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The uncurated life is not worth shooting. This is the unspoken axiom of those who accrue Instagram followers in the tens of thousands and also true for Monet. Yes, Claude Monet. He may have existed before a steady stream of lifestyle pics, but Monet is the granddaddy of all Insta girls.
I scribbled a much less coherent note about this to myself as I drifted off after the first installment of the art documentary series The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution. Art critic and host Waldemar Januszczak talked about how Monet had waded far out into the sea in Étretat to paint the Normandy coast, including the majestic Manneporte. I envisioned him in his summer whites ploughing into the sandy mess to get his shot.
I rewatched the show in the morning when I’d had un petit café dans ma cuisine or whatever I would have called the image of me in my kitchen drinking Nespresso if it was the late 1800s and I was French and had a studio filled with art supplies. After consuming the rest of the episodes with my breakfast, I realized I would indeed paint exactly that because I groggily came to the same conclusion as I had after watching the first: Impressionists, they’re just like us.
Trucking a monstera from window to window and then carefully arranging the book of the season and a rosé all day is no different than tracking a water lily’s movements. To paint “La gare Saint-Lazare,” (1877) Monet had the train station shut down and asked for the engines of all the trains to be turned on at once to create a voluminous cloud of steam that never would have appeared in the course of a regular day. On that holiday on the Normandy coast, the writer Guy de Maupassant observed Monet chasing shadows and sun, lying in wait until they shifted to suit his fancy, and said, “In truth, he was no longer a painter, but a hunter.” Anyone who’s stood in line for six hours to get that gram in the Rain Room can relate.
While Monet couldn’t flick through filters, he’d set out several canvases in a row, each one the same scene but painted at a different time in a different light. Getting the perfect picture of the beachside cliffs of Étretat took a line of children carrying his canvases across the rocky shore, as if they were a string of stand-ins trying to do the work of one Instagram boyfriend.
Pretty much all of the Impressionists fit the Insta mold. Cézanne painted so much fruit there’s no way he wasn’t a regular at the farmer’s market. If you’ve lifted your phone above litter in a park to include only the treeline and cerulean sky, you too would have gone for a rosy depiction of a Sunday afternoon on La Grande Jatte. Seurat wanted us to see the way shade and sun played out on a pleasant knoll, not top-hatted johns meeting up with parasol-toting prostitutes. Picture a Renoir, any Renoir. It’s usually Sunday, Renoir and his friends are wearing straw hats tied with fashionable ribbon, t-shirts that show off their arms if they’re by the water, and basically the same blue jacket as everyone else if the event is less casual. The women have on big floppy hats and long dresses. Everyone is eating and drinking, and in particular they like to go to this one place that has an open-air bar in the middle of it and lots of benches. The light is great, it could be Valencia or Clarendon. The painting that best captures this is “Bal du moulin de la Galette” (1876) which very loosely translated is French for the caption “Turn down for brunch.”
The Impressionists didn’t just get the big picture; they mastered capturing the individual elements that could inspire envy and endless imitation. Van Gogh really knew how to take an unusually hued drink like absinthe and isolate it on a marble-topped table at golden hour. Mermaid lattes have nothing on “the green fairy.” Add some water to it and watch it melt into a beautiful, milky green potion perfect for capturing on its own or before a zombie-eyed friend recovering from a late night out. The Impressionists popularized absinthe so much, pictures of it trended right through post-Impressionism, Surrealism, Modernism, and Cubism.
This life is exhausting though, no matter how many hearts it gets you, real or emoji. Of course, Monet had an answer. Before there was Rabbit Town, the Indonesian theme park with its mashup of some of the most Instagrammed places, there was Giverny. Monet had eight gardeners working to rearrange flora and fixtures to spare him from having to find a new spot to paint every day. For 40 years, he had only to walk out of his millennial-pink house, unfold his easel, and get to work. Truly #blessed.