bleaches the narrow strip of river front just above the foreground at the lower left, and the way the river catches the sun from the left, from its direction. See how the houses above the river remain in the shadow of an unseen hill while those directly across the bridge catch full sun. Note the thin rim of light outlining the left side of Jean's head, telling us that although he was walking hand-in-hand with his mother, he was just enough ahead of her to intercept a sunbeam through the fence to their left. Look at the tiny light specks under the arch in front of the cafe on the extreme right, reflecting from the facing edges of the pointed pales of the open picket gate. These things were seen, painted when fresh on the eye.

There's a fine quiver about the picture, as if the parts are alive. The river blinks at us. The trees seem to shimmy, eddying the clouds as they pass as a rock would river water. The larger grey-violet tree shadows on the road shift and break in tune with the dark, dry finishing strokes which depict the trunk shadows and delineate the back edges of the closer curbstones, and touch down in so many other spots. I can imagine Monet here, gripping a flat brush loaded with unthinned umber, his hand ranging over the canvas, dabbing and stroking here and there to clarify shade and edge in this light-smitten picture, muttering and fussing as the sun rose and the shadows shortened, nervously snatching the moment from relentless nature. For all its detail, for all its complexity, the picture is as singular and sudden as that moment. Monet portrays rural France, but he brings us the very day.

Bannard's bio read: "Well-known abstract painter and art critic, Walter Darby Bannard, is the author of this second article in the Update series "Artists on Art". EAG patrons will recall an exhibition of the artist's work which was featured at the gallery during the fall of 1983, "Walter Darby Bannard: Paintings and Clay Reliefs," and Bannard is also represented in The EAG Collection."