A Lover of Paintings - Monet, Sisley, Corot

   The name of the man to whom Jean had just been introduced was by no means well known. Moreover he did not live in Paris but in Rouen. But if, after having seen an exhibition of Monet's masterpieces, you had consulted the catalogue, and read "Belonging to M.   , Rouen", I am sure you would have found yourself well-disposed towards him. Since he had no great fortune it was in all likelihood that his house in Rouen was quite simple and that his Monets were lined up on bare walls.
   At a certain level of luxury wealthy people also purchase paintings, because in a grand house whose vestibule is always occupied by five or six liveried footmen and that comprises several dining-rooms, if it does not hold a few paintings it gives the impression of uncouth luxury. And also because, when the rich have nothing else to add to their luxury, it is amusing, if one knows anything about them, to learn how to judge them by their paintings, buying them, exchanging them and saying to the dealer who is selling you them when you have brought a friend along with you: "I think it was me wasn't it who unearthed that one?", just as in the country one might say to the gardener: "I think it was me wasn't it who had the idea for that flower-bed and planted those roses?" So they have their Monets, that they think more beautiful than those of others, and when they look at them, have the pleasure of telling themselves that they own them.
   But the amateur whose name you read in the catalogue has no affinity with these wealthy people. For him Monets are the object of an overwhelming desire, who, when he hears that there is one to be seen in some particular town, will immediately take the train, so much does the desire to see an unfamiliar Monet, that is to say to see a Monet (the others he can remember) urge him on. Consequently he spends no money on his house, on his clothes, he has no horses, no house in the country, he does not give dinner parties to make friends: he spends all his money buying Monets.
   And, in return, these Monets have given prestige to that little house in Rouen, which one enters after having climbed three stone steps and after having pulled a small bell that carries on ringing for a long time. And, in return, the Monets lead us to read with pleasure in the catalogue the name of this man who has no less than seven of them in this exhibition, and who, greying as he might be, gives us an impression of youth, because in him we sense a passion that has attached itself to something real, that does not diminish, and who, despite his plebean name, gives us the impression of great distinction, the feelings that animate his life being those for something rare and elevated - someone with whom we feel ourselves without any misgivings to be in complete sympathy, because he appears to be stripped of egotism, only holding onto things in his life that take no profit from vanity, conceitedness, from any gross pleasure, most likely good and open to devotion, because without doubt we will discover in his soul nothing but those sentiments that a Monet conveys and which must be nourished in the person of one who loves him, sentiments that, it would seem, have no connection with goodness and justice, but which pose no obstacle to them and even create a place of freedom for them by banishing from the soul everything that poses an obstacle to them, by disposing the soul to love something superior in every way.
   Doubtless there is no necessity for him to keep only Monets in his house, because the love of beautiful things is not exclusive. All forms of beauty are loved and pass from one to the other. Truly, in out collector's home they do not at all take the form of a learned eclecticism that appreciates the beauty to be found in all things. I might say that, loving Monet as he does, you could have told him that there was a marvellous Rembrandt not far away, a sublime Raphaël, he would not have raised an eyebrow, whereas if you told him about a river where Monet had done one of his sketches, he would have walked the whole length of it at the same inconvenient hours of the day that Monet painted it, to try to find the exact spot, the better to understand the parts that were real in one of Monet's canvases, or even perhaps what was so interesting and so real about this river that the expression of it creates a precious masterpiece, the better to understand Monet's thoughts upon seeing the thing that motivated him and to experience that from which he drew inspiration, what were the elements he needed so as to solve the problem.
   Without us realizing it a canvas tells us just one thing. The pleasure we feel when we look at it, the pleasure that each part of the painting adds to our pleasure is born out of each part of the painting saying the same thing in a hundred harmoniously united voices. The type of truth that it speaks, the way in which it says them which is itself a type of truth, prompts us to say: "That really is a Monet." But this whole Monet simply makes us repeat: Good heavens, what sun there is on the sea today, look how dark and chilly the shadows are, look how pink the stones are, look how in the distance the boats flit about in a volatile sea, but even the smallest of them having its own little shadow. (Cliffs at Étretat). See how everything reflects the lights, how the thaw creates an illusion of everything: you no longer know whether it is ice or sun, and all those patches of ice shatter and carry along the reflections of the sky, and the trees are so glowing that we no longer know if their redness comes from the autumn or their species, and we no longer know where we are, if it is the bed of a river or the glade of a wood (at M. Ch. Éphrussi's). See how, this evening,  everything is repeated in dreamy blue reflections in the smooth waters, see the sky reflected in the water, see the woods reflected on the shores, see the clouds reflected in places, blue woods, ashen clouds, blue sky, blue waters; see, across the distance, the water turns, flees, but its flight is blue, and the silence only deepens, but on the horizon see the blue reflection of woods, the blue reflection of the sky, see how everything is quiet, as if the water is listening to the silence of the shores, as if deadened, how blue everything is and already a little dark in the blue shadow of the woods on the water, while in the middle, in the blue reflection of the sky, some light still persists, as a final reflection. (at M. Ch. Éphrussi's). And in the vernal, sun bathed rivers there is a white dazzling veil, of a white so charming, swelled by the breeze and whitened by the sky, a first veil of enchanted walkers who pass between the banks, that says the same thing (Charpentier), and in the frozen river banks there lay a thousand flakes of snow that say the same thing, and the church in the distance that says the same thing, and in the grey sky a little chink of scarlet that says the same thing." (Charpentier).
   But one day when he was going to see some Monets he saw some Sisleys: next to Monet where there were yellow seas with ragged waves and gardens so dark that almost nothing could be distinguished, snow covered and muddy suburban streets under a low sky and, even in the iridescent haystacks, in the open sea pale with sunlight with emerald shadows, a firm purpose, a virile genius, he saw some light and almost caressing Sisleys, finely traced roads, a sweet and precious femininity. The opinion that he had about the one, by removing the slightest interest in any other opinion, made it more accessible to him.
   And one day, visiting a dealer to view a Sisley, he came upon a Corot, very different from the hazy examples we usually see and which consisted of a whole stretch of valleyed countryside with a village laid out along the slope. Here there was no blue of evening, no sunshine bathed summer, no illusion of thaw caused by the sun that speaks to you immediately. The thought expressed was less exterior and more diffused over the whole canvas. It was perceptible in one single part alone that the others might merely reinforce. The canvas was very small, but the countryside was quite vast. There were apple-trees. They were at a distance from one another and occupied a particular stretch of countryside. The village, which was quite large however, scattered unequally above and beneath the valley, was only a very small part of this country. It presented itself as one would perceive it on a walk, fresh to the eyes that in open country see the landscape change so quickly and which, when they reach a village with a different name from the one in which they live, have already travelled a long way down the road, as if they are in a different country where, in fact, the inhabitants are not the same and the open country that continues afterwards is different, where the church is no longer in the village square, but up on the heights and from where the view is quite different.  Behind the little village was indicated a forest as one would perceive it when still a little distant from the village, and as the country continued to the right of the village it was no longer made up of apple-trees but of poplars. Their foliage was darker and their shape was higher and more soaring. One had the impression that there were many countrysides in this place that one perceived on passing through the little village, and that one was leaving back in the open country, and that one was entering another territory where there were no longer fields planted with apple-trees, but a path which was following a river that had a turning at that point and was bordered by poplars. The idea propagated in the painting must have been this, that countryside quickly changes its aspect, that one sees the works of the land succeeding one another in quite different forms, and that in countryside where the vista is in any way open one can see a new village in the middle of countryside where an area of apple-trees ends, where a new wooded countryside extending to the horizon begins, in the middle of which some poplars at the edge of the water have made a brief halt. It is a feeling that we have in the sort of weather when we take walks in the country, sometimes in not very bright weather, when the sun momentarily ceases to shine on the earth and in the sky and only retains its brightness in the mother-of-pearl of great white clouds that hang motionless in the sky, as tranquil as the hamlet that we see in the hollow of the valley and, glittering at that moment with a sunlight that yet seems absent from the sky, which we come upon sometimes when the full moon is very high in the blue sky and where the apple-trees along the road cast a quite different shadow to the one it casts in the sunshine.
   So our amateur did indeed buy this painting that gave him perhaps a more profound feeling for the countryside than a Monet, because this very personality of the variations of the land that necessitates some distance is perhaps something more intimately linked to reality, more hidden and sweeter than an impression that is more sensual, however brilliant it might be. It gives one the perception that a village is an unknown stranger who lives a long way away from us, that the poplars are not merely trees thrust there by accident, but the indication of a new life that is beginning, that is familiar with others, but which is content to show us new places that are commencing over there, and where we would not have time to visit, benevolent and gracious strangers but who do not know us and are as obliging to us as they are to everybody who passes through and without allowing themselves to be distracted by replying as they rustle in the wind that visits them and bend over the water that runs down there in cascades, that is unfamiliar to us in our village and our part of the country, where there is only a still river.
   Finally I will not hide it from you that in this house in Rouen you will find plenty of sunrises, because this collector has preserved out of this love a warm heart, a subtle mind, a habit of thinking about things without referring to the opinions of his neighbours; perhaps too the love for purely natural impressions excites in his heart a contrasting hunger to take an interest in the things that are human and concrete. I might tell you that he was a little distracted [...]


Return to Front Page