Sense of Place

Does "a biological sense of place" help in creating art? by Jeannine Cook

Yesterday, I alluded to the question that I kept thinking about when I was working as Artist in Residence in Dinan, Brittany, through Les Amis de la Grande Vigne: does it help an artist to know well the area when he or she is painting, either en plein air, or creating work that is connected to a sense of place?

I think that a sense of comfort and familiarity frees up the artist to concentrate more on the actual art. It is really almost the same as "terroir", the biological sense of place that wine-growers talk of when they refer to specific geographical areas dictating certain characteristics in the wine produced from those regions. If you intrinsically know the place where you are working as an artist, you know, almost intuitively, the possible plays of light on the scene, the patterns, the rhythms of tides or seasons, the soils, the type of plants that grown there, etc. Because you already have this knowledge deep inside you, you can factor things in more easily as you are working. Understanding how the area "functions" means that you are not struggling so much to convey its character when you are drawing or painting.

Claude Monet is perhaps one of the most famous artists who used his sense of place, or "terroir", to allow him to produce extraordinary art. Starting with his famous series of 25 paintings of Haystacks, for instance, in 1890, Monet got to know those stacks of hay in all their times of day and weather.

Haystacks - Snow Effect, 1891, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum)

Haystacks - Snow Effect, 1891, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum)

His interest in producing series of paintings continued almost unabated until the end of his life in 1926. He explored the different aspects of Poplars along the river banks in all weather and times of day. Rouen Cathedral was another series which showed his fascination with this mighty structure in its amazing diversities of light. Perhaps the most celebrated, in terms of his sense and knowledge of place, is his huge body of work , "Les Nympheas", painted at his home, Giverny, based on the waterlilies growing in the pond he created. There are 250 canvases in the series, many showing his eyesight problems with cataracts. Nonetheless, his knowledge of Giverny was almost visceral, since he had virtually created the place. This familiarity allowed him to paint masterpieces that have captivated the world ever since.

Monet's example makes a very good case for an artist to get to know an area as thoroughly as possible when creating art. Maybe "terroir" is as desirable for artists as it is for wine-growers!