Claude Monet (November 14, 1840—December 5, 1926), born Oscar-Claude Monet, is the lodestar of Impressionism and a precursor of modernism in painting. His depictions of glimpses of nature are among the most famous worldwide.
Monet chose not to pursue his father’s merchant’s business as he wanted to become an artist. His academic studies, supplemented by his early work as a caricaturist, were eventually substituted by personal studies of nature en plein air, a method he was introduced to by the friend Eugène Boudin, a future landscape painter.
At the Académie Suisse art school, Monet made the acquaintance of Camille Pissarro, and soon afterwards did part of his military service in French Algeria (1861-62). This was a truly formative experience for the artist Monet as he was amazed by the colourful glare of the Tunisian environment.
Monet’s first apprenticeship occurred under Jacques-François Ochard, a classicist disciple of David. He subsequently learned from Charles Gleyre (along with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley), and also from Gustave Courbet. Like other innovators of his generation, Monet reacted against the studied formalities of the Realist standard. They were in fact destined to advance the Realist project to its ultimate, pre-avant-garde phase.
Starting the Impressionists
Claude Monet became a part of the informal circle which was soon to pick up the accidental moniker ‘Impressionists’. Having won his first admission to the official Salon in 1865, Monet, like the rest of the group, struggled to be admitted again and suffered the selfsame negative reception because of his experimental technique, despite his positive first outing.
Interestingly, Claude Monet’s Luncheon on Grass could not be finished for the 1865 Salon and would never thereafter be finished at all. Today a much-appreciated instance of the early Monet, it was a version of Édouard Manet’s work of the same name from two years prior and which had attracted so much express dislike when it was shown at the Salon.
He was thus a part of the inaugural 1874 exhibition of the ‘Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers’ which, thanks to his own Impression, Sunrise (1872), came to be described by the art critic Louis Leroy as “Impressionism”.
Exile in London
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Monet sought refuge in London, where he first encountered the landscapes of John Constable and J.M.W Turner. He also met Paul Durand-Ruel, who was to become his art dealer of choice for the rest of his career. For most of his life, Claude Monet struggled with his finances.
The sale of his artworks was often difficult, both in pecuniary and emotional terms. Impression, Sunrise failed to sell for 1,000 francs at the inaugural exhibition and Monet was several times in his life under pressure from creditors.
Monet thought of his abandonment of France in the war of 1870 as a self-imposed exile. To the French soldiers who had died in the First World War, he would instead dedicate his Weeping Willow series.
For a period of five years after 1871 Monet resided in Argenteuil, in north-western France. He also travelled to the nearby Netherlands to see the country’s masters and to paint the emblematic tulip fields.
In Argenteuil Monet took to painting from a boat for the first time and to keeping a garden (Gladioli was painted in this period). The time in Argenteuil is when Monet became intimate with reflections of light and the chromatic projections of the flora onto the surface of the water. From London instead, he brought the habit of creating sketches of motifs for his future paintings — almost the only kinds of preparation that he undertook.
By the end of the 1870s, the Impressionist circle was already moving in various directions, according to primarily the individual artists’ approach to colour. In 1876 Monet lost his first wife, Camille, to illness, a misfortune that ushered in a deeply melancholic period in his life. He turned to darker tones, pastel colours, and barer depictions of nature.
From 1883 Monet began renting a villa in Giverny, in the north of France, which he finally purchased in 1890. Its aquatic garden, constructed around an artificial lake, would become a permanent artistic studio for the rest of his life. He tended to the large garden both in person and through half a dozen gardeners that he was eventually able to employ. He selected the plants on the basis of their chromatic harmonies in the various seasons of the year and their reflections on the surface of the lake. He had a Japanese garden bridge constructed over one part of the lake. It was a part of his passion for Japanese artefacts — he possessed a collection of Japanese wood prints.
Monet’s exceptional gardening project was an attempt to create a nymphaeum: an edenic enclosure consecrated to beautiful expressions of nature. The garden was indeed his primary subject matter for the rest of his life. Its blossoms and groves, and their reflections in the water, he studied with an obsessive love for the fleeting moment in which the impression of beauty occurs.
In the last two decades of his life, Claude Monet suffered from failing eyesight, having suffered from eye troubles from as far back as the 1880s. For a long while, he refused to submit to cataract surgery, having heard of its failures in the cases of some of his friends. He was able afterwards to combine a pair of differently tinted lenses to recover some of his vision. He proceeded to destroy or revise the darkened paintings he had created in the period when his eyesight was weaker. He returned to the warm-cold opposition in pastel colours that he had begun practising in the 1870s.
At the time of his death in 1926, Monet enjoyed a worldwide reputation and the esteem of Georges Clemenceau, the former prime minister, who attended his funeral with reverence.
Claude Monet is likely the most representative Impressionist, the artist whose dedication to light and colour as they are enjoyed in the unrepeatable instant was lifelong and spectacularly developed.
The Impressionists painted primarily en plein air and eschewed preparatory studies. In pursuit of the ineffable instant, Monet painted with quick brushstrokes. In Giverny, surrounded by his affectionately curated lilies, Monet placed himself in an artistic laboratory optimally suited to show the ways in which light reflects and the air plays on the watery surface. This neverending attempt to capture the evanescing glimpse was troubled, as Monet was well aware, by such impossibilities as capturing the impression of the transparency of air.
Monet was less attracted by the rusting scenery than some of his Impressionist friends. His paintings recurrently enclosed a dynamic development inside a scenery, an effect sometimes aided by the presence of human figures, usually, his wives or friends, whose movement and clothes vindicated the lively nature around them.
Critics have argued for the Expressionist value of Monet’s late-life compositions due to the deeply subjective origin of some of his colours. While partially blinded at one time, and later on affected by his cataract operation, Monet noted that he perceived colour differently from before. In his most difficult periods, he relied on his recollection of colours and even on labels that he placed on the tubes.
The series: Rouen Cathedral (1890s) and Water Lilies
One of Monet’s famous studies of a single object in its permutations of light and colour over the course of a day is that of the façade of the cathedral in Rouen, Normandy. This series (1892-93) of over thirty pieces was accomplished by a first painting on-site, from the balcony of a building opposite the façade. Then, in Monet’s studio, the captured moments were filled into completion.
This portrayal of a jewel of the French Gothic was widely appreciated as a modernist rendition of a national treasure in a moment of high patriotic pride. Monet’s series, of which only a select ten canvasses were placed in exhibition, showed the Cathedral in a progression of colourings across the day as the sunlight changes angle and quality.
The collection of water lilies that Monet left behind counts some 250 pieces. Some of the paintings were created as multi-panel compositions while others stand on their own. They constitute a dazzling array of natural colours reflected in specific moments of the day, in particular seasons, and thanks to a preceding artistic arrangement of the flora and a final insertion of an artistic perspective.
Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant, 1872)
The painting which ostensibly gave the name to the Impressionist movement after the 1874 inaugural exhibition depicts the port of Le Havre, Monet’s hometown. A traditional subject matter is thus taken by Monet to be submitted to the Impressionist technique.
The sunrise caught by the artist was likely seen from a boat, despite the notably elevated point of view. The port is found in a state of mist, appearing as if in a struggle with the rosy light of dawn. The red and orange of the sun above the horizon stand in complementary contrast with the mixture of saxe blue and green in the water. Monet’s brushstrokes appear, in this painting intended to exhibit the style, as if given by instinct on the basis of a few patches of colour.