It’s impossible to overstate the power of light. Claude Monet understood how subtle variances could affect color and texture and he returned again and again to paint exact landscapes changed only by cloud conditions, seasonality or time of day. His twenty-five canvas series known as Haystacks displays this tremendous power to affect perception.
Bridging art to literature, in his book, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway wrote
If I walked down by different streets to the Jardin du Luxembourg in the afternoon I could walk through the gardens and then go to the Musée du Luxembourg where the great paintings were that have now mostly been transferred to the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume. I went there nearly every day for the Cézannes and to see the Manets and the Monets and the other Impressionists that I had first come to know about in the Art Institute at Chicago. I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone.
Light has also been equated since antiquity as a metaphor of wisdom. A constant subject can be understood in wide range solely dependent on an individual’s depth of understanding. C.S. Lewis said “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Where simple minds see circumstance, enlightened minds see eternity.
Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.
Haystacks (series) by Claude Monet
Haystacks is a title of a series of impressionist paintings by Claude Monet. The primary subjects of all of the paintings in the series are stacks of hay in the field after the harvest season. The title refers primarily to a twenty-five canvas series (Wildenstein Index Number 1266-1290) begun in the end of summer of 1890 and continued through the following spring, using that year’s harvest. Some use a broader definition of the title to refer to other paintings by Monet with this same theme. The series is known for its thematic use of repetition to show differences in perception of light across various times of day, seasons, and types of weather. The subjects were painted in fields near Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny, France.
The series is among Monet’s most notable works. Although the largest collections of Monet’s work is held in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay and Musée Marmottan Monet, other notable Monet collections are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. Six of the twenty-five haystacks pieces in this series are currently housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Other museums that hold parts of this series in their collection include: the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut (which also has one of five from the earlier 1888-9 harvest), the National Gallery of Scotland, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Kunsthaus Zürich, and the Shelburne Museum, Vermont. Several private collections also hold Haystack paintings.
Literature & Liturgy: Light
Thomas Wolfe wrote in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had been badgering him about his lack of economy and form: “Don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.” (From The Crack-Up.)Wolfe himself was a mighty putter-inner. He could hardly let a character pass a hardware-store window without enumerating every tool in it; and the sights and sounds of afternoon in a familiar town set him into a sensuous frenzy: “Light came and went and came again, the great plume of the fountain pulsed and winds of April sheeted it across the Square in a rainbow gossamer of spray. The fire department horses drummed on the floors with wooden stomp, most casually, and with dry whiskings of their clean, coarse tails. The street cars ground into the Square from every portion of the compass and halted briefly like wound toys in their familiar quarter-hourly formula. A dray, hauled by a boneyard nag, rattled across the cobbles.… The courthouse bell boomed out its solemn warning of immediate three.…” (From The Hills Beyond.)
This is a passage worth study, particularly for its choice of strong and active verbs: “pulsed,” “sheeted,” “drummed,” “ground,” “rattled,” “boomed.” It is certainly not seven eighths below the surface, as Hemingway said icebergs are and stories should be. It is piled on, heaped until it runs over.
Differing from either method is the impressionism of such a writer as Anton Chekhov, who said, “You will get the full effect of a moonlight night if you write that on the mill-dam a little glowing star-point flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round, black shadow of a dog, or a wolf, emerged and ran.” In that same impressionist manner, Stephen Crane carries the reader along with a fatally wounded soldier walking to some quiet place to die. The whole passage is like a prolonged silent scream, and it ends with a single staring phrase: “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.”
Most potential writers are omnivorous readers, and in the nature of things an apprentice is sure to imitate. He has no other way to learn. Although he may try very hard to “develop a style of his own,” his real style will be a long time in developing and will parallel or reflect the development of his own mind and sensibility. The best way to find the style that naturally fits him is to follow Hemingway’s method and simply try to state purely whatever is before his eyes.
Sources & Resources
Hughes, M. Y. “Milton and the Symbol of Light.” Ten Perspectives on Milton (1965), 63-103; Miles, J. “From Good to Bright: A Note in Poetic History.” PMLA 60 (1945), 766-74; Major Adjectives in English Poetry from Wyatt to Auden (1946), 408-21; Von Simpson, O. The Gothic Cathedral (1956), 21-58, 91-141; Williams, G. W. Image and Symbol in the Sacred Poetry of Richard Crashaw (1963), chap. 4.