SUNLIGHT stroking the heads of poppies, waterlilies which pull viewers deep into reverie, a cathedral dissolving in morning shadows -- these are paintings which leave you blinded by the richness of the world.
"Claude Monet: Impressionist Masterpieces," an exhibition of 32 paintings opening Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, shows why the images of French Impressionist Claude Monet are among the most beloved -- and most reproduced -- of all times. It is a passage through lands which are achingly familiar.
Monet has achieved his greatness, scholars agree, because he excelled at the Impressionists' goal to produce universally understood images.
Monet is a painter who shows what it is to be human. Or, as art scholar Charles Stuckey puts it, he shows what it is to see like a human.
Generally distracted, on the run, scanning ahead, glancing back, people absorb much of their lives in blinks and glimpses, he says.
"Paintings out of focus seem to be something very, very familiar to us," says Stuckey, curator of 20th century painting and sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago. "The Impressionists strived to isolate what were the most familiar sorts of visual situations: things like the glance, or reflections of light. And everyone could relate to the Impressionists' pictures. They reached a kind of lingua franca which has never lost its appeal."
Stuckey speculates that the photographically exact image -- cameras were widely used by the mid-19th century -- proved to Monet how artificial the Academy painters' meticulously constructed compositions were. In the BMA's show, large photo murals of actual Monet landscapes and garden scenes serve the same purpose.
"The photograph looks exactly like what you saw, but nothing like how you saw. No artists before the Impressionists had been interested in the most common forms of looking. The ideal of making an absolute replica of the visual ingredients in a field of vision suddenly seemed inhuman to the Impressionists. It became obvious for what it had always been: an abstraction rather than a real experience."
"Monet asked himself, 'What could everyone respond to?' "
His vision of beauty has an edge to it -- of frustration or melancholy, perhaps; the paintings remind you of the impossibility of ever owning an experience.
But they let you reach for it again.
"Whether it's a specific street scene, or a view of the sea, or the landscape, you look into the painting and see the universe," says Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "You see what you want to see in these paintings. It may be the poppy fields of Giverny, but the scene elicits memories of all the wonderful landscapes which viewers have in their minds already.
"Monet was really concerned with how you translate atmosphere -- the ambience, the emotional states of the world, its light, its color -- to canvas. I think he was not truly interested in the subject matter -- although he painted wonderful portraits and figure studies -- except as a way to get at various emotional states."
The artist attempted to translate the meaning of the world through its streaks of color and light rather than the form of its objects. As Monet and his fellow Impressionists worked to perfect this visual language, they hunted for instinctive, daily kinds of beauty. They concentrated on domestic moments, incidental street scenes and ordinary landscapes which had been snubbed by previous generations of artists.
By the mid 1880s, Monet had established himself as the leading European painter. A colony of artists had blossomed near his home at Giverny and wealthy American collectors -- particularly Bostonians -- were buying his work. They were among the first to do so.
"When collectors went to Europe and wanted to know what was going on, they talked to American artists who were incredibly impressed by Monet. That had something to do with why he caught on so quickly in America," says Stuckey.
Others point to his use of such subjects as Rouen Cathedral and the Norman seaports, which were beloved by wealthy tourists.
"His painting is filled with expressive spontaneity and the hedonistic love of the out-of-doors which we associate with our summertime travel and leisure," says Impressionist scholar Robert Herbert, author of "Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society," (Yale University Press.)
"In particular, it features beautiful flowers and the view of nature which we associate with a certain kind of culture. It's part of the American conception of what beauty is. And it's part of urban escapism from the cares of the present day."
Perhaps only a partial escape. Herbert thinks the fleeting states of being which Monet portrays may now stimulate Americans' apprehensions about the fragility of the environment.
"He stirs these feelings in the constantly shifting brush work that's the basis of his art. Monet seems to take us to another realm, but when we get there, he expresses our very anxiety about it."
More proof that his canvases continue to offer sanctuary for admirers' various projections. It's no wonder people gather in long, long lines to savor the originals of the posters and calendars and note cards they buy year, after year, after year.
There's another reason, too.
"They are just such luscious, gorgeous paintings that even the most hard-edged Minimalist/Modernist -- such as myself -- can't resist them," Lehman says.
"You look at this grain stack and you see that somehow Monet has built light into this picture. It burns, it absolutely burns. The light that reflects from this painting creates a sensation in itself. This glow, this light -- I don't know who else can do that."