Fleeting impression

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Ghislaine Kenyon guides a discussion on how and why the Impressionists painted with a new and shocking speed, taking a close look at oneof Monet's beach scenes

Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890 is the title of the current exhibition at the National Gallery in London. This rapidly executed beach scene by Monet certainly looks as if the artist might have wanted to finish it before the tide came in. But the exhibition is not one of those Monet-spinning Impressionist shows that cash-starved museums and galleries have mounted in recent years. Rather it focuses on one of the most radical aspects of Impressionism, one that led critics of the movement to complain that the pictures looked "unfinished": these are works that were painted fast as a direct translation of the artists' sensations; and even those works which were not in fact painted quickly were painted to look as if they had been. So the exhibition deals with the reason for and process of a particular kind of mark-making, rather than about subjects or artists or periods of time.

This fact alone would make a reproduction of The Beach at Trouville or indeed many of the other 75 pictures in the show a stimulating resource for any teacher involved in the teaching of painting at any key stage. This image is all about paint and the gestures that fashion it: even in a newspaper-quality reproduction, students of all ages can follow the artist's bold brushstrokes, imagine the feel of the thick white impasto of the sunlit patch on the left-hand woman's dress, and see the way the wet-in-wet application of orange-beige paint next to the woman in black picks up a trace of that black which is then dragged along the the top of the chair.

Monet painted The Beach at Trouville (37.5x45.7cm) in the summer of 1870 while on a honeymoon trip to the fashionable Normandy resort. He had married Camille Doncieux, the mother of his three-year-old son Jean, in June and the family spent the summer on the coast before leaving for London to escape the Franco-Prussian war. The picture is one of five small paintings of figures on the beach which Monet apparently painted in one session, on the spot: here, grains of sand are peppered all over the painting, clearly visible even to the naked eye. Not only has the wind blown the sand on to the wet canvas but also apparently on to Monet's palette, as sand is mixed into the paint. Equally characteristic of quick painting are the patches of primed canvas that have been left bare and the single brushstrokes that describe the features of the faces.

Looking at this picture from the point of view of technique could be a fruitful preparation for a painting exercise: students could be given a time limit to see how this might affect their brushstrokes. But a discussion of this image could also focus on the subject and its composition. Who might these women be? Why is there an empty chair? This is clearly not a portrait, but neither is it a conentional beach scene; the sea is a distant blue-grey stripe and few people seem to be enjoying a day out. What exactly might Monet have been trying to convey?

The woman on the left is Monet's wife Camille, the one on the right probably Madame Boudin, wife of the painter who taught Monet, and who had also previously painted this stretch of beach. On the edge of the empty chair hangs a small brown object. Is this a child's shoe, perhaps referring to the little son playing just out of sight? These two contrasted women, one in white, the other in black, Camille watching, her companion reading, are close to the viewer, but their lack of defined expression does not encourage us to engage with them. We are just as likely to focus on the sharp contours of the parasols or the scudding clouds behind. It is the paint itself and the way it has been applied that seems to demand most of our attention: we are looking directly at the way Monet has perceived the brightness of the light hitting Camille's dress, the depth of the shadow under her parasol, the speed of the moving clouds and the flutter of the flag. Monet was trying to paint quickly what he saw quickly because it would not be there for long.

This rich picture would not only be at home in the secondary art room. It could be used at both the primary key stages in the contexts of themes such as Journeys (how might the Monets have got to Trouville from Paris in 1870? The coming of the railways had encouraged the development of resort towns). A science focus on light could include thoughts about reflection (why is Camille's parasol white?), light and shadow (where must the sun be?), and it would link to 19th-century history in various ways including dress, leisure and transport.

Ghislaine Kenyon is head of schools at the National Gallery, London


The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN Tel: 020 7477 2885. Web: www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Admission free, open daily

Teachers wanting to bring groups to see the exhibition Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890, should be aware that the exhibition is likely to be extremely full and, for that reason, teaching is not allowed in exhibitions.

'The Beach at Trouville' is in the National Gallery's permanent collection and will return to it when the exhibition finishes in the United States in September 2001. The National Gallery has many Impressionist paintings not in the exhibition, and free gallery talks that could take in Impressionism can be booked with the education department, tel: 020 7747 2424.

Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860 - 1890 (sponsored by UBS Warburg) is in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery until January 28 2001. Tickets (students and 12 to 18-year-olds pound;3, adults pound;7pound;5 concessions) can be obtained by post or in person from the Gallery. For advance booking for groups of 12 or more, tel: 020 7747 2888.

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