Sunday, September 7, 2014

35 Years Later: The Monet Experience

In autumn of 1980 I lived with the Richard K. Thomas family in Potomac, MD for 3 months and ended up staying in Washington, DC for 10 years. During those first months Rich and I would ride into DC almost daily—Rich to his office and post as Chief Economic Correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, me to museums and galleries to gorge on art.

On a visit to the National Gallery (West Wing) I found copyists diligently working before paintings of old.  This was like something out of an art history book where artists of a certain period copied the masters.  I decided I’d better do the same if I had any intention of being a serious artist.

A brilliant job of rendering Rembrandt

Quick conversations with the copyists got me to the Registrar's Office for my own application.  (You can review the process for receiving a copyist permit for the National Gallery's West Wing here.)  A month later, after reference letters, the interview and background checks I was in the mix.  

I made two dreadful renditions of Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral in Afternoon Light”.  One wasn’t enough.  Clearly Monet didn’t have Grumbacher oil paints at his disposal during the late 1800’s…and my canvases weren’t proportioned correctly….  Still it was surprising that the second copy was no better than the first.  Luckily no photo evidence exists of this work.

But the experience is all about the influence, rather than the objects themselves.  Monet’s palette became internalized regardless of mismatching colors.  I chose Monet because I was having color problems, (which continued), but decades later this experience is where I go for color choices and relationships.  

The real deal, Monet's "Rouen Cathedral in Afternoon Light"

More subtle and surprising was the effect of the Impressionist surface.  Texture has become a subject in its own right in my recent work.  I’ve been doing fairly heavy textures in my artwork since 1992, referencing  Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer's paintings from the 1980’s.  But this interest really traces back to the Monet experience.

Hay and Bulrushes embedded in Latex Paint, 1 of 18, "Arrayed", James Thatcher © 2014

Reducing my imagery in the recent grid paintings, I’ve come to understand the profound influence of copying Monet.  Not in becoming a plein air painter; not in terms of emulating Impressionism, but in fundamental terms of palette and surface texture. 

"After Monet", Cat Litter, Wood Chips, Latex Paints and Acrylic on Canvas, James Thatcher © 2004-2014

Color and texture are my current subject matter.  Thirty-five years later essential elements of the Monet experience fuel my work.  Who would know, who could tell?  It wasn’t exactly copying the “old masters” but it has provided a constant foundation to my paintings and technique.  

"Monet Rouge", Hay, Bulrushes, Latex Paint and Acrylic on Plywood Panel, James Thatcher © 2014

Copying Monet's "Rouen Cathedral in Afternoon Light" hasn’t been the only influence on my artwork, but it has been fascinating to see it in light of current developments in the studio.  I was surprised and wanted to share the discovery.  

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