Impression, Sunrise is a painting that changed the course of the art world just by its title. Painted by Claude Monet in 1872, this masterpiece inspired the name of the Impressionist movement and helped develop what we call modern art. Currently worth about $250-350 million, it hangs in Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris and holds several intriguing stories behind the art. From heavy criticism to the controversial robbery of the painting, Monet grabbed the attention of the world with his perfect yet imperfect brush strokes. Did he want Impression, Sunrise to spark the Impressionist movement or was it a fluke of luck or just a bad joke taken too seriously?
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The concept and the criticism
Impression, Sunrise depicts the port of Le Havre, Monet’s hometown. The genius of a painter that changed the landscape of modern art claimed that he titled the painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’ due to his hazy painting style. In an interview, he said “They wanted a title for the catalogue; it couldn’t really pass as a view of Le Havre, so I answered: “Put down Impression.” Critics say he used this word as a ‘joke’ to excuse his painting from accusations of being unfinished or lacking descriptive detail, but the artist received criticisms regardless of the title. Monet wanted to paint the view of the port of Le Havre at sunrise, which he remarkably did but in a very ‘blurry’ manner. The painting depicts two small rowboats in the foreground with more fishing boats in the middle ground. Behind them, are mostly shapes that are not trees but steamships and on the right, in the distance, there is chimes and masts silhouette against the sky. He wanted to highlight the industrial growth following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Art historians claim that the representation of Monet’s hometown as a centre of commerce and industry is meant to celebrate the renewed strength and beauty of the country. Despite what the painting meant to signify, he was heavily criticised for painting this piece. Most critics did not think Impression, Sunrise was one of the most notable pieces of art when it was first exhibited. Many were confused as to what Monet was trying to show and why the title is called Impression. He was criticised for abandoning old, traditional painting techniques.
Others, however, saw and appreciated how he was portraying landscape in a very different manner. Monet’s Impressionism is mainly about nature and he captured nature as it appeared to him at the moment. He experimented with light and shadow and used very strong colours – which, he didn’t mix. He also used very short brush strokes painted onto the canvas and did not focus on scenes and objects. As he once said: I like to paint as a bird sings.
The robbery
One thing Impression, Sunrise has in common with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a spectacular, movie-worthy theft that left the world gaping at newspapers. The theft of this masterpiece along with eight others took place within five minutes by five masked gunmen on a Sunday morning of October 27, 1985. The gunmen also very politely bought tickets to the museum before they donned their masks and unleashed hell by first taking control of the guards within seconds. The nine works that were primarily stolen consisted of paintings by Monet, but also included portraits depicting the impressionistic master and works by other members of his latter 19th-century circle, such as Renoir and Berthe Morisot. By the time the police were informed of the crime, there was very little they could do because the alarm systems of the museum were only switched on during closing hours.
Time passed, and it appeared as if all hope was lost. However two years later, in 1987, Commissioner Mireille Balestrazzi, head of a special police art thievery unit, travelled to Japan to recover four paintings by French landscape painter Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. Balestrazzi received a tip-off that a Japanese collector had thought of buying one of the nine paintings and there were links to Yakuza, Japan’s most infamous criminal organisation. Yakuza member Shuinichi Fujikuma was one of the culprits responsible for masterminding the Marmottan theft and even had the four Corot paintings. When he was arrested for trafficking heroin in 1978, he made the acquaintance of Youssef Khimoun and Philippe Jamin, who were part of an art theft syndicate The three criminals plotted the heist of in Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris behind bars. Finally, in 1990, the nine paintings were recovered from an unoccupied villa in the Corsican town of Porto-Vecchio. Thankfully, the paintings had only suffered minor, reparable damage, mostly from humidity. Although this case was solved, questions remain as to why it took over three years to recover the paintings when the gangster who was part of masterminding the theft was found with the stolen Corot pieces and why were players in Japan’s criminal underbelly so willing to tip off French authorities? The mystery regarding the identity of the fice masked gunmen still remains unsolved as well.
Be it the heart-racing heist or the mystery that still surrounds it, Impression, Sunrise is an epitome of modern art. This style of painting is still studied by art lovers and there is much to learn from its graceful yet short brush strokes of Monet.
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Khyati RajvanshiKhyati Rajvanshi is a Digital Audio News Editor. She writes on Art and… read more


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