Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review: Woman with a Parasol

Claude Monet's 1875 painting Woman with a Parasol—Madame Monet with Her Son documents the rise of middle-class leisure in nineteenth-century Europe. Though Monet himself was one of the poorest Impressionists, he nonetheless witnessed the unfolding of modern life in all its splendid glory. A number of technological inventions allowed such Impressionist paintings to be created en plein air, or outdoors. Steam trains began transporting urban residents to city parks and outlying suburbs. Portable tubes of paint freed artists from their stuffy and dim studios.

Woman with a Parasol by Claude Monet art
The subjects in the painting are Monet's first wife, Camille, and their son. Using people as subjects is rare in Monet's works, probably because his obsession with the effects of natural light required him to paint the same scenes over and over. This interest is also evident in the reflections of light, known as highlights, on the right side of the woman's dress. Though carefully applied, these highlights comprise fully open and visible brush strokes. Likewise, the dabs of yellow paint in the grass are intended to be reflections of light rather than to capture the actual shapes of grass or flowers. This tendency is a defining characteristic of Impressionism.

The viewer may notice seemingly haphazard, almost reckless brushwork in the clouds to the left of the painting. I think it's a testament to Monet's skill that these brush strokes are not particularly distracting. It's also more evidence that he was primarily concerned with light and color as opposed to line or shape. Though I'm not typically moved by Monet's choice in subject matter, this painting has a tragic story behind it. Camille's health began a terminal decline in the same year Woman with a Parasol was painted, leaving this image a precious glimpse into a lost nineteenth-century moment.