Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Problem One with being a one-suitcase itinerant is that I’m a book buyer. Problem Two is that I’m a sucker for art books as well as everything else in the bookstore. Now, everybody knows that art books are oversize, likely to be hardcover, and way too heavy to lug around in a travel case. So - surprise, surprise - I leave a trail of them in hotel bedrooms, hoping some other hopeless book addict will share my interest and take one home. Today I bought my latest, a beautiful clothbound number almost the size of a shirt box and ten times heavier.
Here in Canberra I clicked for the last few days of an exhibition brought from the Marmottan Museum, Paris to Australia’s National Gallery. The centerpiece is Claude Monet’s stunning Impression, Sunrise, the same painting that gave a name to Impressionism.
For me though, the revelation wasn’t the painting itself - that came long ago, in the schoolroom where I first saw a slide of Monet’s masterpiece. No, this revelation came from some recent expert research. You see, Impression, Sunrise was painted in the port of Le Havre, signed and dated ‘72. But since this is Monet inventing Impressionism, not Meissonier painting the whites of the boatmen’s eyes, exactly what part of the port we’re looking at is hard to tell. Made even harder by the Allied bombing that completely destroyed the harbor in 1944. Anyway, to cut the story short, by reconstructing the port from old plans and photos, by calculating the tides (in the painting there are lock gates open), by consulting the records for wind direction (there’s smoke blowing from dockside chimneys) and the position of the rising sun - and much, much more - now we know. Impression, Sunrise was painted from Monet’s hotel window on the Grand Quay, looking south-east to the transatlantic liner dock, between 7.25 and 7.35 a.m. on 13 November 1872. It’s quite a detective story.
And my revelation? It was realizing that I hadn’t ever considered the where or the when or what was going on in the painting. (Even Monet knew it was so sketchy he couldn’t pass it off as a view of Le Havre). For me, it was enough to be wrapped in the magic of his waterfront, collecting in the colored fog of early light. Or, as Monet put it: …sun in the mist and in the foreground some masts sticking up. Since when, generations that have admired Meissonier’s precision, have simply adored Monet for his visions of light, color and atmosphere. The book I bought? The exhibition catalog, of course.