Art History: Claude Monet (1840-1926)

       Oscar Claude Monet was born on November 14, 1840 in Paris, France.  His father was a merchant and Monet struggled as a young boy to obey both his parents and his teachers.  By age 15, he was making more money than his teachers by doing charcoal caricatures of tourists, although his father was not impressed.  

     In 1858 at 18, Monet met Eugene Boudin, who introduced the young artist to painting landscapes and en plein air.  He was still wild and greatly depended on his family’s allowances to get by.  In 1860 he was up for military duty and his father felt this would give Monet the discipline he needed.  After two years of service, Monet returned home with typhoid fever.  He moved to his aunt’s home to recover, and with her encouragement and financial support, Monet decided to seriously study art at the studio of Charles Gleyre.  Here he met fellow students Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille.  Monet would continue to rebel any form of formal art instruction, leaving his family to wonder why he never “finished” his paintings.  He painted with loose, dabbed on color and never had a crisp edge or shape to his subjects.  They never met the traditional standards set by critics and public review and were often called unfinished sketches.  Frustrated, Monet and Bazille would continue to paint en plein air, and he began studying informally how the effects of natural light could be recreated on canvas in a landscape or portrait.  Still, the artists needed to generate some sort of income.   

       Prior to the 1860’s, the salons (galleries) of Paris catered to their clientele with traditional, realistic represen-tations of landscapes, animals, and formal portraits.  To veer away from conservative realism was to cut short any possibility of a career in art.  The public and newspaper critics alike simply did not entertain the thought of non-traditional paintings.   

      Enter Claude Monet and company.  With his fellow artists Edourd Manet, Renoir, Sisley, and Paul Cezanne, just to name a few, they transformed the notion of “acceptable” art being strictly tightly rendered realism into a wider range that included looser brushstrokes, with suggestions of shape and color.  The Paris Salon was the annual state-run juried exhibition which could make or break an artist’s career.  In 1863, Monet and his fellow artists entered the exhibition and were vehemently rejected to the point of causing a media circus and scandal.  So much so in fact that then Emperor Louis Napoleon III ordered the rejected works to be shown in an exhibition at the Palais de l’Industrie titled “Salon de Refuses”.  More rejection and scandal over subject matter and technique would ensue over the next few years, with many of Monet’s group struggling to survive.  

      During the 1860’s, Monet was dependent on the support of family and friends.  He often could not pay his rent, and with fiancée Camille and an infant son, Jean to support, he confided to a friend that he even considered suicide in 1868.  He continued to paint hundreds of canvases, many of which he stored at the home of fellow artist Camille Pissarro.  When the Franco-Prussian war erupted in 1870, Pissarro and Monet headed to London.  The Prussian army proceeded to take control of Pissarro’s home and the works of both artists were used by the soldiers as mats to keep their feet dry.  

     Once in London, Monet met art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who was able to sell his work on a more regular basis.  With the new friendship in place, Monet headed back to France where he had left his family behind in Paris, which had been hit hard by the war.  Finally, in 1874 an exhibition was held with the group of artists that had been so scandalous a decade earlier.  Monet entered his “Impression-  Sunrise”, (1872).  The critics termed the show “Impressionism”, coined from Monet’s title, and the term fit perfectly.  However, success would be overshadowed by grief.  In 1876 Camille contracted tuberculosis.  Two years later she gave birth to their second son, Michel, but her illness immediately worsened, and she passed away in September of 1879.   

"Impression- Sunrise" oil, circa 1872 by Claude Monet, collection Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris

      The following year Monet entered the Salon and began having success with one man shows.  By the early 1880’s he was earning enough income from his art that he gave up exhibiting altogether.  He could finally paint what he wanted.  In 1883 Monet moved his sons and Alice Hoeschede (she had been the caretaker of Monet’s family since her husband had left her years earlier, and she and Monet would later marry) and her six children to Giverny.  At Giverny Monet created gardens and a lily pond, a visual paradise for the artistic senses.  Other artists started to visit the estate to take advantage of its beauty.  Many of the barns became artist’s studios, and it eventually became an artist’s colony.  With financial security and a home he loved, Monet began to paint diligently, at set hours, usually outside.  He began painting pictures in series, to show the difference that time, lighting, weather, etc. had on a single subject, such as haystacks in nearby fields.  Many of these series, such as the Water Lilies, were as large as 77 1/2″ x 502″.  

      Monet was not to be a content and happy person.  He always felt he needed to paint more, and he retouched paintings many times.  The older he got the more he redid, much to the dismay of family and friends.  Occasionally he would completely destroy a canvas because he was dissatisfied.  In 1911, Alice passed away, then in 1914, his eldest son Jean.  Monet could only find solace in painting. However, this was becoming more and more of a challenge.  His vision had deteriorated to the point he had trouble distinguishing color.  It was obvious in his series “Water Lilies”, leaving him frustrated and threatening to destroy the entire series.  Finally, in 1923 he reluctantly agreed to have one eye operated on for cataract.  With his sight restored in one eye, Monet set to the task of reworking the Water Lily series.   

"Water Lilies", oil, circa 1906, by Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, collection Mr. & Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson

     This series, one of Monet’s most famous works, began as a project for the State of France, the brainchild of then French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.  He felt this would help Monet out of the depression left by the deaths of Alice and Jean, plus give honor to the beauty of the French countryside.  Clemenceau had the Louvre create a special gallery to house the works so they could be properly viewed.  The series consisted of 12 large canvases that were to be displayed end to end, giving the viewer a 360 degree view of the pond at Giverny.  Monet kept reworking the canvases, and Clemenceau kept patiently waiting for them to be finished.  Monet would not give them up.  He worked on the series for the last ten years of his life, right up until 1826, when poor health and eyesight would let him paint no more.  

        Claude Monet passed away at age 86 on December 5, 1926.  He never saw the Water Lilies exhibit fully displayed.  It was finally inaugurated at the Orangerie at the Louvre in 1927.  The legacy he left on painting opened the doors for untold numbers of artists to follow his example of impressionistic techniques, bringing down barriers that would allow more freedom for anyone to paint and exhibit, not just a select few.  Monet’s work can be seen in hundreds of galleries around the world, and there are numerous books written about him and his contemporaries.