Claude Monet: The Colorist


I am pursuing the impossible. I want to paint the air.

– Claude Monet

In the nineteenth century, the world took on a powerful technological pursuit and succeeded beautifully. The Industrial Revolution brought about mass change to the ordinary and extraordinary lives of humans worldwide. Locomotives afforded those who could match the expense with the gift of travel – an experience that suddenly brought coasts and countries that much closer to each other. Scientific advancements were also taking place, improving the knowledge of chemistry, engineering, and physiology.

These physical progressions in the practical world initiated sub-revolutions in trades across the board. Mechanics and doctors were working with entirely new fields. The Industrial Revolution had definitely produced powerful material results; and with this great change and innovation, came new ability and inspiration. It was if the Revolution byproduct was an ethereal intellect, left lingering in the air.

Art is materialized reflection. When the world experiences revisions, you can be sure that the art world will simultaneously react. To look at the history of art is to look at the stratum of a mountainside: each layer varies in composition (i.e. subject, era, location), color (i.e. medium), and depth (i.e. length of time period). Each layer is created by what is physically occurring in the world. When the Revolution struck, doors for artists’ commentary flew open. This is not to say that Renoir and Pissarro suddenly felt the urge to paint large trains. Rather, as mentioned before, the lingering and stimulating intellect in the air generated the enthusiasm needed to produce genius.

One of the first, and most notably one of the best, to rebel against the conventional philosophy of the French Academy (Hurwitz, L. S., 1996) was Oscar-Claude Monet. Straying from Realism, up and coming artists sought a different kind of “real” which dealt with ideas and methods that were considered radical at the time. Artists were painting what they were seeing and perceiving, not just what they knew. The name of this movement, came from one of Monet’s earlier works, “Impression: Sunrise” (Rakow, P., 2007). Their primary concern is seemingly simple, yet vastly valuable to the world of perception: light.

Fifth century Greeks had first acknowledged the connection between the eye and vision. Many schools of thought surrounded the idea that emitted light was the connection between the two, but how this worked was still unknown. Aristotle placed a good guess by noting that the eye was not responsible for throwing light upon an object because we would all then have night vision (Livingstone, M., 2002).

Leonardo da Vinci proposed that the eye receives light, contrary to popular belief of his time, and that light made sight possible (Ginn, S. R. & Lorusso, L., 2008). His thinking was based on the fact that we would not be able to instantly see the sun if rays of light emanated from our eyes because, “the rays could not climb in a month to the height of the sun” (Livingstone, M., 2002). Galileo was nearly driven insane in his attempts to secure the connection between light, the eye, and vision, stating, “I would readily have agreed to spend the rest of my life in prison with only bread and water if only I could have been sure” (Livingstone, M., 2002).

Newton’s infamous prism experiment and Einstein’s wave theory of light mark notable moments in light’s history, and can be considered somewhat more reliable than previous speculations. Needless to say, the intricate science of vision endured centuries of minute discoveries, revealing a world of individual components working in unison to create a mental image.

While Monet did not have access to the technological insights of present day optometrists and neurologists, he knew the power of light and sight. He chose to fully explore and expose its significance by capturing fleeting, atmospheric moments. What he created was enormously moving (although I’m sure he would have seen the emotional response as merely a byproduct in his pursuit of truth and knowledge). Monet revealed the vast realm of color and luminosity, and its influence on perception.

Color: Where and What Pathways

Color is my daylong obsession, joy and torment.

– Claude Monet

Physical objects appear in different colors depending on the light waves they absorb and reflect.  The length of the wave of light determines the color; long wavelengths known as red, short wavelengths known as blue, and middle covering most everything else. The majority of us know this from junior high science.

That is all just about all junior high science covers. Green is not always just green, right? A green ball looks different in the sunlight than if you kicked it into the shade of a tree. That same ball does not even look the same at 9:00am as it does 9:00pm. However, it is the same object, composed of the same plastic and dye in morning as it is night. The visual system is incredibly complex.

The brain utilizes two different systems in order to make sense of the vast amount of visual stimuli surrounding us at any given moment. The first, which Livingstone (2002) calls the “Where” system, processes motion, depth perception, spatial configuration, and figure/ground separation. The majority of animals has this system and relies upon it heavily, because none of them but the primates has the second system. The “What” system covers object and face recognition, and color perception. This separation of “who has what” speaks largely about what we need to survive. Blame it on evolution. While animals primarily need strong motion sensors, as to instigate fight or flight, and prey or predator, humans – in all of our socially interactive glory – truly need the ability to recognize faces and distinguish objects.

So, why color? Again, evolution granted us with the ability, most likely to improve our ability to recognize objects and faces. Mutations are also largely to blame. Nevertheless, it is not as though we do not foster this ability. Traffic lights, gender oriented products, and country flags are just a few universal signs based on color.

Moreover, of course, art. Monet capitalized on this elite trait of ours by trying to capture it in its every phase of existence. In turn, he spent thousands of hours painting in the open air, noting every subtle shift in light and its effect on color.

Six separate paintings of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral Series, 1890s

While the object, in this case the Rouen Cathedral, remains the same, daylight shifts and causes a huge, dramatic shift in appearance. Thus, Monet stayed true to his impression, rather than the “truth”.

Why is this important? It epitomizes the fact that perceptions are fleeting. What we perceive is literally not what is. More importantly, this effect yields intense emotional results. Why else would you get up at 5:00am to watch the sun rise? Because the sun at 5:00am is not the same as it is at 6:00am or 7:00am, just like our green ball. It is a fleeting moment. It is beautiful, unearthly, and powerful.


The power behind these lighting effects is strictly emotional. We are in awe that it happens and we enjoy the changing view. The sun is not actual changing colors; it is an illusion.

Monet was not fooled. He knew that our visual system responded to light very strongly, creating an immeasurable list of perceivable colors. He knew the importance of luminance and more importantly, how to recreate it in paint.

While artists call it value, luminance is perceived lightness (Livingstone, M., 2002). It is how bright we think something to be, not how bright it necessarily is. Therefore, luminance cannot be measured physically because it varies on the sensitivity of the individual eye. As stated by Livingstone (2002),

“Understanding luminance is important because our perception of depth, three-dimensionality, movement (or the lack of it), and spatial organization are all carried by a part of our visual system that responds only to luminance differences and is insensitive to color.” (pp 37)

Look at the picture to your right. The A and B appear to be different colors, when in fact they are the same. This happens because our retina and light adaptation do not change while looking at a single image, therefore, they do not adjust to meet this difference in luminance. The brain does not pay attention to the gradual change in luminance of the canister’s shadow, instead it responds to readily apparent changes in localized districts. Different brightness; same luminance.

This effect, also known as the Cornsweet Illusion, occurs so frequently in nature, that we accept it as reality. Artists frequently play with luminance to create a more truthful effect; disregarding representation to achieve realism. The choice of color has an amazing impact on the end result, and Monet was a color expert.

Notice that when the black and white reproduction is taken from Illusion: Sunrise, the sun disappears into the sky. The original colors were opposite though; the sun is clearly orange and the sky is clearly blue. What we do not readily think about is their luminance. With all of the color drained, we can see that the sun and sky perfectly match in luminance, just as they would in nature.

Monet has translated a quality of light into a two-dimensional image. The waterscape is perfect. Each brushstroke of color against one another is just as it should be. What results is a shimmery yet subtle and moving yet calm vista.

At the time, it may have seemed impossible to Monet to accurately “paint the air”. In hindsight, Monet could not have produced results any better than he did. The aesthetic experience gives us the feeling of air, as if we were standing beside him at his easel. His loyalty to perception allowed him to exploit color and showcase luminance.

“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

-Claude Monet


Ginn, S. R. & Lorusso, L. (2008). Brain, Mind, and Body: Interactions with Art in

Renaissance Italy. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, Vol. 17 Issue 3

Hurwitz, L. S. (1996)). The Well-Planned Spontaneity of Claude Monet. American Artist

(VNU eMedia, Inc.), Vol 60, Issue 644

Livingstone, M. (2002). Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Rakow, P. (2007). Through the Eyes of an Artist. Review of Optometry, Special Feature

pp 32.


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