Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of the French painter Claude Monet, who was a key figure in the Impressionist movement that transformed European painting in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Oscar-Claude Monet was born in 1840 in Paris. His father was a wholesale merchant, and his mother was a singer. In 1845 Monet’s family moved to Normandy, and his father wanted him to go into the family business of providing supplies to ships. However, Monet wanted to become an artist, and his mother supported his desire to be involved in the creative arts.
In 1851 Monet entered a secondary school of the arts. Although he had demonstrated skill in art from an early age, he was described as an “apathetic student.” At the age of 15 Monet began doing charcoal caricature drawings and portraits to earn money, and he started taking drawing lessons around this time as well. In 1858 Monet met another artist named Eugene Boudin, who taught him painting techniques and encouraged him with his art. At the time painting outside was relatively uncommon and Boudin taught Monet to paint outdoors and to pay attention to changing weather and light. Monet later said that Boudin was his “master,” and with regard to his later success that he “owed everything to him.”
From 1858 to 1860, Monet continued his studies at an academy in Paris, and then the following year he was called into the military service, where he served in Algeria from 1861 to 1862. The time that Monet spent in North Africa had a profound effect on him, and he said that the “light and vivid colors” there “contained the gem” of his future inspirations.
In 1862 Illness forced Monet to return to Paris, and it was during this time that he began his painting career. Monet often painted along the Seine River, alongside other painters, such as Renoir and Alfred Sisley. Monet and the other artists that he painted with sought to “articulate new standards of beauty in conventional subjects.”
It was during that time that Monet painted his first successful large-scale painting, known as Women in Garden, and in 1865 his paintings debuted at the Salon in Paris. This was the official annual art exhibition in France, where the best artists of the time would exhibit their work. After this exhibition, Monet submitted his paintings annually to the Salon until 1870, but they were only accepted by juries twice during this time, in 1866 and 1868.
In 1868, facing financial difficulties and severe depression, Monet jumped off a bridge into the Seine River, attempting to kill himself. Although he survived this suicide attempt, Monet struggled with depression for many years of his life.
For ten years Monet submitted no further paintings to the Salon, as his works were considered “radical,” and were “discouraged at all official levels.” During this time Monet’s father stopped financially supporting him because he disapproved of the woman that he was having a relationship with. Monet moved in with his aunt and immersed himself in his artwork, although he developed a problem with his eyesight that prevented him from working in the sunlight.
Monet painted numerous paintings of his family, and it was during this time that he began developing the style that was to become associated with his most well-known Impressionistic work. Impressionism is a style of painting characterized by small, visible brushstrokes that express a bare impression of form and unblended color, with an emphasis on the vivid depiction of natural light.
In 1874 Monet exhibited his paintings with an independent group called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, whose title was chosen to avoid association with any particular style or movement. This was a group that Monet helped to form, and they were unified in their independence from the Salon and their rejection of the prevailing influence of the European academies of art. Monet had the reputation of being the foremost landscape painter of this group, which also included Renoir, Pissarro, and Cézanne.
Although the first exhibition with this new group received some unfavorable reviews, one art critic used the term “impressionism,” in a derogatory manner, to describe the artwork. This term was taken from Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise, which conservative critics described as “unfinished.” More progressive critics praised the style as a “revolution in painting,” although Monet failed to sell this painting at the exhibit. Nonetheless, it was the title of this painting that served as the inspiration for the name of the artistic movement for which he is so well known.
In 1875, Monet returned to figure painting, and in 1880 he submitted two paintings to the Salon, one of which was accepted. Monet’s painting style began to shift around this time; he used less Impressionist techniques, utilized darker colors, and displayed natural environments, such as the Seine River, in harsh weather. For the rest of this decade, Monet focused on elemental aspects of nature, and he began to prosper financially with the success of his art, especially when his painting began to sell well in America.
Monet began to prefer working alone, and he thought that he did better work this way, after having “longed for solitude.” In 1883, Monet and his family rented a house and gardens in Giverny, which provided him with domestic stability. There was a barn on the property that doubled as a painting studio, as well as orchards and a small garden, and the surrounding landscape, provided many natural areas for Monet to paint.
In 1890 Monet purchased the house in Giverny, and his family worked to improve the property. They built up the gardens, as Monet had increasing success in selling his paintings. These gardens were Monet’s greatest source of inspiration for forty years. He imported plants from all over the world and diverted water from a nearby river to create a water garden. Monet wrote daily instructions to his gardener, precise designs and layouts for plantings, and as Monet’s wealth grew, his garden evolved.
Monet remained the architect of this magnificent garden, even after he hired seven gardeners, and he purchased additional land with a water meadow. The pond was enlarged in 1901 and 1910, with easels installed all around to allow different perspectives to be painted. At his house, Monet met with artists, writers, intellectuals, and politicians from around the world.
However, Monet’s neighbors weren’t exactly thrilled with his gardens; they were mostly cattle farmers who were afraid that his new aquatic plants would poison the water and kill their animals. Local authorities even told Monet to remove the plants, but he ignored them, and the water lilies became one of his greatest sources of inspiration. Over a period of thirty years, Monet created 250 paintings of water lilies.
During this time Monet began to develop cataracts, and his output decreased as he became withdrawn. This change in his vision affected his artwork, as the colors that he saw were no longer as bright, and his paintings began to feature more yellow and purple tones. However, he continued to paint, and he produced several panel paintings for the French Government from 1914 to 1918, and he completed work on a cycle of paintings between 1916 to 1921.
In 1923 Monet had surgery on his right eye, and the lens of his eye was removed, which let more light into the eye. Because the lens is part of the eye that filters out ultraviolet light, it is thought that Monet might have begun seeing ultraviolet wavelengths, which humans typically cannot see. After the surgery, Monet used more blues in his water lily paintings, which may indicate that he was seeing ultraviolet light.
Monet died in 1926 at the age of 86. He is buried at the Giverny church cemetery in France. Today Monet is recognized as the most well-known of the Impressionist painters, as a result of his numerous contributions to the movement, and the huge influence that he had on 19th-century art.
Monet was one of the most prolific French artists of all time, with over 2,500 oil paintings created to his name. Many of his paintings are in Parisian museums. The largest collection of Monet’s art can be seen at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, where 130 of his pieces are on display. The Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris also hold significant collections. In 1978, Monet’s garden in Giverny was restored and opened to the public, where it can be visited today.
Although Monet destroyed around 500 of his own paintings when he was angry or dissatisfied with his work, his paintings have sold for fortunes. In 2008 his painting Le Pont du Chemin de fer à Argenteuil, an 1873 painting of a railway bridge spanning the Seine River, was bought for $41.4 million, and Le Bassin Aux Nymphéas, from his water lilies series, sold for $80.4 million, which represented one of the top 20 highest prices paid for a painting at the time.
Some of the quotes that Claude Monet is known for include:
I must have flowers, always, and always.
Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.
Every day I discover more and more beautiful things. It’s enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it.
Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.
I would like to paint the way a bird sings.
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.
The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.
I can only draw what I see.
When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape.
The light constantly changes, and that alters the atmosphere and beauty of things every minute.