Like a water lily finding its place in Claude Monet’s painting "Pool, With Water Lilies", the namesake mare, Water Lily, seeks to find her place on the canvas of the Canadian equestrian world. It is not, however, as easy a task for the horse as Monet makes it seem for the flower. RSE Ambassador, Candice Hudson, stands right beside her to help her find her way.
There is much beauty in the world to see. This is particularly true if we allow ourselves the time to observe it. We are so often in such a hurry, bombarded as we are with a profusion of images, that we fail to pause long enough to truly appreciate what is before us. The National Gallery in London, for example, is encouraging its visitors to its current Leonardo da Vinci exhibit, Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece to allow themselves to spend minutes to observe the work, rather than the typical fifteen seconds. The exhibit is an experimental showcasing of Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, in which the art is explored in different conditions of light and shadow. Things take time to do well.
From the perspective of The Giverny Project, there is a lesson along these same lines to be learned from yet another of the great masters of the past. One of the most prominent themes in Claude Monet’s work and approach to his painting is his dedication to the act of observation. Monet would, for example, sit for hours looking, observing the water, shadow, sunlight and the water lilies’ resulting appearances, the way the light would play upon them, the way the light would change.
Monet’s invitation to Clemenceau invites an optimism. It suggests that we are all capable of greater and grander powers of observation, if we but try.
“Put your hand in mine, and let us help one another observe ever more closely.” Monet said these words to his friend Georges Clemenceau. The words capture a central tenet of the artist: the critical importance, and power, of observation. Monet was an amazing observer of the world. But even he sought to observe ever deeper still.
But the words suggest more. Monet’s invitation to Clemenceau invites an optimism. It suggests that we are all capable of greater and grander powers of observation, if we but try. The power of observance is, to a significant degree, responsive to the efforts that we devote to it.
Indeed, it would seem that the paintings that constituted the Water Lily Series arose from Monet’s resolute insistence on observing the effects of the changing light. The magnificent Water Lily Series would thus itself seem the example of the result of his seeking to “observe ever more closely.” Obtaining the patterns of colour and detail by observation that emerged in the face of changing light seems to have been at least one significant source of his inspiration, inspiration sufficient to carry approximately 250 individual pieces in the series to perfection.
We find, too, in Monet’s approach the ability to accept the world as it is, and seek to understand its appearance progressively better, and thereby to reach progressively towards a greater degree of understanding and interpretation. Still, in his efforts to understand appearance there remains a desire to understand what lies beneath the surface, the substructure, the reality that existed beyond the reach of his observation.
Could we learn more from and about our horse by observing the horse’s motions and inflections of mood and temperament to an ever greater degree?
Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can derive from an appreciation of Monet’s Water Lily series is thus this insistence on close observation with a view to understanding. We might say that the same can be said for our observation of the horse. We recognize that a fundamental way in which the horse communicates is through its body language. Could we learn more from and about our horse by observing the horse’s motions and inflections of mood and temperament to an ever greater degree?
Perhaps we even need to reflect upon the same idea when it comes to understanding not only our horses, but our family, workmates and friends. Taking the time to observe our fellow, much like Monet’s intent and prolonged scrutiny of the water lilies, leads to an appreciation of their beauty, an appreciation of their changing temperament, and recognition of times when clouds encroach on their interior landscape, and are subtly reflected in their face and body.
Monet also plays with the idea of “appearance”... the tension between the way things appear and the way things really are... It is not too different, really, from the way in which we might, for example, view the horse Water Lily. Someone might see her in one moment and draw a particular conclusion about her, but this would be markedly different than the understanding one would get if one were to spend considerable time with her.
What Monet teaches us, then, is not to be content with an understanding of the appearance on the surface. And this is strangely, seemingly, at odds with his paintings which seem to at times privilege the capture of the surface imagery. He is asking us to not only look at the way the sunlight falls, what is revealed, what is hidden, what lies on the surface, but also to imagine what is held in the darkness of the waters below. And if we take this lesson and apply it to the horse, or our fellow, to life itself, we will find that we are encouraged to perceive not just the surface of things, but their deeper nature. How strange the things we learn from a man who seems himself at first impression to be concerned only with the play of light upon water! This providing us in itself with another example of the idea, this time applied to Monet himself.
Monet observed the transformations in the appearance of things as they were subject to different patterns of light and combinations of air temperature and humidity, cloud, wind. It is as we would observe a horse at different times of the day, in different company, when confronting different demands. We are not the same each time we mount a horse. We are not the same at all hours and circumstances, as the horse is not the same. The horse too is a living entity subject to the changes of the world of light and temperature and wind. The horse is not a calculated and fixed entity, it is not a constant of temperament. And when we ride, we are bringing these two changing temperaments of rider and horse together, like patterns of wind and rain and sunlight that form a unique, ever changing, tapestry of form and movement.
Monet attempted to see how things really were. And so, it is left to us to see the horse as it really is and not as we would have it to be. It is a way of looking to see the horse in its own reality.
Monet, moreover, by the beauty of his work suggests that we regularly take some time to observe and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. It is the power of observing carefully, of allowing ourselves to be absorbed in the beauty of a painting, of a sunset, of a field, of a mare grazing and in a full out gallop. And in these moments of absorption we have occasion to be at peace and even a little self-reflective. These are among the things that we dare not take for granted. Through his paintings, it is though Monet reaches out to take us by the hand and encourages us to observe ever more closely.
Lochnan, Katharine. “Solitude and Silence”: Contemplative Landscapes from Turner to Monet, in Lochnan, Katharine, Nasgaard Roald, Welsh-Ovcharov, Bogomila, Art Gallery of Ontario, Musée d’Orsay, Eds. Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent van Gogh to Emily Carr (New York: DelMonico Books, 2016)
Photo Credits in order of appearance:
Horses in rain - Easter Island - David Berkowitz - CC BY 2.0
Claude Monet - Martin Beek - CCO 1.0
Nymphéas, 1905 - Claude Monet - G. Stark - CC BY-SA 2.0
Camargue Horse - Wolfgang Staudt - CC BY 2.0
WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas Allen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.