A Vision of the Ephemeral

"He begged mankind to witness a beauty on the edge of being lost."

--Alexander Eliot, on Monet

  Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight  1892    Washington, D.C., USA

Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight 1892 Washington, D.C., USA

Recently, I stumbled upon Sight and Insight, a book about art by Alexander Eliot.  I was looking for a completely different book, but for reasons unknown, the reference librarian went and dug this one out of storage for me.  I voraciously devoured it and came upon this evocative paragraph:

"Monet, poring over the light on Rouen Cathedral, saw not an edifice of eternal hope, but rather a vision of the ephemeral.  "This stone facade, his paintings seem to say, "is rosy as flesh, delicate as hair, and fading fast with the fading light, crumbling into shadow."  At his easel Monet was a frenzied athlete holding back the dusk.  He begged mankind to witness a beauty on the edge of being lost.  Not that he lacked faith in the morning: he knew the sun would rise again--and set again-- but not for every man, not forever for any man, not very long for anyone."

Rouen Cathedral: Full Sunlight 1894 Louvre, Paris

Monet painted more than thirty canvases depicted the Rouen Cathedral, during the years 1892 and 1893.  Although it is the same physical cathedral in each painting, it is also a different one.  So much has changed: the light, the time of day, the atmosphere, even Monet's own inner emotions.  Fluid, elusive, ephemeral...

Rouen Cathedral, Facade (sunset), harmonie in gold and blue Musée Marmottan Monet Paris, France  1892-1894

Looking at these paintings, I wonder: am I as inconstant as the Rouen Cathedral?  Certainly, I am not the same person as that 9-year-old girl, making up imaginary worlds in the woods behind her house, or that 19-year-old, sleeping in a hammock high up in the trees, needing nothing at all, it seems, but water, love, and starlight.  I don't even feel like I am that same 29-year-old mother, with a baby and a toddler, happily overwhelmed with nursing, changing diapers, baking bread, and keeping house.

These memories of myself float away like dreams.

La cathédrale de Rouen, le portail, temps gris (Rouen Cathedral, the West Portal, Dull Weather) Musee d'Orsay, Paris, painted 1892

Perhaps, like Monet's cathedral, I myself change as rapidly as the sunlight changes on the side of a building.  From hour to hour, I go through a complete metamorphosis, from dawn, to full sunlight, to the mysterious shadows of coming darkness... 

I keep busy to forget my mortality.  Each mundane task takes on importance; each little drama crowds out the blank emptiness of eternity.  But in a hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand years, perhaps, all of my paintings will turn to dust.  And even the paintings of those great artists whom I admire, they too, will be gone.

 "This stone facade, [Monet's] paintings seem to say, "is rosy as flesh, delicate as hair, and fading fast with the fading light, crumbling into shadow."

Rouen Cathedral, Facade and the Tour d'Albane. Grey WeatherMusée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, 1894

The most beautiful, the most precious, the most poignant of all human experiences, are those that are ephemeral: lilacs blooming in the spring, the world glittering under newly-fallen snow, a color-drenched sunset... And of course childhood, especially that of one's own children.  How did they suddenly grow up so fast? 

It is one of the responsibilities of our brief, miraculous existence, to appreciate the beauty of the ephemeral, and not only to appreciate it ourselves, but to share it with everyone around us.  It is our responsibility, and also, our deepest joy.  And for this, we have Art.

'Rouen Cathedral in the Fog' 1894

"He begged mankind to witness a beauty on the edge of being lost.  Not that he lacked faith in the morning: he knew the sun would rise again--and set again-- but not for every man, not forever for any man, not very long for anyone."