Reflections on the Clark 1: Pace and Patience

This is the first of three pieces inspired by my visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown MA.

The Cliffs at Etretat, Claude Monet. Part of the Clark Art Institute permanent collection.

Let’s look at excerpts from three curatorial cards on three different paintings in the Clark’s permanent collection.

Inness often worked on his paintings over extended periods. He started this painting in 1882, making changes to the composition and the color over the next three years.

George Inness, Scene at Durham, an Idyll, 1882-85

He developed this painting from the preparatory sketch and study, working on it intermittently over the next twenty years.

Theodore Rousseau, Farm in the Landes, 1844-67

Between October and December 1885, Monet made nearly fifty paintings of the Normandy coast.

Claude Monet, The Cliffs of Etretat, 1885

So these three remarkable paintings, all (to use the wonderful formulation of Komar and Melamid) about the size of a dishwasher, took three years… or twenty three years… or a long day.

We have several illusions of the artist, one of which is the hermit who shuts himself or herself away in the studio for years and finally emerges with a fully-worked masterpiece, every stroke under full control, every stroke in fact reconsidered and scraped away and painted over, again and again. And finally, on one glorious and exhausted day, the master emerges into the afternoon light, bearing the full expression of his or her vision. The value of the work resides, at least in part, in the labor invested in it, like a car. Or a dishwasher.

But here’s Monet, who painted one of these landscapes every day or two for three months, in the winter when he was 45. What are we to make of that? Is it somehow less? Less thoughtful, less noble, less trustworthy?

I was struck by these three exhibit cards because, for the past two weeks, I’ve been in the full throes of story. I started the current book back in August, bumping my way along for a few weeks, getting my footing. Every stroke reconsidered, and scraped away, and written over, again and again. But since the second week of November—in the swirl of a super-busy period of town governance and the aftermath of a failed financing vote—the manuscript has grown from about 20,000 words to 65,000. It has been a (dare I say it?) Monet-like burst of full attention and full immersion and waking up every day to see what these characters have done.

Part of me doesn’t trust it, because it’s come so fast and so fluid. Rationally, I read it and it feels true. Rationally, I know that I’ve been writing steadily for fifty years, and so the woodshed is filled. But emotionally, there’s a nagging unease, the sense that its quality must somehow be compromised by its pace of arrival.

I am eased, a little, by my long-lapsed Lutheran heritage, and Martin Luther’s famous formulation Salvation not by works, but by grace alone. Sometimes the story comes through labor; sometimes it is simply a gift, one that we should accept with gratitude, and not squander through mistrust.