There’s a story about Delacroix, his suffering indecision, not being able to figure out the colors of a detail in his painting. He tells his assistant to order a coach for him so he can visit the Louvre where he would, no doubt, consult Rubens. So the assistant orders the coach and Delacroix prepares to board it, when seeing the shadow of the coach on the ground, he is suddenly confronted with his solution in the form of yellow lights and violet contrasts. Thus he sends the coach away and continues with his painting. Nature came to his rescue!
Me, I need art history for my rescue — not that I face any problem as thorny as whatever Delacroix was trying to resolve. I could have summoned my own coach to take me to the National Gallery of Art. All I’d have had to do is put the key in the ignition. Zoom, zoom. And I’d have been there. Today being Sunday, I’m quite sure I could easily have found a parking place. Sometimes these days just finding a parking place seems like reason enough to do a victory lap. Of course, if you did that you’d risk losing the space you had just found …
Well, I don’t need to actually visit a museum today. I have a really terrific art library and the books have their own magic — not as grand as seeing actual works, but nothing to sniff at either. A good art book is a boon companion. Right now I’m consulting Monet about my drawing. Seeing his “The Manneporte, Etretat” I am struck by how solidly everything is realized. The foot of the cliff that reaches out into the sea is so heavy and physical. The light that covers it like a cloak is so beautiful and true. The half lights are perfect. What was moving, transient and probably damp and messy — thinking about the cumbersome business of his taking canvas to such a location and dealing with the wind that ripples the sea in such a lively way — he resolves all that with such admirable visual logic. Meanwhile, my picture’s characteristics are so different. For the drawing I’m doing at the moment, I don’t even have the subject in front of me, and the action takes place entirely on the sheet of paper, deriving what energy it has from the contrasts of the colors themselves and the character of lines.
Still Monet’s sea picture is like an anchor. It steadies my thoughts — is like taking a walk along the beach during a pause in my drawing. Monet was among my first loves, among those who first led me into the way of painting, and I find that all these years later he’s still a welcoming teacher.
Monet, “The Manneporte, Etretat,” 1886, Metropolitan Museum of Art.