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Monet, Cliff Walk at Pourville

Claude Monet, Cliff Walk at Pourville, 1882, oil on canvas, 26-1/8 x 32-7/16 inches / 66.5 x 82.3 cm (Art Institute of Chicago). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Beth: I put myself in the position of these figures on this cliff and I almost feel that wind whipping around me and my instability on this cliff as a result. Steven: I can hear the cloth on my shirt just whipping. I think we're ready for the sound effects now. (wind blowing) Not a good idea. Monet doesn't need it. We have this brilliant summer day, we're on a cliff walk in a seaside resort in northwestern France on the English Channel, we see these two women ... This is just a lovely image of people walking on a path in nature. Beth: Well, I think the fact that we immediately say, "I know what this moment is like" is indicative of the fact that Monet is doing something that we still do today. We go on vacation at the seaside. It's lovely to go for a walk along the clifftops and feel the wind and look out to the sea. Steven: We're still part of the modern world, that he lived in and so there is a real sense of immediacy and that comes across in the brush strokes. So it's his hand moving across the canvas, but it's also the wind whipping through the grasses at the top of this cliff. Beth: And yet all of that is also rounded by these two vertical features that we see of the rocks that mimic the verticality of the figures. Steven: And look how he's used those cliff faces to create a sense of the brilliance of the day. They are in deep shadow. The contrast is so sharp, it reminds us of when there's sort of a glare from the sun. But even though the painting seems completely spontaneous, in fact, it was carefully crafted, we know from Monet's letters that when he painted these images, and he painted about a hundred of them ... Beth: Of these scenes of the Normandy coast in the early 1880s. Steven: He would go back and go back and go back to them ... ten ... fifteen, sometimes even twenty times. Beth: And so there really are layers of paint and when you get up close, you can see those layers. There is this conflict between that the spontaneity, the momentariness of this scene and the way that he really worked to achieve that effect. Steven: Let's step up. Let's look really closely at this. So sometimes you see areas where the paint is still very fresh. Remember, this is oil. It doesn't dry quickly and you can see how he's painting wet paint on top of wet paint. Beth: So if you paint wet paint over wet, you're going to smear the under layer. Steven: And you can see that, if you look especially at the women up on the cliff. Look at their dresses. Do you see, for instance, in the woman that's close to us, the way in which there's that white at the bottom of her dress ... I mean, look at the way that the bell of the dress is pushed up against the back of her legs, really giving you a sense of that wind. and then the strokes are actually moving in that direction, as well, but look at that way in which the white pushes down into the red and picks some of it up. So this is wet paint that is pushing other wet paint across that surface. Beth: We could see that, too, in the figure in the background where the white that he's added on top of the red color of the parasol is smearing that red under layer. Steven: That's right and that is really different from, for instance, the horizon line. You'll notice that there's a cool almost jade-like green, but you'll also notice that there are areas where the paint seems to skip over an under layer and that under layer of even paler green was dry and actually had still ridges in it and so when he drew his brush across it, it picked up those ridges. So this is wet paint over dried. Beth: It's just this incredible knowledge of his materials and what he needs to do with those materials for him to achieve the effect that he wants to achieve. Steven: Well, that's right. I think he's there for a [freed] to really pay attention to what he's seeing. Beth: This is a painting that's about the pleasure of seeing. It's a tourist moment. These figures are enjoying their walk along the cliff. They're looking out at this lovely picturesque landscape of cliffs and sea and sky and the clouds moving. We have this visual pleasure and they're experiencing visual pleasure. This is about looking in the modern world, a kind of experience of being a middle-class person at their leisure on holiday, something that we can all relate to. Steven: But painted in a way that brings us in, in a wonderfully intimate and direct way, so that we feel the wind, too. (wind blowing) (piano music playing)