Much of life is dappled light, neither solid sun nor dark shadow, but something pleasantly in between. The Impressionists got it – and getting it helps preserve sanity, especially in an age of extremes.
Today, leftists (and some insensible rightists) spread their version of darkness, thick rhetorical condemnation, bold strokes on freedom’s canvas – and it gets a bit tiring, even draining, like too much time with paintings done during Picasso’s “blue period.”
You will imagine I just got airborne, in some pseudo-cultured, hard-to-follow, slightly-off-base way. But I did not, I think. Indulge me, and you will see.
That bit about getting tired, drained, and down – is exactly what happened to Picasso in his lifetime, especially between 1901 and 1904. Living in Spain, the country had just lost a war (to the US, losing Puerto Rico, Philippines, and Cuba). The economy was shaky, unemployment high, and beyond social malaise, a friend committed suicide. Picasso’s answer? Monochromatic art.
Unable to see dappled light or much light at all, Picasso lurched from dark painting too dark painting, even featuring dark subjects, impoverished people, prostitutes, beggars. Perhaps only coincidentally, Spain’s first “socialist” newspaper appeared (La Bandera Rosa) in 1901.
In all events, Picasso was effectively blinded by the weight of his own depression and society’s dissolution, neither seeing nor painting dappled light. He even painted subjects depicted as blind.
The contrast might be an Impressionist like Claude Monet. Somehow Monet always woke up on the bright side, painting “Sunrise,” “Poplars,” “Artist’s Garden,” “Waterlilies,” “Poppies,” “Woman with a Parasol,” regattas, gardens, beaches, rivers, haystacks at Giverny, snowy streets, train stations, even the Houses of Parliament – all awash in light.
If any of the Impressionists were all about light, Monet was. Indeed, that school of painting is named after his work “Impression, Sunrise.” And his life overlapped Picasso’s, although he painted France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain.
Interestingly, even as we live in turbulent times, Picasso and Monet did. But where Picasso turned dark in war’s shadow, social malaise, personal distress, Monet did not. He turned to light.
Choosing light, even on the heels of France losing the Franco-Prussian War, Monet deliberately painted his native home – La Harve – in bright lights, vivid colors, varied scenes. Historians – and art critics – do not miss Monet’s intentional turn to light, even in what were downtimes.
Even after losing his parents, rejection from art societies, financial straits, struggling to raise a child, unable to sell his artwork (“Sunrise” did not sell, initially), and being mocked (“Impressionism” was a term of derision at first, not a compliment), he persevered.
More, he did so with a smile, unapologetically painting life’s beauty, peace, joys, varied degrees of light. While an individual in all ways, he seems grounded in God’s gifts, delighting in them.
Which brings us back to dappled light. What is it, really? In practical terms, it is light that reaches us, or reaches the ground, despite all obstacles. In artistic terms, it is finding a way to illuminate the subject, brighten the canvas, put shadows in perspective with intention – assuring the bright side of what lies before and around us is not lost in what endeavors to obscure it.
Dappled light refuses to condemn what is beautiful or allow darkness to dominate the canvas, refuses to make what should be, and is agreeable looks disagreeable, yet does not deny obstacles.
Looking again at paintings featuring dappled light, what do we see? Perhaps we all see something slightly different, but through the artist’s brush, we see what is illuminated. You see something which is invariably beautiful – or it would not be in an Impressionist’s painting.
In effect, what might be dark is not, which is the point. By sprinkling light over what seems innately dim, everything changes – for the better. If life is seldom white-hot, direct sun infrequent, life is also not entirely cold or dark. Optimism can and should penetrate the canopy.
Dappling is a metaphor for moderation, the reality that – even in relative darkness when news is thick and heavy, light shines through. Applied to extreme emotions – which poke us daily – the idea is that all is not dark, everything, not a crisis. If an uncommon sentiment, it should not be.
Most often, the dappled light – grounded optimism, resilience, the positive – is real. More than real, it reveals what lies above the canopy, something promising, hopeful, source of the light. Call it faith, ground it in history, or leave it in mystery. It is still there, whatever you call it.
And so is the footnote, to suggest it always is. Once Picasso got through his “blue period,” he returned to vibrant colors and light, what they call his “rose period.” Reds, pinks, oranges, blues, and other hues, subjects cheerful, clowns, harlequins, carnivals, babies, love, and lots of flowers.
And Monet? He teaches us still how to get up on a gray day and make it shine, how to make magic with “Bottle, Carafe, Bread, and Wine” (1863). He never lost his love for light and life. Nor should we.
News is not always good, but there is always another sunrise, often singular sunset. Yes, much of life is dappled light; the Impressionists got it right. We should, too, go right through Picasso’s “blues” or skip them altogether for the “rose.” That’s what Monet thought and what we ought.
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