Seascape 1866 is the sea on a cloudy day. The waves trundle along in silky billows, gently plunging into the sand on the shore. The color of the sea is a faded green under a stiff grey sky. There will be rain, but not yet. Sailboats are on the horizon.
Seascape 1866 is a painting by Claude Monet, who lived from 1840 to 1926. He was a painter who rendered his subjects as he saw them, not as they were. He captured what he felt as he painted, charring his paintings with his own impulses and emotions. The result of his ingenuity is one of the most famous and beloved movements in art history, Impressionism.
I described Seascape 1866 as a cloudy day. But when you look closely at it – is it really a cloudy day? From a technical perspective, the strokes of blue and dark blue and white and grey create an unintelligible weather. The sea does not appear to reflect any sunlight, but its color lightens toward the middle. The ships in the distance are not clearly sailboats or steamboats. We do not know the temperature or the season. We cannot see the shore, so we do not know whether the waves crash ferociously or softly. So how do we interpret Seascape 1866?
My interpretation went so far as to say that the waves crashed gently. This is because I have stood on the ocean shore before with waves gently rolling over my feet on a cloudy day. I remember thinking that the color of the ocean was a faded green, since the sun was not there to give it its sparkling glassy look. It was a grey day but strangely bright because both sand and sea reflect light. When I saw Seascape 1866, I was taken back to this memory. Art lends itself to being interpreted based on memory and experience. Experience is what shapes our view of the world, thus impacting how we translate products of the culture.
For example, if your mom cooked dinner for you and your family every night when you were growing up, it would shape your view of food. It may have instilled in you a greater priority on sharing meals, or a greater appreciation of homemade food. It may have shaped your views of domesticity, family, and homemaking in some way or another. Your experience shapes how you see the world. A value of home cooked meals and family time will impact which stories resonate with you and which art appeals.
Memories are more specific than experience. Memories dictate what elements of an art piece are triggers for nostalgia – sights, sounds, and colors that remind us of places and people. When we come across these triggers in art it helps us to morph the artist’s story into our own. Someone else might look at Seascape 1866 and remember their honeymoon, or the coastal village where they grew up. They may remember a book they’ve read or a friend they haven’t seen in a long time.
Memory and experience are the most personal tools that we use to translate products of the culture. These parts of ourselves strongly impact how we gauge our appreciation of or resonance with the works that man makes.
Stephen King said that writing is telepathy, an exchange between the author and the reader. He explained this in On Writing, “Look – here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.” He is talking about how a writer puts an image into the mind of a reader. He goes on to say that the reader will give the image different variations – for example, the red tablecloth he described may be turkey red or scarlet. But his point is to say that writing is an interaction between the author and the reader.
I would extend the concept of interaction to art as well. The best artist will not give their audience every single detail, but will let the viewer use their imagination in engaging the painting. Visual details are granted, but the viewer must complete the story the painting tells with their own interpretation. Monet added vagueness to his works by blurring lines and rendering figures indistinct, thus calling on the interpretation of the viewer at a level not seen in earlier art periods. Monet embraces the rule of writing, “omit needless words”. This is why Impressionism is so powerful – it causes us to go back to our memories and experiences because it leaves so much room for interpretation. When we see ourselves within a story, it impacts us on an astonishingly raw level. We see our own lives in someone else’s rendering of the world and it allows us to understand our lives from another angle. This can be uncomfortable, which may be why Impressionism was rejected at first. Art is expected to make a statement. Monet’s paintings compel you to draw from your own experience to interpret the statement.
Seascape 1866 is a cloudy day.