In Focus: the flâneur

Claude Monet (1840-1926), 'Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat', 1874. © National Gallery of Ireland.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), 'Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat', 1874. © National Gallery of Ireland.Credit
In our ongoing adult learning series, we link works from our collection with key art historical, theoretical or philosophical texts. Aimed especially at third-level students, but accessible to all, this series aims to support in-depth engagement with our collection and the selected texts. 

In this post, we consider Claude Monet’s fishing boat, which he used as a floating studio, in the context of the flâneur, a wandering observer of urban spaces.

Key artwork: 

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, 1874

Key text:

 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, M The Flâneur p.416 - 455

[via Monkskop]

In this discussion we will link the concept of the flâneur (one who strolls the streets with a keen observational eye) with Claude Monet’s experience of drifting through the Argenteuil Basin on the boat that he used as his ‘floating studio’. Although we will be considering Monet in a context other than that of one of the key figures of the French Impressionist movement, this post will nonetheless help us to understand elements of Impressionism. 

Impressionist painting, most often practiced as plein air painting (painting outdoors), prioritises the articulation of perceptions of light. Monet was committed to capturing his impressions of nature in the French countryside; he exemplified this commitment by painting the same scene again and again, in an effort to harness specific light from a time in the day, a method which was also useful in recording shifts in the seasons. 

Monet purchased an old fishing boat in Argenteuil on the outskirts of Paris, where he moved in 1871. He describes the acquisition of this boat, saying “a fair wind had brought me just enough money in one go to buy a boat and have a wooden cabin built on it just big enough to set up an easel”. 

For this discussion, a key thing to consider is that Monet’s floating studio allowed him to paint views that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Through its use, Monet created a space in which he could access scenes of the Argenteuil and Giverny, allowing him to observe and document from a distance. We can make connections between this way of painting and the gaze of the flâneur. 

Monet relished understanding how optical effects influenced his perception of the world. Impressionism helps us to understand colour as light, and colour as pigment. Colour theory draws on the colour spectrum, which is made up of light. In painting, particularly Impressionism, we experience colour as solid stuff (synthetic or solid pigments) that depicts colour as light. The way Monet recorded light was by focusing attention on a particular iteration of light in a space, all the while knowing that the same space would transform into multiple other versions as a result of the changing properties of a day or a season. To capture something as fleeting as light on a particular day, or in a particular instant, an artist needs to possess a sense of immediacy both in perception, and in the application of paint. If we imagine the gaze of the Impressionist painter, it chases what is fleeting and renders its appearance into paint on the surface. Monet’s floating studio and his method of repeatedly painting the same scene finds parallels in the flâneur. 

The flâneur, who has his origins in 19th century France, is an individual, male in this context (more recently, a female equivalent has been defined as a flâneuse, explored in detail by the writer Lauren Elkin in her book of the same name) who strolls through city streets closely observing all its accompanying associations. The flâneur has the ability and the time to wander society while also being removed from it. His purpose is to observe society and only that: he therefore appears aimless. 

While Monet observed light, most often in natural settings, the urban setting of Paris was where the flâneur experienced a phantasmagoria, captivated by sequences of images, creating clashes of meaning from that which he observed in the city. Can we compare Monet’s floating studio, drifting through Argenteuil, with the flâneur roaming Parisian streets? Can the movement of light on water share the vitality of a bustling market? Does a specific light shimmering on branches and leaves echo the endlessly stimulating details of a busy city arcade? The flâneur, a poet in the streets, sees the world through a kaleidoscope, finds solitude in a crowd, and delights in anonymity. He treats everyday life as its own creative space. He thrives in the demands of immediacy, observing the fleeting in the moment in which they occur. 

The flâneur has been used to explain modern alienation, and gender and class divisions in Western cities of the 19th century. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) saw a need for artists to immerse themselves in the new social and economic realities that were brought on by industrialisation. In his view, traditional art did not have a place in this newly complex modern world. For Baudelaire, the artist needed to become “a botanist of the sidewalk”. This was considered an essential role that the metropolis demanded; a role that was responsible for understanding and portraying a city.  

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. (Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, (Le Figaro), 1863)

The flâneur is a key motif in The Arcades Project, a major work by the 20th century philosopher and critical theorist, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). An unfinished work written between 1927 and 1940, The Arcades Project was a monumental collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century. It focused on the glass and iron covered arcades which predated department stores and were a prominent feature of 19th century Western cities. Paris had exceptional examples of these glass-roofed corridors lined with shops, brimming with desirable goods.

After Benjamin’s death, The Arcades Project was left unfinished in multiple parts. Its form was highly innovative in its time, and it is considered by many to be one of the most significant critical theory works of the 20th century. It is presented as a montage of extracts by 19th century writers and contemporaries of Benjamin’s, with intermittent commentary from Benjamin himself. Readers are invited to combine textual fragments and experience comparative thinking. A version of this unfinished text was posthumously edited in 1982, and the flâneur is situated from a Marxist standpoint: a bourgeois dilettante, and a product of modern life. 

Benjamin’s text takes the flâneur in multiple directions, presenting the reader with the potential for imaginative flashes of thought by connecting sections on the flâneur with other elements of the text. The gaze of Monet in his floating studio, the kaleidoscopic nature of the flâneur’s gaze and indeed Benjamin’s fragmented approach to this project, can all be considered in the context of one another. Benjamin offers ideas on the flâneur using language that signifies the experience of the painter, describing the flâneur’s strolling as an accumulation of “momentum”, and the city as a “landscape” that “feeds…sensory data”. 

He also includes a quote from physician Jean François Dancel that captures a static stance of the sailor: 

"When one is sailing on a river or lake, one's body is without active movement . . . .The skin experiences no contraction, and its pores remain wide open and capable of absorbing all the emanations and vapors of the surrounding environment…" (Dancel, 1846)

This is an idea that we can twist for the purposes of this discussion: while in his floating studio, Monet’s body was almost fully stationary, his motion dependent on the mechanisms of the boat. There is, however, another element of motion at play - the act of looking and painting. This eye movement or fixation on a brief veil of light can be understood as an exception to this image of the stationary sailor, bringing Monet in his floating studio closer still to the wandering, mobile flâneur. 

When we look at the painting Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, we can see that it embodies one of the key motifs of Impressionism, with short, thin brushstrokes. Here, we don’t see crowds: we see water, trees and a single sailboat. The silence of Monet’s observation echoes the subtle footsteps of the flâneur. Monet found subjects for his painting from his immediate environment, which he  perceived from a somewhat removed and objective eye. His determination to observe scenes of the River Seine from his floating studio brings Monet conceptually closer to observers of the modern metropolis nearby.  

 

Questions: 

How can we compare observations of natural spaces e.g. a river versus constructed spaces like a department store? 

Can we understand constructed spaces like cities as a part of nature? 

What are the sociopolitical implications of the existence of the flâneur in 19th century cities? 

In your view, can a version of the flâneur exist in digital space? 

 

Further reading: 

Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life Translated by Jonathan Maine (1964) London, Phaidon Press.

Sontag, Susan, (1977) On Photography, USA & Canada, Penguin Books. 

 

Written by: Jennie Taylor, National Gallery of Ireland 

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