Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


The Impressionists - H.R. Rookmaaker

The Impressionists

by H.R Rookmaaker
Monet, Renoir and their friends set out to paint what they saw, what the eye recorded. In the early 1870s Renoir painted an open-air dance with some of his friends sitting in the foreground [Le Moulin de la Galette]. Nothing special—though all would admit that the quality of the painting is very high, and his brushwork and use of color are superb. Nothing special? Look a bit closer. What are the light spots on the jacket of the man in the foreground? Perhaps he forgot to brush his jacket? Or has he lent against a wall and got some whitewash on it? No, of course! They are simply ‘spots’ of sunlight dappled by the leaves. And there are ‘spots’ of light on the faces, too, and, most conspicuous, on the straw hat of the man behind the first group.
We must realize that it is the first time in history that things like this had been painted. Nobody had done it before. Of course in…Rembrandt…and many others, spots of light had been included. But…they never made the structure of the things depicted unclear. No one ever painted sunshine falling through leaves at random as Renoir did, or spots on a hat….. They would have thought that this falsified reality. 
A problem arises from a basic principle of the Enlightenment. Reality, the cosmos, is an unknown X. and man can find out what it is like only by using his eyes and senses and then, with his brain, find a structure in the sensations coming from outside. [Already philosopher David Hume had raised the issue.] If I let a knife fall 999 times, how do I know that it will fall the next time?...Statistically we may take the chance that it will do so again the next time…but we must admit that we can never be sure…It was an epistemological problem, a question of the source of our knowledge of reality. Monet wrestles with it too….
We look at a later Monet, of about 1880 [Quai du Louvre]. What do we see? Nothing special at first. It is not an important place. Monet just shows a ‘corner of nature’. So what do we see in the picture? Monet’s brush strokes recording what he saw? In a way, no. Not what he saw. But he recorded what reached his eyes, the light beams that caused a sensation on his retina. The question is whether there is something behind them, a reality of things that caused the light beams. One may conjecture that there is a reality, in the same way as one is likely to take the chance that the knife will fall again, but one never knows for sure. 
In the years before 1885 the Impressionists group became restless and nervous. Everybody who was in contact with this art realized there was something at stake. What is it? They were asking themselves. Where are we heading? Are we losing painting altogether? This world we are depicting, is it really reality?
Only Monet seemed to be sure of himself. He simply went on, and in 1885 dared to take the great step. The decisive step. The step over the threshold, the second step toward modern Art. No, one never knows whether there is a reality behind the sensation we receive. There is no reality. Only the sensations are real.
If we look at his paintings after 1885 we see the difference [Poplars at Giverny, Sunrise]. He went on in the Impressionist line, more consistently than ever. He did various series of paintings depicting one spot—a row of trees by a river, Rouen Cathedral—but in different conditions: in rain and snow, in the morning, in the afternoon. It could not have been more naturalistic…yet this is not the impression you get when you look at these pictures. They are more like dream pictures, pictures showing the world that is immaterial, ghost-like. The colors are beautiful, and one can sense that there was a world that induces sensations—the picture had some relationship to a real cathedral, for instance—but the reality does not seem so real.
In 1891 Kandinsky saw a painting of a haystack at a large exhibition of French painting in Moscow. He tells us how he looked at it, how magnificent he thought the painting was, the colors brilliant—but that he could not make out what kind of reality was represented. Was there a subject? He saw only color. Only after he consulted the catalog did he see what was meant. A strange picture, he thought. Beautiful, yes—but what about the reality depicted? It gave him, some 20 years later, the courage to paint an abstract picture.
For reflection and discussion
  • If you appreciate Impressionist art, how would you express your attraction to the colors and images? How does your favorite Impressionist or realist painting or artist connect with you?
  • If all we can be certain of is the particular sensation on our retinas, how would that impact our knowledge of reality? Would seeing still be believing?
  • What do you think the Bible means when it says we can perceive with the ‘eyes of your heart’ (Ephesians 1:18)?
  • How do you think visual perception gives you knowledge about God? How does perception of the eyes of your heart give you knowledge about God? Which do you find more reliable?
  • How do you personally experience the reality that can be ‘seen’ in Ephesians 1:18?
Adapted from Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, IVP,1970. Published in: Kelly Monroe Kullberg and Lael Arrington (ed.): A Faith and Culture Devotional, Daily Readings in Art, Science, and Life, Zondervan – Grand Rapids, 2008, pp. 216-218. Used by permission of Zondervan.