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Claude Monet
(1840-1926)

Back to Impressionism

Claude Oscar Monet was a French painter, and a leading figure in the late-19th-century movement called impressionism. Monet’s paintings captured scenes of middle-class life and the ever-changing qualities of sunlight in nature. His technique of applying bright, unmixed colors in quick, short strokes became a hallmark of impressionism.  

Claude Monet. Photographed 1926 shortly before his death.

The son of a successful tradesman in marine supplies, Monet grew up in Le Havre on the Normandy coast. He showed signs of artistic talent as a teenager, drawing skillful caricatures of local personalities. He admired the work of many of the more adventurous artists of his day, landscapists associated with the Barbizon School, such as Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Constant Troyon, and Henri Rousseau. 

The Barbizon painters promoted landscape painting that stood without reference to historic, religious, or mythological stories, a concept that was then new to French art. Monet also admired French realist artists Gustave Courbet and Honoré Daumier. 

The realists depicted members of the working classes, who until then had been considered unworthy subjects for art. Monet received crucial early guidance from two artists who specialized in painting seascapes out-of-doors, Eugène Boudin, a fellow painter from Le Havre, and Dutch artist Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891), whom Monet met in 1862. 

The unusual viewpoints (scenes shown from above or below), and broad areas of bright color in Japanese woodblock prints also influenced Monet’s work. 

Monet's formal art training began in 1859 at the Académie Suisse, a studio that provided models for aspiring artists to draw or paint, but gave little direct instruction. Another future leader of the impressionists, Camille Pissarro, was a fellow student there, and the two soon became close friends.
 

After serving briefly in the French military in Algeria, Monet joined a Parisian studio run by Charles Gabriel Gleyre in 1862. Gleyre’s studio was essentially student-run. 

Like the Adadémie Suisse, it encouraged students to draw from models, rather than from plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman statues, which was the common teaching method of more conservative academies. In Gleyre’s studio Monet met several artists who would become fellow impressionists, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, the latter coming from a wealthy family gave Monet regular financial support during the 1860s.  

  • Early work by Monet: "Still Life with Fruits". 

Claude Monet. Early work. "Still Life with Fruits".

In 1865 Monet had his first works -- two ambitious seascapes -- accepted by the Salon, a juried art exhibition sponsored annually by the official French Academy of Fine Arts. Thereafter he had a checkered record of acceptance and rejection by the conservative Salon jury, although his works received praise from critics such as French writer Émile Zola and were purchased by discerning and influential buyers. 

Monet’s canvases from the mid-1860s were massive. The unfinished " Luncheon on the Grass", a picnic scene begun in 1865, was originally intended to measure roughly 4.5 m by 6 m (15 ft by 20 ft). For two other large paintings from that time, Monet’s future wife Camille Doncieux posed in elegant attire: " The Green Dress", which was shown in the Salon of 1866, and "Women in the Garden" 

Romania 1970. Claude Monet. "The Green Dress".

France 1972. Claude Monet. "Women in the Garden".

USSR 1973. Claude Monet. "Lady in the Garden".

After the Salon rejected Monet's somehow more "modest" painting "Lady in the Garden" for its 1867 exhibition, Monet may have reconsidered investing so much effort in a single painting that might not sell, and he began to work on a smaller scale. 

Although the same subject matter as the painting of the year before, this one is totally different and appears nearly like a colour photograph. 

In 1869 Monet and Renoir painted a series of landscapes en plein air (outdoors) at a fashionable bathing place, La Grenouillère, on the Seine River near Paris. In these small works, Monet’s quick daubs of fresh colors aptly capture the movement of the water and gaiety of the scene. 

Despite his father's disapproval, in 1870 Monet married Camille, who had already borne him a son. To escape the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), during which German troops threatened Paris, the couple went to London, then to Holland. They returned in 1872 and settled in Argenteuil, a sailing center on the Seine River outside Paris. Monet painted numerous vibrant, light-filled views of this fast-growing suburban town; he also produced more intimate family studies. 

Sierra Leone 1996. Claude Monet. "La Grenouillere".

Liberia 1969. "Regatta in Argenteuil".

Birth of Impressionism 
The painters who became known as impressionists began exhibiting together in 1874. They held eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, and although Monet did not participate in all of these, he became the most celebrated member of the group, and remains so today. In the 1874 exhibition, Monet showed four pastels and five paintings, among them a work entitled "Impression: Sunrise". 

Inspired by this title, French art critic Louis Leroy coined the term "impressionist" in a satirical review of the exhibition. His comments criticized the artists for painting so loosely and neglecting to blend their brushstrokes carefully in order to achieve the polished effect that was then expected. 

Although "Impression: Sunrise" is an elegantly balanced composition, it demonstrates much of what was radically new about the impressionist manner. Monet’s swift strokes capture a momentary effect of light on water in a busy port, while mist and smoke blur the angular forms of sailboats. 

  • Monaco 1974. "Sunrise" (1872-1873). Belongs to Musée Marmottan, Paris. 

Monaco 1974. Claude Monet. "Impression: Sunrise".

Monet’s first wife, Camille, died in 1879, and soon afterward Monet set up home with Alice Hoschedé, the wife of one of his most important patrons, and their respective children. The Hoschedé family had recently suffered a disastrous bankruptcy, and financial concerns seem to have directed many of Monet’s career strategies in the years that followed. In 1880 Monet decided, to the great annoyance of his fellow impressionists, to exhibit once again at the official Salon. He also began to sell his work regularly through private dealers. 

Monet traveled throughout France during the 1880s, tackling new and challenging motifs, such as the rocks off the island of Belle Île, the stormy Atlantic coast, and the more idyllic atmosphere of the Mediterranean seacoast. 

Monaco 1990. Claude Monet. "The Magpie".

Paraguay 1968. Claude Monet. "Winter Landscape at Lavacourt".

Gabon 1974. Claude Monet. "Pleasure Boats".

Rwanda 1980. Claude Monet. "Terrace in Sainte-Adresse by Le  Havre".

Series Paintings 
In 1877 Monet had painted a series of works that capture the smoke-filled Saint Lazare railway station in Paris at different times of day. 

In the 1890s Monet returned to this idea of a concentrated series of paintings based on a single motif. In his series of Haystacks, begun in 1890, the rather ordinary subject matter allowed Monet to emphasize subtle changes in light and weather conditions. Each painting has such an individual character that the series also seems to chart Monet's shifting feelings in front of nature. In 1891 French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel showed 15 of the Haystack paintings in his Paris gallery. 

Claude Monet. Painting - Gare St. Lazare, Paris.

Claude Monet. Painting from the series "Haystacks".

Monet followed the Haystacks with a Rouen Cathedral series (1892-1894). With their heavy encrustations of paint that capture flickering light and shadow, the works challenged accepted understandings of impressionism. The cathedral façade virtually dissolves, and an objective rendering no longer seems to be Monet’s goal. With this series, critics began to relate Monet’s work to the symbolist movement, in which artists used color to achieve a highly individual and subjective interpretation of a scene.

Late Work 
Gardens were a recurrent theme for Monet in the 1870s, and paintings of his own garden dominate his later work. In 1890 he purchased a house in Giverny that he had been renting for seven years. He began to develop its gardens, introducing an ornamental lily pond and a Japanese-style bridge. These and other features of his idyllic estate were the subject of a steady output of large decorative paintings. He generally began by painting outdoors, but would then return to his studio to work and rework his canvases, which had become even more layered and complex than before. 

Claude Monet. The artist's house in Giverny, France.

France 1999. Claude Monet. "Water Lilies in Evening Light".

  • France 1999. "Water Lilies in Evening Light". (1899). Orsay Museum, Paris. 

Lesotho 1988. Claude Monet. "Japanese Bridge over Water Lilies".

  • Lesotho 1988. "Japanese Bridge over Water Lilies". (1899). Orsay Museum, Paris. Scan by courtesy of Hans-Martin Leth (Denmark). 


Despite frequent periods of financial anxiety, Monet never lacked buyers for his work, and by the 1890s his sales were strong, especially in the United States. The culminating honor of Monet's career was the installation in the Orangerie des Tuileries, a museum in central Paris, of monumental paintings of water lilies, on which he had worked for more than a decade preceding his death. In these works reality seems to dematerialize as he expresses the interplay of color, light, foliage, and reflection in a tangled mass of brushstrokes. 

With his eyesight beginning to fail in his final years, Monet explored his subject so closely and thoroughly that the whole dissolved into its parts and began to resemble abstract art. Monet died on 6th December 1926. 

Sources and Links:

Other Impressionist painters on this site (in alphabetical order).

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