“Light” is a slim—merely 122 pages—book by Eva Figes that draws a portrait of a single summer day in the household of the French Impressionist, Claude Monet.
A quasi-biographic work, it’s set in the beautifully lush hamlet of Giverny, in Normandy, which Monet happened to clap eyes on while looking out a train window—and liked it so much that he moved there, with his family, in 1883.
This is a volume to go to whether or not you’re fond of art. If you’re not familiar with Monet’s repertoire, then, reading it will surely will make you look it up. And if you are—then, you may find yourself marveling at how diligently he worked.
Monet wakes up before dawn, as if gearing for a day of shooting game, when it’s still dark out, ahead of the birds, the house asleep, and strides up to his studio boat, moored in the river. There, he sits stock-still, for what seems like an eternity, waiting for the Sun to lazily peek out of the horizon.
With his paintbrushes and palette, he lies in wait, with the sly equanimity of a seasoned hunter, ready to snag the sunlight and pin its transmutability onto his canvas.
“We live in a luminous cloud of changing light, a sort of envelope. That is what I have to catch,” he tells Octave Mirabeau, a noted critic of the day, over lunch. He studies it as would a student of optics, rationally, with persnickety, keeping an eagle eye on the wave-particle flood of photons.
He explains why he can’t work anywhere, but his home: “When I’m here, I can get straight down to work without wasting time. In other places it always takes me a long time to get used to the landscape. I’m too busy grappling with it to notice the most important element of all. Here it is round me all the time.”
For he sought not so much to paint a rose bush, but rather its iridescence, under the spell of light, which to him, was the “most important element of all,” a variable he found simultaneously beguiling and mysterious.
And to net its lambent hues, hold down its caprices, and behold its shifting intensity, he cultivated two magnificent gardens on his compound that were the setting for a series of roughly 250 paintings that depict their cornucopia of flowers, foliaged archways, pads of floating lilies, cascades of weeping willows.
Looking at them, you’d scarcely imagine that they were the creations not just of artistic toil—but of careful horticultural labor. Monet painstakingly shaped the contours of his environs—literally—before he painted them.
In 1893, he bought the neighboring parcel of property, traversed by a stream, the Ru, a narrow artery of the Seine.
With his money and hired hands, he had a pond dug up on its grounds and got the village’s approval to divert the brook, against growls of protest from villagers, who thought his plants would poison their livestock downstream.
Over it, he had a Japanese-style wooden footbridge, built by a local craftsman and had it draped in wisterias, he himself planted.
His backyard, ringed by a tangle of tall trees and trellised shrubbery, was a perfect foil to his rectangular front lawn, adorned by symmetric patterns of petals, matched by color. Later, in life, botany became his turf.
With the backdrop squared away, he could concentrate on observing reflections of the sky and earth on water, a kind of inverted world, refracted by the liquid, whose surface, he liked to be kept as shiny as a polished mirror.
Monet even let the interplay between light and shadow transform those around him, momentarily turning people into who they were not.
When he approaches his step-granddaughter, sitting in the veranda, she takes the form of his child from his first marriage.
“He saw the small figure caught in light, the white pinafore shining, and for a moment, he had lost all sense of time, it was one of his own children sitting on the step … trying to walk towards him.”
As Figes follows Monet in his pursuit of light, she, in essence, composes an ode to it, tracking it from dawn to dusk, as it crosses the arc of the horizon, gaining life as it illuminates—or darkens—objects along the way.
Only where Monet did it with his masterly brushstrokes, she has done it with her shimmering, yet high-resolution prose, rich with granular details.
Of a golden beam, she writes: “It caught the sloping roof, chimney stack and gable, and sent probing fingers through the slats of the shutters.” Shut your eyes and it’s not hard to imagine a scene from the Stephen Spielberg film, “E.T.” (1984).
Figes’ description of an al fresco lunch at the artist’s home has resounding echoes of the Ramsays’ dinner party, in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” where the ladies lose themselves in quite ruminations, half listening the gentleman’s palaver on the table.
Germaine is wondering whether her step-papa will approve of her decision to marry a young man. The “round and fat” Marthe, resigned to a life of lonely spinsterhood, is worried that she’d vanish into thin air if no one needed her minding. Their mother, Alice, is secretly mourning her daughter’s loss.
For a man of such fine sensibility, Monet was an oddly patriarchal figure, his brooding demeanor quite enough, to make the women feel small, diffident, and trepidatious.
Looking at his art, you wouldn’t know that, of course.