Monet missed a gorgeous sky


November 18, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Has Saturday's sky been reported anywhere? Did anyone make a note of it? Did anyone photograph it? It was such a dazzling sky I can't believe I was the only one to see it and to savor it.

Where's Monet when I need him?

Make a note that this dazzling sky of chameleon clouds and seeping sunshine occurred between the hours of noon and 1:15 p.m. on Nov. 16, 1991. I witnessed its evolution, crescendo and dissolution while standing by a hay pile on a farm that borders the watershed around Prettyboy Reservoir. I was looking south, toward Towson and Baltimore, so I'm certain that someone else in this vast metropolis must have been impressed, too.

Or maybe, Saturday being such a busy shopping day, there wasn't time to notice.

For those who missed it, the sky went something like this:

A large cluster of darkness, the shape of a locomotive and as purple-gray as the most terrifying thunder clouds, appeared from the east and slipped over the brilliant white clouds that had marked the morning sky. The change was so quick it induced awe, in the way sudden summer storms induce awe.

The wind kicked up. I stood there, caught in a squall of wonder, reminded of man's puniness in the great world and fully expecting to be drenched in a hellish downpour, when everything changed.

In what seemed like the very next instant -- though I'm sure the transition actually took several minutes -- white tongues lapped around the edges of the locomotive-cloud. Then sunshine seeped through it. Soon the purple-gray dissolved into deep blues and pinks, feathers of red and orange. I'm sure I saw dabs of silver. A broken chevron of geese flew across the changing sky, toward the southwest.

I felt lucky to have been there, and when I earlier invoked the name of the late Claude Monet, impressionist extraordinaire, I wasn't joking. I wish the artist could have seen this. I don't know if he would have been driven to set up his easel and whip up a painting from such a rapidly changing skyscape -- Monet must have been a patient man -- but I'm sure he would have been inspired. I'm sure the moment would have lingered in Monet's memory, as it has in mine, for another day.

That, after all, is an ingredient to the master's magic. It might be the essence of it.

He captured the impression that lasts -- and speaks forever to all of us -- from moments that might have been as grandiose as Saturday's in Baltimore County or as modest as that long-ago day when Monet stood in the poppy field at Giverny. After seeing his "La Pie," which hangs at Musee d'Orsay in Paris, I was convinced that no one -- no poet, no photographer, no composer -- better understood the melancholy of late-afternoon shadows on a snow-covered day. Go to the Baltimore Museum of Art this week, stand before "The Grainstacks," and you'll feel the searing summer sun; you'll even sense the sweat and dust on a farmer's bare chest.

Through his paintings, the scholars tell us, Monet gave us a new way to see the world. With his work, it became not so important to remember what we saw, but how we saw it. Monet's aim was to produce images that everyone could understand, and his success at this explains why his work is so widely adored.

I never saw the old cottage on the cliffs at Varengeville, but Monet transports me to some place in my memory that is strikingly similar. Was it a summer day in Normandy? A holiday afternoon on the high dunes at Wellfleet? Somewhere along the way, I've felt the warmth of the sun that glares on the roof of that old cottage in Monet's painting.

And didn't we walk through a veil of fog once in our lives? Didn't we all feel what Monet felt when he painted the cathedral at Rouen?

Treat yourself to an hour or so with Monet at the BMA. See and feel what the master of light left us. There might be no better time to do it. Everything in the news these days seems all gloom and doom. The nation is in undeniable economic recession and spiritual depression. If you're feeling the pinch of the times, or feeling a little fearful for the future, or feeling just generally bogged down in worldly woes, step up to Monet's paintings. They provide wonderful tonic. They will put you in touch again with a world that is simple and familiar, a world that passes us by if we don't take time to look up.

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