The Boat Studio (Le bateau-atelier) 1876 Oil on canvas 28⅛ x 23½” The Barnes Foundation, Lincoln University Merion, Pennsylvania
Monet is the artist other artists would like to be. This is not to say that other artists all want to be impressionists, far from it. But Monet knew how to be an artist. An entire movement took its name from one of his paintings. Though times were often hard he managed to make a living, and in the end a very good living, off his work. His friendships were deep and lasting and included some of the greatest minds and talents of his day. He had no meaningful feuds with anyone. He married the love of his life who gave him two wonderful children that remained a source of great comfort and inspiration to him his whole life long. He lived almost always among the things that brought him the greatest joy. Even cataracts and near blindness couldn’t slow him down, and only served to make his color choices more interesting. He was kind to everyone and generous as hell. Ordinarily any right thinking human being would despise a guy like that, but he was just that good. You can’t summon a case of resentment against him; he left too damned much beauty behind him. What’s a hater to do?
Envy him, that’s what you do. He was not just the coolest guy around, he was always doing the coolest stuff. He was a big believer in getting out in the wide open spaces to paint. And he loved painting water scenes, and scenes of the shore. So what does he do? He builds himself a floating studio back in 1873. Doesn’t that sound like a rock and roller’s dream? A floating studio, man. Nobody can mess with you, so peaceful, so pleasant. And his friends flocked to see it. Manet did a couple of paintings of it. Claude and Camille together, Monet reading, Camille looking out from the door, so happy. Art students sketched it. Schoolchildren snuck aboard at night and peed off the end of it. It was the coolest thing ever. He’d gotten the idea from Daubigny who had built one back in 1857 but Daubigney’s never caught on the way Monet’s did. Monet was just doomed to be the coolest kid in school.
We get to see it from the rear resting on placid waters. The brushwork in the boat’s reflection is suggestive of gentle movement, as if the studio can rock with only the stir of a trout turning over in the river. Within sits the great man himself in a rare self-portrait. Many writer’s suggest he is painting, but it looks to me like he is reading, and we certainly know Monet was a voracious reader. I can easily imagine he used his little studio not only for work but for quiet reflection and study. See how he has structured this scene. There is no suggestion of another human being anywhere. This is Monet’s entire world, a world within his own mind. He is not painting from life for he is within the painting. He is giving a scene from within himself in which he resides within in turn. The growth to either bank is suggestive but unresolved, it is lacking the concrete image of willow trees or water lilies or poplars as you find in his other works. This is the picture of Monet’s imaginary world, a world that is only color and light into which he is journeying alone on his fragile, floating studio. He is studying to prepare himself for the mysterious journey he dares in this little barge. Something new waits ahead, he seems to say, something personal and scary. Like a seer he seems to understand that this is a journey he will make alone. The colors are limited here, dull blues and greens, slight windings of red and tones of lavender. The distance ahead seems narrower and grayer than the day behind.
People are just meaty computers and respond unthinkingly to tens of thousands of signals every day. Many of these responses are the automatic functioning of the human machine, but others are more subtle and collect in the subconscious just out of wit’s reach like a word at the tip of our tongue. This is how sometimes a startling thing can happen and yet we are not surprised. Our quiet brain has been amassing evidence all along, preparing us. I think some artists can tap into that subconscious place, can almost enter a trance where the world simply ceases to exist, effort vanishes, and they are swept into exultancy until they finish and face their creation with a kind of stupefied wonder that something like that could come out of them.
In this painting I believe Monet sees himself and sees his future and it disquiets him. And so the Monet in this painting reads and does not paint. The painting will come, the future will come, eternity will come, and he will face it when he has to. For now he will deny it and read instead. If he is reading he cannot look up. If he cannot look up then he doesn’t have to see. Because he knows and fears what he will see. Because he knows that even the lucky guy, even the coolest guy in school doesn’t get it all. Somebody has to pay for all that luck. Somebody always pays.
Some three years later his beloved Camille passed away at the age of only thirty-two.