The uncurated life is not worth shooting. It’s the unspoken axiom of those who accrue Instagram followings in the tens of thousands and also 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 fell asleep to the first installment of “The Impressionists,” a series on Amazon Prime Video. Impressionism isn’t really my genre of art. It’s nice enough to look at but too nice to look at really. But my nodding off shouldn’t be taken as a non-endorsement of the show; I was exhausted. The host, art critic Waldemar Januszczak, is British and amusing and does an excellent job of getting beyond the placid images to the personalities behind them.
So I rewatched when I’d had un petit café dans ma cuisine or whatever someone French in the late 1800s would have called the image of me in my kitchen drinking Nespresso. And the thing is, they would paint exactly that, because after all four episodes I came to the same conclusion as I had groggily after 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, 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 a 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 into 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 Instagram boyfriends he was leading by the hand.
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. Caillebotte’s “Rue de Paris, temps de pluie” is a definite mood. Picture a Renoir, any Renoir. It’s usually Sunday, Renoir and his friends are wearing straw hats with some nice ribbon around them, 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 and lots of benches. The light is great, like Valencia or something. The painting that best captures this is “Bal du moulin de la Galette” which is basically 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 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-grammed 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.