Monet From Different Angles: How to Vary Your Approach to Ekphrastic Writing
Monet has been called the Father of Impressionism. He’s also a second father to my poetry, which is why I’m using him as a prime example of the many ways we can bring art to life in ekphrastic writing.
Most children love to draw when they are young, but I was a bit more serious about art. Somehow my parents couldn’t tell that I was legally blind. Once I got glasses at age four and a half, I couldn’t read or draw enough to suit me. I tried hard to make my pictures look like what I saw – no stick figures for me.
Although avid readers, my family didn’t really appreciate art, and we were given little art education in public schools. So how did I get hooked on Monet and the French Impressionists? By hanging out under “Painting” in the World Book Encyclopedia. I’m surprised I didn’t wear those pages out. Monet and his colleagues got me through more than one research paper. Soon I was asking for art books and checking them out from the library. I think the Impressionists especially appealed to me for two reasons: their bright palettes and the way their blurry world looked much like what I always saw.
In college, although dissuaded from an art major by my parents, I still sneaked in a few art history classes, including French Impressionism. More importantly, I learned that the art instructors were impressed with my art critiques. It still took decades before I began publishing poetry. That’s when Claude Monet moved back into my life.
After writing many poems about my deceased father, Monet became the second leading man of my poems. Visiting France gave me my first big chance to see lots of Monet’s paintings in a single show. We went to Giverny, Musée d’Orsay, and every other museum we could find in other cities. Somehow we overlooked l’Orangerie, where entire rooms overflow with Monet’s waterlilies, but we went back a few years later for that.
Since my husband is a volunteer at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, we often visit several Monet paintings there as well as special exhibits featuring the Impressionists. I often write ekphrastic poems about specific paintings, but the more I get to know him, the more often Monet himself or just his name will pop up in unusual places. In “At the Movies with Monet,” I couldn’t resist taking him to the Tivoli to witness his documentary, I, Claude Monet.
“Naturally, we go to an art house.
Monet remembers the first movies
by the Lumière brothers. I assure
him his art will be shown in full colour….
A loud ringtone at the end of our aisle
makes him jump. Sacré bleu! he explodes….”
In “Today I Feel Like Monet,” I simply share Monet’s certain jubilation about the return of spring. Many of those art books I consulted in college contained lots of black and white photos, which lost all the magic of Impressionism. The poem begins,
“A tedious winter
even for the Midwest –
like page after page
of Impressionist paintings
printed in black and white."
When we finally got to L’Orangerie, I wanted to enlarge my topic, to demonstrate how Monet’s many water lily paintings convey a day’s journey around the pond and to allow Monet to speak for himself by putting a header Monet quote before each of the paintings I featured.
I would like to paint the way a bird sings.
The subject is the light.
…appearance changes at any moment.
It’s terrible how the light runs out.
(from “Surrounded by Monet’s Water Lilies”)
In a more recent poem, “Why I’m Sitting in a French Jail Cell,” I visualize going back to Giverny and jumping into the lily pond – an attempt to uncover the secrets Monet has tucked underwater in his paintings. In my imagination, I also feel free to take the opposite point of view. In “Autopsy,” I express indignation.
“Now curators plan to spend more
than a million dollars on art forensics:…
They want us to watch Monet sweat…
Never mind that true genius
is making it look easy.”
Because Monet has influenced so many artists and this poet, I couldn’t help but invite him into a painting set in France by an American painter. This ekphrastic challenge to Rainy Night at Etaples by William Edouard Scott. Because Scott painted it in 1912, when Monet was still painting and just before WWI, it seemed appropriate to have the French narrator remember this particular night and be reminded of Monsieur Monet’s skill.
“My wet shawl shuddered, my numb
feet shuffled on. Swinging wide to avoid
the corner puddle – almost home, almost
home – I stopped. The swirling water
shimmered under the lamp post
as though posing for Monsieur Monet.”
As you can see, I don’t always wait for a specific work of art to inspire what I write. Think of your own favourite painters. Feel free to sprinkle them into a poem you’re writing about a particular place or season. You’ll be honouring their contribution to how you see the world. (Same goes for music, dance, even ice hockey – part of the writer’s “write what you know” admonition, only we get
to sprinkle our wild imaginations into the mix.)
If you’re curious to see the complete poems, they live in the archives of TER:
“Why I’m Sitting in a French Jail Cell” at
“Le Temps Perdu” at
Alarie Tennille was a pioneer coed at the University of Virginia, where she earned her degree in English, Phi Beta Kappa key, and black belt in Feminism. This is all the bio she chooses to share today since she’s already told you so much of her life in the narrative,
The Ekphrastic Review
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