🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017
Musée Marmotan Monet, 2, Rue Louis Boilly, Paris
I was there, at last. Standing in front of Monet’s finished “Impression Sunrise”. This was after all, the painting that started it. The seminal work of Impressionism and much of what followed.
I had after all, painted it. I was, after so many years, pleased with the manageable size of the canvas I had chosen. If I had attempted it on anything much larger—say a canvas as big as “The Houses of Parliament”, or any of the later “Water Lillies”, it would never have happened. I never would have completed it. It was large enough to capture that foggy ephemeral sea moment, that passed quickly, more quickly than brush and oils would have done for anything even a bit larger or a touch more detailed. No, it was the perfect moment, right down to the smudge of pinkish white on the edge of the sun and the clearly silhouetted figure of the boatman and rowboat in the foreground created with a casual but somehow precise flick of two brushstrokes.
It was simple. If you got the colors right, then the light would be correct, and all the emerging details would follow. It was simple. But not easy.
The painting was treated harshly by the critics. “Impression Sunrise” was supposed to be an insult, but it became an anthem. The banner work and namesake of the whole movement. No one remembers the name of the critic, except in telling this story, but the artist? The whole world knows his name as well as the names of his friends, colleagues, contemporaries–Renoir Pissarro, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, later Picasso, Chagall.
I was 14 when I painted it.
With some minimal awareness of Art History thanks to my hobby of philately, and a year or two of Horizon magazine lying around the house, exposure to art as part of Western Civilizations opened a new world for me. In our very special ninth grade class, the brightest of us were assigned together in a room where the teacher told us to “brownbag” our lunches (meaning, to bring a lunch with us), so instead of dispersing to the cafeteria when the bell rang, we would stay, and he could expand his lectures through our lunch period. We grumbled at first, but delighted in the extra attention to historical and cultural details we would have missed otherwise.
Mike Van Wert, extroverted, sometimes loud, provocative, frequently passionate and nearly always entertaining, was in his mid 30’s with slight temporal baldness, brown curly hair and pork chop sideburns appropriate for the times—the early 1970s. He dressed as a college professor—although this was in junior high school—black or brown wingtip shoes, wool pants, a button-down shirt with a tie, a sweater vest, and a tweed sport coat. That was his uniform. I can hardly remember seeing him in anything else–blue jeans if I caught him by chance at the 7-Eleven on the weekend. But otherwise, no, it was that uniform. He was the teacher, our teacher, and a damn good one, and there was no diverging from that image, from that standard.
He had high expectations of himself and he applied those same expectations to his students, not just to our “Special” class but to the other four classes he taught as well. It didn’t matter who you were, he believed you were capable of learning important, wonderful things; he had fascinating remarkable stories about America, and other nations and cultures throughout history, and he would share this treasure with you, trusting you to pay attention, and listen, and ask questions, and even occasionally challenge him, but above all to participate.
For these classes he purchased or made his own slides of art and architecture. Hundreds, probably a thousand slides from Sumatran mounds of earth, to Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase” and the constructions of I.M.Pei.
We learned them. Learned the style, artist, title.
And for our “special class”, he imported the local art teacher to instruct us in the basics of drawing, sketching, and painting. We were invited to purchase required art supplies because each student in our class was expected to choose a work of art and create a reproduction of it.
I chose Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” because it was simple. It was beautiful and simple.
“Are you sure, Plummer?” He asked, with that gravelly voice, and a wink to the rest of the class as if he were amused that I would choose such a daunting task.
But I was confident. “There’s not that much variation in the colors. If I can get that… and it is simple. Look at that boat in the foreground. It’s just two brushstrokes.”
“Okay…” He said with a smirk, making a note in his grade book and mumbling, “Impression Sunrise for Plummer”.
I worked on it after school for days. And it went well. At least I thought it went well. When I got stuck, the art teacher suggested I borrow the slide and project it on the canvas. “Isn’t that cheating?” I asked.
“You’re doing art. Artists use tools. It’s just a tool.” He told me.
The projector helped get the proportions right, and it seemed like it helped with the color, but after a week I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell if it was good or not, or how good. My eyes were blurry from turning the projector on and off, seeing the complete image on my canvas disappear, and then my own unfinished one. Matching paints to colors that turned to white when the lights came on. My friends from class would stop by and check it out. They were mostly quiet. Were they quiet because it was a good reproduction? Or because they didn’t want to tell me it was not so good? As anyone who has worked on something with great intensity and at great length can tell you, after a while, you just don’t know.
We brought our work in to share with each other, and I could see there were a couple of other works that were “good” —meaning that they looked much like the originals that we copied. Maybe that was part of why I wasn’t sure. It was a copy; it wasn’t like I had done anything original. And Van Wert didn’t lavish any great praise, I think he was being moderate with everyone, because some were bad, some were just awful, with bad proportions or whacky color. And we had compassion for each other, we knew we were just a bunch of kids trying to copy great art. But eventually I believed some of my classmates when they told me they thought mine was really “good”. And I was pretty sure then, when we displayed all our art at a PTA meeting and one of the adults asked if he could buy it. Buy it? A copy? When I told my Mom, she was appalled. I told her, maybe for fifty bucks? I considered that. But no way was some other parent going to have Plummer’s “Impression Sunrise”! She made that clear. And when I brought it home, she promptly framed it in a thick, classy, wooden art frame and hung it in our hallway, outside my bedroom where it remained for many years.
I lost track of it eventually. That’s what happens with art sometimes. It travels; it gets away. But I was very happy to find it again. There on the wall of the Musée Marmottan Monet. Just as I remembered. Just as I had painted it.