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Capturing the Motion. Monet and Hockney

The attempt to capture the essence of changing into a still image is one of the great dilemmas of painters of all times. Theoretically, it is impossible to depict an imperceptible movement of a dancer, the color nuances at the sunset, or the light flight of a butterfly in a picture that intrinsically can not move (Paull, 2019). However, many avant-garde movements have developed various approaches and reached unique achievements. Cubism, Futurism, and Optical Art are some artistic currents traditionally associated with the idea of motion. This paper will compare two influential artists, Claude Monet and David Hockney, and how they have succeeded in incorporating motion in their work through the analysis of two artworks: the paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral by Monet and The Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods by Hockney. The artworks are compared from two main perspectives: how the composition conveys the feeling of motion, and how the coeval scientific thoughts and technological advances informed the pieces of art.

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Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a major exponent of Impressionism. This art movement lasted a hundred years, from 1830 to 1926, and paved the way for many of the most significant avant-gardes of the twentieth century, such as Fauvism and Cubism (Hanafy, 2016). Impressionism developed as a reaction to Neoclassicism and Realism and rejected the cultural apparatus revolving around the Royal Academy. The subjects were landscapes, portraits, or everyday life, while the new artistic ideas circulated in the Impressionist Cafés. The core goal of Impressionist painters was to depict fleeting moments of light, and the artist became the focus of the creative process (Paull, 2019). Monet contributed to shaping the movement through his Plein air approach to painting and his obsession with depicting the ephemeral quality of light.

Unlike Monet, David Hockney, cannot be affiliated with a specific artistic movement. Hockney, born in England in 1937, is one of the most prominent contemporary artists. At the beginning of his career, Hockney was associated with British Pop Art, and he strengthened bonds with the American avant-garde movement through many journeys across the States. However, the summa of his paintings can hardly be categorized into one artistic current and his works contain expressionist, realist, and impressionist elements. At the turn of the millennium, the impressionist inspiration became more consistent, as testified by the 2012 exhibition A Bigger Picture: a series of plain air paintings that revisited the impressionistic approach to landscape composition. Besides paintings, Hockney has pioneered the opportunities offered by photography and motion pictures. His landscape and Polaroid collages of the 1980s not only aim at fixing instantaneous changes within one artwork but try to involve viewers in a narrative where they can experience time and motion.

Between 1892 and 1894, Monet produced a series of twenty-six paintings of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral. The series is a monumental study on the effect of changing daylight and represents a peak in the attempt to capture and fix the essence of movement on the canvas. Moreover, the paintings display only a section of the façade, switching the focus on the personal experience rather than on the objective representation of the front of the cathedral. To create the impression of motion, Monet introduces distortion and unique light effects (Paull, 2019). The paintings look blurred and shimmering because of the large number of spatial imprecision and equally luminant spots: since the eye cannot distinguish them, the brain processes the blurring and the glittering movements.

A similar approach, yet informed with modern technology, was proposed in 2011 by Hockney. The Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods is an innovative artwork where the public can experience the changing of colors, light, as well as slight variations of perspective. The installation comprises four 9-channel video walls showing the same view, a country road in Yorkshire. Each wall corresponds to a season, while the subdivision in nine videos is a development of Hockney’s work with the photo collages where different viewpoints and perspectives create a landscape narrative to experience movement and time. In the Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods combines multiple consecutive moments within the same time and space (Hanna, 2018). Each video offers a unique perspective, and the public goes through a multi-time experience while the peripheral view catches different angles, colors, and light nuances.

Notably, the series of Monet’s paintings mirror the contemporary scientific advancements, especially regarding Isaac Newton’s color theory (Hanafy, 2016). In the Rouen cathedral series, Monet explored the way human eyes process colors through spatial imprecision to stimulate the receptors of the peripheral view. It is worth noting that the innovative use of colors was made possible by the discovery of new dyes and the invention of the collapsible paint tube by the American painter John G. Rand in 1841 (Paull, 2019). These findings impacted the impressionist artists dramatically: on the one hand, Plein air painting became feasible as the paint tube prevented the oil colors from drying before using them; on the other hand, the availability of new pigments gave impressionist painters more chances to explore colors and light effects.

Similarly, the work of Hockney could not have been possible without the large use of cutting-edge technology, and its influence is even more explicit in Hockney than in Monet. Throughout his career, the British artist has explored various art expressions beyond the traditional canvas: besides the innovative approach to photography, Hockney is a pioneer in digital paintings and has resorted to devices like the iPad, iPhone, and computer to sketch relevant artworks (Hanafy, 2016). Digital painting multiplies the artists’ chances to follow their artistic flow freely and fix their inspiration instantaneously. Moreover, digital tools such as colors, brushes, and light effects can be adjusted to enhance luminance and saturation or to increase the quality of the details. Digital videos represent a step further in boosting the sensorial aesthetic experience as they foster a dynamic approach that is unimaginable with traditional painting techniques.

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In different historical periods and with different techniques, Monet and Hockney have strived to incorporate movement in their artworks. Monet, rather than trying to depict changing, created the impression of it: through the use of spatial imperfections and uniform luminance of colors, he added distortion to create the sensation of motion in the viewer’s brain. Hockney adopted a multi-perspective approach to involve the public in discovering the artwork through different viewpoints. Conceptually, Hockney’s Four Seasons can be seen as a modern version of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, informed with innovative technologies and means of communication. Both artists applied advanced coeval theories or technologies to offer a personal experience to the public, enabling them to embrace the ephemeral changes within a frameset by the artists.


Hanafy, I.M. (2016). The impact of era features and characteristics on landscape painting. A critical study of Joseph Turner and David Hockney. International Journal of Art and Art History, 4(2), 79–89. Web.

Hanna, N. (2018). David Hockney: Time and more, space and more… THE SEEN. Web.

Paull, M. S. (2019). Moving in an instant: The paradox of Monet’s motion paintings. [Doctoral Dissertation, Faculty of Wesleyan University]. Web.

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