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Monet, The Argenteuil Bridge

Claude Monet, The Argenteuil Bridge, 1874, oil on canvas, 60.5 x 80 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker Please note that there is significant background chatter in this video. The Musée d'Orsay is happily a very busy museum and this painting is hung in a relatively small room.  Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're at the Musee d'Orsay, and we're looking at an 1874 Monet. This is "The Bridge at Argenteuil," which is a suburb of Paris-- SPEAKER 2: Where Monet lived briefly. SPEAKER 1: --and was accessible to Paris by the train. And this is the new suburbs that are made possible by not only the wealth the city, but also the industry of this time. SPEAKER 2: And a place where people would go to escape the intensity of urban life in Paris, and go boating, and go fishing, and go picnicking. And you can see, from this painting, how fun that would be here. SPEAKER 1: Yes. What really comes across is just the brilliance of the light on a summer day. SPEAKER 2: Monet is really discarding hundreds of years of tradition of the way that one would paint trees and water. And it has found a new method for painting outdoor light. And remember, he's painting this out of doors. This is a painting painted en plein air. SPEAKER 1: This is the height of Impressionism. 1874 is the year of the first Impressionist exhibition. And Monet has, as you said, discarded an entire tradition, turned painting on its head by saying, what's important is not the thing that I'm painting, but it is the optical experience of seeing that's critical here. SPEAKER 2: And in order to jettison those hundreds of years of how to paint a landscape, Monet's asked himself, what am I really seeing? If I put away everything my brain tells me and everything a person learns at the Academy-- as though my eye were born now-- and I just looked at the scene, what would I see? Patches of green, patches of bluish green, dabs of purple. So that, not what I know, not like chiaroscruo and this formula of academic painting, but the actual visual experience of this. SPEAKER 1: So, when you look at, for instance, the English painter Constable, you can identify the types of trees, you can identify the hardware that's on the barges that he renders. Here, almost nothing is identifiable. It's not about that. It's not about understanding of what kind of sailboat that is, what kind of sail that that's canvas that's rolled up. None of that's important. In fact, as you said, the water-- there are parts of it that could be a green lawn in another context. But in fact, it's just the reflective qualities of that surface. SPEAKER 2: Right. He's thought, oh, I see a dab of green. I see a dab of blue. You have an intensity of color. I mean, he's using these colors that would never be seen in academic landscape painting, and-- SPEAKER 1: Because they would have always been muted, they would have-- SPEAKER 2: Mixed. SPEAKER 1: That's right. SPEAKER 2: Here, they're just the same in the foreground as they are in the background. For example, that green that we see in the water, that's the shadow of the tree. It's just as green and just as deep as the tree itself. And so, there's a kind of flattening that happens here that I think looked very radical in the 1870s. And a kind of sketchiness and a looseness to the brushwork that made it not look like a finished painting. Now landscape painters had done studies out of doors for hundreds of years. The idea was that Monet was making a completely finished painting out of doors-- saying, this is done. Even though it lacked the kind of polish and finish expected by the Academy. SPEAKER 1: It was a mere impression.