The League of Extraordinary Heretics

Orangerie Edited
L’Orangerie, built specifically for Monet’s last great work, his waterlilies series.

Paul and I both love Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. We’ve traveled the world to worship at Impressionists Temples: The Getty Museum, our Mecca in Los Angeles. The Art Institute in Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Even the tiny Impressionist room in the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, with a painting by Renoir of our neighborhood park. And now, at long last, the Musee d’Orsay and L’Orangerie in Paris.

As a teenager I would see posters and calendars full of pastel reproductions of Monet’s waterlilies or Van Gogh’s sunflowers and think, “Ick. Too pretty.” Then I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, walked into the enormous Impressionist wing, and nearly fell to my knees. The impact of those pieces in real life, the depth of the paint strokes, the vibrations of the color — there’s no way to reproduce it. No way at all.

The more I’ve learned about the Impressionists–and perhaps even more so, the post-Impressionists– the more I’ve come to feel a kinship with them.  Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and dear, broken Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Latrec: I adore them all. I feel if I could meet them today we would be like siblings: all bickering and laughing: remembering and reaching. These painters, who we now see as little more than producers of decorative posters, were once brave, bold radicals.

In the last 1800’s, there were two ways to succeed as artists: show in the Salon, or show in the Academy. Both French institutions presented perfectly executed works of art. And, both institutions insisted there was only one way to create and present said art. “Real” art, said the Institution, was neo-classical art. These acceptable pieces depicted the same set of myths and Bible stories, all portrayed with familiar, formulaic precision. It was pretty, perfected, and above all tame.

The Impressionists saw another way, craved another way. Truth came at them from odd angles, and they wanted to express the impressions reality made upon them. But the Academy and the Salon had no room for exploration. The new work was considered ugly, inappropriate, and misconstrued. So the new Impressionists broke away. They left paying jobs and secure posts. They gave up the professional credentials and the assured success that  came with membership in the Institution. They risked everything. The Impressionists were reformers — not to make a name for themselves — but because it was the only way to be themselves. 

Take for instance Edgar Degas, a privileged child from a family of wealthy bankers, who painted successfully in the Academic style — until he met the Impressionists. Or Edouard Manet, formally trained and accepted into the Salon, who threw his “opportunities” aside and instead surrounded himself with artists experimenting in new techniques. Or my favorite, Vincent Van Gogh, a seminary student with a guaranteed career in the church, who left it behind to follow the deep pull art, truth, and post-impressionism had on his heart.

I suppose by now you are seeing the parallels that draw me to these rebellious souls. I too had a career which was controlled by two great institutions — the Catholic and the Protestant. I too was set up for immenent success within that system. I too fell in with a crowd of outliers. I too left it all behind to follow a pull towards something “post.” (In this case, post-modernism as opposed to post-impressionism.) Like Van Gogh I battle depression. Like Toulouse-Latrec I work around a broken body. Like Monet I tend to circle around the same source material over and over again.

These are my kinsmen, these heretics we. And in their stories I find comfort.

What great artists are your withmates? Who in history partners you on your journey? Do tell in the comments below. 

Stayed tune for my next Post-Impressionist post: Vincent Van Gogh and The Terrible Need. Join the mailing list or follow me on Twitter and you won’t miss a thing. Thank you for being here!

jess November 24, 2009 at 3:34 pm

wow, love this!

my historical soulmate is Anais Nin. I too believe in breathing, creating, and nurturing healing through love. Whilst exploring the self through writing, feeling, through the body.

peace –

Jolie November 24, 2009 at 5:11 pm

You’re so smart.

Berthe Morisot. She was not only an Impressionist rebel, she was a woman. Who had a real career, and a stable family life. Apparently, it can be done.

Plus, her paintings are magical.

blisschick November 24, 2009 at 6:21 pm

I was the same exact way about Monet’s waterlilies! Oh, too pretty! Too “conventional!” HA!

Then we went to the big Monet show at the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid 90’s, I think? And yep — walked in and was just knocked over. The waterlilies especially. I loved watching him STRUGGLE to capture those. And toward the very end, you could see he was breaking through, into Modernism. Amazing.

Bethany November 24, 2009 at 11:29 pm

I love this post too. I’ll have to get back to you about my artistic soulspirations… but I know that the artists, musicians, and writers who have had the most impact on me have been the ones unafraid to be unique. The bright, uncompromised creativity flowing from path-blazers like Van Gogh can’t help but inspire. A league of extraordinary heretics, like you said (love that!).

kazari November 25, 2009 at 2:16 am

The Musee D’Orsay was an epiphany for me. When we visited Paris, I went in the morning, then back in the afternoon, then again the next morning. I was … gobsmacked.
Like you, I’d seen the posters, but now suddenly I could see what it was all about.

I’ve no idea which artists I feel kinship with. There’s an Australian poet called Gwen Harwood, who seemed to share my recurring concerns (family, suburbia and the australian bush), but she ended up very bitter and twisted. I don’t want that.

Kat November 25, 2009 at 2:00 pm

I don’t know enough about his life to say I’m like him, but Andrew Wyeth’s work speaks to my soul. Growing up with a mother who has post-polio, Christina’s World is a favorite. Wyeth’s window scenes and fields depict a familiar hometown tableau. I grew up with a father that simply adored him and I can see his influence in my dad’s barn paintings. Wyeth’s precision speaks volumes. Just looking at the lace curtain blowing in with the breeze is inspiring. AND I really love this post.

sharon richards November 25, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Thanks for posting this Rachelle. Everytime I get the opportunity to travel to Paris I go to the L’Orangerie and Musee D’Orsay – I never tire of seeing the paintings. I could spend endless hours just sitting looking at the paintings, soaking them in……………so glad and thankful that you got to go.

Kel November 26, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Like you Rachelle, I resonate with some of Van Gogh’s experience. Recently I painted a piece and called it Van Gogh’s Boat (it’s on my blog). I love the way you have described these guys and linked it to post-modern spirituality. Thanks.

Evan November 26, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Great post Rachelle. I really like the link you’ve made between break-away art and break-away faith. It resonates very strongly with me.

My journeys into faith and art have both about discovering new ways to see and understand the world. It’s no surprise then, to find they are connected and feed into each other!

Tracie December 1, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Sally Mann and Joseph Cornell inspire me and stir my soul. The intimacy and silence felt when experiencing Cornell’s work and the love of family and her connection to the south in Mann’s work thrill me.

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