In his new book, Beauty: What It Is and Why It Matters (Sophia, 2019), John-Mark Miravalle relates how beauty combines the objective quality of order with the subjective experience of surprise: “We can always be surprised by forms, natures or essences and the order that reveals them” (49). We think things are beautiful when they convey proportion and harmony, but also in a way that catches our attention, makes us stop in wonder, and inspires us. The artist does not simply reproduce nature but presents it to us in a new way to help us to see more deeply into what we can take for granted. Great art combines this ability to see and perceive the inner nature of things with an objectively pleasing presentation.
This artistic vision can be experienced in Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature exhibit currently on display at the Denver Art Museum until Feb. 2. I find it interesting that in a relativistic society, we find the word “truth” in the exhibit’s title. St. Thomas Aquinas defined truth simply as the conformity of mind to reality. Monet, as part of the impressionist movement, pushed the boundaries of this conformity, giving an impression of things rather than portraying them with photographic precision. There is a deeper way of seeing nature than simply reproducing it by peering into its inner form and expressing it in unexpected ways. Monet’s portrayal of the truth of nature even used artistic deception to convey reality, using unexpected colors and brush strokes that, at first glance, do not seem to match nature, yet combine to help us to see things in a fresh and more profound way.
Although not the focus of this exhibit, Monet was also known for painting churches, most famously the Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. One painting, “Vétheuil in Summer” (1879), gives a sense of how architecture compliments nature, with Our Lady’s church dominating the hillside town, with Monet’s classic technique of using a water reflection. Sky, land, and water blend together seamlessly, with the church as the central bridge between them: its spire reaching into the sky and stretching the entire length of the reflection. The painting also provides a wide color palatte, with a light blue and white at the very top and bottom strips, a line of green in the middle at the water’s edge, and vibrant colors such as pink, orange, and red in the town and its reflection on both sides of the green. The presence of the church bears witness to the culture that arose, almost naturally, from the European landscape, as well us pointing us toward its transcendent fulfillment.
Looking at nature with Monet helps us to recognize and appreciate beauty. Miravalle even speaks of the surprise of the epiphanies of beauty as a glimpse of the beauty of the divine. He defines the surprise of beauty as “being delightfully transfixed on something for which there is no prior anticipation … Our entrance into heaven, the participation in the Trinitarian life, will be, in one sense, nothing more than a share in God’s aesthetic experience. We will, with Him, marvel at the order and integrity of What and Who He Is” (114). Although Christian art can never fully depict this exceeding beauty, it, nonetheless, provides “the manifestation of a spiritual reality in physical form” (142). The Catholic artist leads the viewer beyond the truth of nature to a beauty that “is the perfection of nature and the incarnation of spiritual truth and goodness in a physical way” (ibid.).
Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature provides a delightful and moving opportunity to experience great art. I found the exhibit a bit overwhelming (in a positive sense) with over 120 paintings spanning Monet’s life and the various places he lived and traveled. It takes about two hours to enjoy the exhibit leisurely and I found it necessary to take some short breaks to be able to keep taking in all of the details. It certainly provides a great opportunity for learning how to look: paying attention to details of color, brush stroke, and the change of appearance from different distances and angles. It may not present the fullness of a Catholic approach to beauty, but by communicating the truth of nature it helps us to delight in God’s own handiwork.