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Light & Shadow in The Magpie

I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about a snow scene before. I feel bad for January sometimes; after the magic of Christmas and all the lights and music that brighten the dark winter month of December, January is left to fend for itself without all those holiday accoutrements. So thinking about beautiful snow scenes, of which we get very few here in Georgia, is one way to brighten the month a little. This is The Magpie by Claude Monet. He painted it near Etretat in Normandy some time during the winter of 1868 and 1869.

Monet is identified with Impressionism. For all I know he may be the most famous in the movement. Art historians will tell you that one of the major impacts the Impressionists had on the course of art was their contribution to the use of light and color. They aren’t known for their ‘realism’ per se, but very many, Monet in particular, wanted their colors to be what the eye actually saw. This piece is a good example. Take a look at how he painted the effect of sunlight on the snow and how he captured the shadows. There are different hints of yellow and white coming together on the snow and that color gradation is really subtle. Same thing goes for those shadows: far from a lifeless gray, my guess is that they’re a mix of blues with warm tints; maybe there’s some yellow thrown in with a host of other colors. As a result they look more alive. He most likely painted this while he was seated out in this frozen landscape, painting it from life, as it were. I can picture him carefully observing every subtle shadow and every grade of light, paying close attention to the colors he saw. Then, shivering with cold, he would turn to his canvas and meticulously try to duplicate it. As a little experiment, go outside and look at a shadow yourself and try to pick apart the colors you see in there. Your mind may tell you they’re gray but they aren’t. Monet was trying to capture exactly that and he succeeded.   

I also love this painting for a more basic reason. Like with a lot of Impressionist works, when you’re up close to this piece you mostly see the brush strokes and the texture of the paint layers. You won’t see photorealistic stones on the ground or intricate details in the wattle fence. The magpie itself is more of a form or shape, nothing realistic enough to make you think you can reach out and touch it. People love realism so maybe the lack of it will turn them off to Monet’s effort here. But, try this: back away from it by, say, maximizing it on desktop screen and standing across the room. All those strokes and textures disappear and the realistic colors take over. And they take over so well that you feel like you’re looking through your window onto a wintry scene just outside. And with only a little imagination, you’ll feel a winter’s chill.

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