A few weekends ago, my husband and I drove down to Fort Worth, Texas, for a business trip as well as to visit an exceptionally fun person with whom we never seem to spend enough time!    While my husband was taking care of business, this friend suggested that the two of us attend a special exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth featuring the early works of Oscar-Claude Monet, the French Impressionist painter of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries.  My friend and I had a wonderful time, but it was really different than what we expected -- the artwork we viewed wasn’t as nearly abstract and impressionistic as most people think of when Monet’s name is mentioned.  His paintings at that time in his burgeoning career were very realistic, usually featuring some powerful aspect of nature sometimes accompanied by common people interacting with their environments.  To me, these early works were almost like modern, color, still photographs of everyday life during a much simpler time. 

His attention to detail was exquisitely intricate and it looked like he was trying to capture some kind of living force within his inanimate backgrounds.  However, when humans were included, the people in these paintings actually seemed to be detached and void of strong emotive states; they almost appeared wearied, distracted, and purposeless.  The most poignant paintings were painted where he grew-up in LeHavre, France, on the English channel – an environment known for dreary, gray skies and foggy, rainy weather.  The paintings featured men of the sea working with boats or fishing equipment who were depicted in their everyday work clothing, and they seemed to be fighting an ongoing battle against an adversary over which they could never prevail.  They would survive and they would be rewarded with enough bounty from the sea to make a living, but they were never masters over an untameable ocean or the capricious weather.

One such painting of a fishing boat at LeHavre was very nicely executed, but there was nothing really inspiring about it  to me – this little ship was ascending and cresting a large wave against a hazy, threatening sky that served as the dramatic background.  It would have made have an interesting picture to put on a can of herring, but other than that, there was not much meaning or inspiration to be gleaned by this viewer from Monet's effort.   The use of the word “effort” is appropriate because it could be used to describe the mariners’ successful negotiation of the rough sea, as well as the work Monet put into creating such a realistic painting of the rough elements.

Then, there were the outdoor picnic scenes he painted usually of people he knew in their semi-finery, seated on blankets under trees or standing,chatting to one another.  The detail to the clothing the people wore was marvelous, but the faces of these subjects either weren’t shown because Monet painted these people’s backs or their faces seemed to convey boredom and ennui.  It was like they were expecting to have a good time at these outings, but nothing exciting or fun ever happened.  Thus, they looked like they felt just as meaningless as they did as when they set out on the adventure.  They probably had nothing to gain from the afternoon’s activity nor did these people appear to have any depth in their lives.  It was like Monet only focused on external, temporal aspects of the picnickers, but he couldn't or didn’t depict any redeeming quality, spirit, or soul dwelling deep within them.  Even the edges of the paintings featuring large, spreading trees looked like they were sucked dry of life as Monet invested less effort into painting the scenery without the usual detailed flourishes seen in his past works.

But being an artist always looking to improve and incorporate new ideas into his work, something revolutionary began to happen in Monet’s artwork.  He began to discover the effects of light on his subjects and he began noticing how light changed over the course of the day adding a new, living dimension to ordinary things and settings.  Even when he included people in his compositions featuring light, the characters appeared to have a undefinable spark from within themselves which came out and was enhanced on the canvas.  He was also fascinated with re-painting the same subjects in different settings of light and this was a hallmark of a lot of his later works (for example, water-lilies from his garden pond in Givenchy, France).  Then he moved on to study the effects that shadow, mist, rain, or fog had in settings or how they affected the appearance of objects.  He also greatly studied reflections from illuminated surfaces onto moving watery surfaces, focusing less on the tangible but more on qualities like color, contrast, texture,motion, and form which probably conveyed “life” to him.  And these life-like qualities (abstractions) were only brought out through the effects of light.

At first, light illuminating the natural scenes was featured over small portions of his canvasses, but over time, more and more of his works became dedicated to just the effects of light.  I have heard art experts say that Monet “discovered the light” when he moved from the stormy sea coast on the English Channel to the right bank of the Seine near Paris.  But I noticed even at LeHavre in his “early years,” over time, more and more light effects were incorporated into his works.

I remember viewing one such realistic seascape from LeHavre where a ship near the shoreline was approaching a large wave.
 This anomalous surf was magically transformed into semi-transparent, semi-pyramidal, glassy creations from the bright sun refracting through the water just like a large, variable-shaped turquoise and green prism.   It was so realistic!  It made me want to dig out my snorkeling gear and swim out into a life-filled ocean which was punctuated by the constant rhythm of its surf.  How different was this painting compared to his earlier work of the boat plowing into a large wave which could have graced the label of a herring can!

In a lot of ways, Monet’s “discovery of the light” reminded me a lot of this auspicious holiday season of both Hannuka and Christmas where we celebrate the Divine Light of G_d-given spirituality and truth entering our darkened world.  A lot of times, we sort of muddle through life without purpose, merely surviving,and encounter a number of inconvenient, unpleasant episodes along the way because we have a hard time seeing where we are going.  We aren’t sure if we’re fulfilling the reasons why we are here, and above all, we want to be loved and accepted -- but we’re frightened of reaching out to others to give and receive this affirmation because of possible rejection or humiliating comments made by recipients.  Without direction and illumination to our paths, we can easily get sidetracked, easily stumble and fall, or easily get lost from the path we need to follow; then we make mistakes we wish we had never made. 

But a Divine G_d reached down from heaven and made us His people when we were the least worthy and helped us walk in His light.   We were slaves in bondage to someone as demanding as the hard-hearted Pharaoh, someone as demonic as the pagan Antiochus Epiphanes, and/or something as devastating as our disagreeable sin, and we had little hope of ever achieving freedom from our miserable existence.   But, He loved us unconditionally, He forgave all of our unfortunate missteps from the path He wanted us to follow, and then He made our journeys easier by becoming a lamp unto our feet.  He taught us His statutes and His ways while He lifted up our heads.  He improved the quality of our lives with His blessings while making us a nation of judges, kings, prophets, and priests.  Most importantly, He taught us to love and to do good for our fellow humans – to be a light to others isolated in the darkness by sharing His forgiveness, goodness, and love to those who crave it.   Just as a candle can share its flame to light another candle, and another candle, and so forth, to bring more light into a room, we now live our lives with the renewed purpose of sharing the flame of His truths to those who are stumbling and spiritually unenlightened.

It is so easy to go about our busy daily lives and not notice (or even ignore) the effects His light continuously has on our lives.  Even the best of us needs a reminder of His light in this fallen world that constantly vies for our attention and drains away our positive energies with our best intentions.  Let this season of light, miracles, love, faith, and obedience be that reminder, and renew us to become restored to the grand purposes He has for us all.  G_d bless everyone and have happy holidays!

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