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Claude Monet
1840 - 1926


The French painter Claude Monet was the seminal figure in the evolution of impressionism, a pivotal style in the development of modern art.
 

 

The second half of the 19th century witnessed profound and disrupting shifts within the larger course of Western art. Many artistic attitudes which had prevailed since the beginning of the Renaissance gave way to approaches which differed radically from the practices of the Old Masters. In painting, for instance, illusionism was one of the fundamental Renaissance values: paintings were regarded as windows through which one viewed the natural world. But in the 19th century a new approach gradually replaced the illusionist aim: paintings became increasingly two-dimensional, openly declaring flatness as an intrinsic feature of their identity. They became events in themselves, phenomena to be confronted rather than windows to be seen through.

Impressionism occupies a crucial, yet paradoxical, position in the 19th century's changing interpretation of the painting enterprise. In the hands of Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and others, the new style (it was not called impressionism until 1874) was initially conceived in the spirit of illusionism. As it evolved, however, certain of its tenets emerged as being, in effect, anti-illusionist. Monet's art reveals both the complexities and the paradoxes of this historical phenomenon. In addition, it reveals how impressionism constitutes a turning point in the development of modern art.

Monet was born in Paris on Nov. 14, 1840. In 1845 his family moved to Le Havre, and by the time he was 15 Monet had developed a local reputation as a caricaturist. Through an exhibition of his caricatures in 1858 Monet met Eugène Boudin, a landscape painter who exerted a profound influence on the young artist. Boudin introduced Monet to outdoor painting, an activity which he entered reluctantly but which soon became the basis for his life's work.

By 1859 Monet was determined to pursue an artistic career. He visited Paris and was impressed by the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, Charles Daubigny, and Camille Corot. Against his parents' wishes, Monet decided to stay in Paris. He worked at the free Académie Suisse, where he met Pissarro, and he frequented the Brasserie des Martyrs, a gathering place for Gustave Courbet and other realists who constituted the vanguard of French painting in the 1850s.


Formative Period

Monet's studies were interrupted by military service in Algeria (1860-1862). The remainder of the decade witnessed constant experimentation, travel, and the formation of many important artistic friendships. In 1862 he entered the studio of Charles Gleyre in Paris and met Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Jean Frédéric Bazille. During 1863 and 1864 he periodically worked in the forest at Fontainebleau with the Barbizon artists Théodore Rousseau, Jean François Millet, and Daubigny, as well as with Corot. In Paris in 1869 he frequented the Café Guerbois, where he met Edouard Manet.

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Monet traveled to London, where he met the adventurous and sympathetic dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. The following year Monet and his wife, Camille, whom he had married in 1870, settled at Argenteuil, which became a semipermanent home (he continued to travel throughout his life) for the next 6 years.

Monet's constant movements during this period were directly related to his artistic ambitions. The phenomena of natural light, atmosphere, and colour captivated his imagination, and he committed himself to an increasingly accurate recording of their enthralling variety. He consciously sought that variety and gradually developed a remarkable sensitivity for the subtle particulars of each landscape he encountered. Paul Cézanne is reported to have said that "Monet is the most prodigious eye since there have been painters."

Relatively few of Monet's canvases from the 1860s have survived. Throughout the decade, and during the 1870s as well, he suffered from extreme financial hardship and frequently destroyed his own paintings rather than have them seized by creditors. A striking example of his early style is the Terrace at the Seaside, Sainte-Adresse (1866). The painting contains a shimmering array of bright, natural colours, eschewing completely the somber browns and blacks of the earlier landscape tradition.


Monet and Impressionism

As William Seitz (1960) wrote, "The landscapes Monet painted at Argenteuil between 1872 and 1877 are his best-known, most popular works, and it was during these years that impressionism most closely approached a group style. Here, often working beside Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte, or Manet, he painted the sparkling impressions of French river life that so delight us today." During these same years Monet exhibited regularly in the impressionist group shows, the first of which took place in 1874. On that occasion his painting Impression: Sunrise (1872) inspired a hostile newspaper critic to call all the artists "impressionists," and the designation has persisted to the present day.

Monet's paintings from the 1870s reveal the major tenets of the impressionist vision. Along with Impression: Sunrise, Red Boats at Argenteuil (1875) is an outstanding example of the new style. In these paintings impressionism is essentially an illusionist style, albeit one that looks radically different from the landscapes of the Old Masters. The difference resides primarily in the chromatic vibrancy of Monet's canvases. Working directly from nature, he and the impressionists discovered that even the darkest shadows and the gloomiest days contain an infinite variety of colours. To capture the fleeting effects of light and colour, however, Monet gradually learned that he had to paint quickly and to employ short brushstrokes loaded with individualized colours. This technique resulted in canvases that were charged with painterly activity; in effect, they denied the even blending of colours and the smooth, enameled surfaces to which most earlier painting had persistently subscribed.

Yet, in spite of these differences, the new style was illusionistically intended; only the interpretation of what illusionism consisted of had changed. For traditional landscape artists illusionism was conditioned first of all by the mind: that is, painters tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world - leaves, branches, blades of grass - as they had studied them and conceptualized their existence. Monet, on the other hand, wanted to paint what he saw rather than what he intellectually knew. And he saw not separate leaves, but splashes of constantly changing light and color. According to Seitz, "It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless colour patches." In an important sense, then, Monet belongs to the tradition of Renaissance illusionism: in recording the phenomena of the natural world, he simply based his art on perceptual rather than conceptual knowledge.


Works of the 1880s and 1890s

During the 1880s the impressionists began to dissolve as a cohesive group, although individual members continued to see one another and they occasionally worked together. In 1883 Monet moved to Giverny, but he continued to travel - to London, Madrid, and Venice, as well as to favourite sites in his native country. He gradually gained critical and financial success during the late 1880s and the 1890s. This was due primarily to the efforts of Durand-Ruel, who sponsored one-man exhibitions of Monet's work as early as 1883 and who, in 1886, also organized the first large-scale impressionist group show to take place in the United States.

Monet's painting during this period slowly gravitated toward a broader, more expansive and expressive style. In Spring Trees by a Lake (1888) the entire surface vibrates electrically with shimmering light and colour. Paradoxically, as his style matured and as he continued to develop the sensitivity of his vision, the strictly illusionistic aspect of his paintings began to disappear. Plastic form dissolved into coloured pigment, and three-dimensional space evaporated into a charged, purely optical surface atmosphere. His canvases, although invariably inspired by the visible world, increasingly declared themselves as objects which are, above all, paintings. This quality links Monet's art more closely with modernism than with the Renaissance tradition.

Modernist, too, are the "serial" paintings to which Monet devoted considerable energy during the 1890s. The most celebrated of these series are the haystacks (1891) and the facades of Rouen Cathedral (1892-1894). In these works Monet painted his subjects from more or less the same physical position, allowing only the natural light and atmospheric conditions to vary from picture to picture. That is, he "fixed" the subject matter, treating it like an experimental constant against which changing effects could be measured and recorded. This technique reflects the persistence and devotion with which Monet pursued his study of the visible world. At the same time, the serial works effectively neutralized subject matter per se, implying that paintings could exist without it. In this way his art established an important precedent for the development of abstract painting.


Late Work

Monet's wife died in 1879; in 1892 he married Alice Hoschedé. By 1899 his financial position was secure, and he began work on his famous series of water lily paintings. Water lilies existed in profusion in the artist's exotic gardens at Giverny, and he painted them tirelessly until his death there on Dec. 5, 1926. Still, Monet's late years were by no means easy. During his last two decades he suffered from poor health and had double cataracts; by the 1920s he was virtually blind.

In addition to his physical ailments, Monet struggled desperately with the problems of his art. In 1920 he began work on 12 large canvases (each measuring 14 feet in width) of water lilies, which he planned to give to the state. To complete them, he fought against his own failing eyesight and against the demands of a large-scale mural art for which his own past had hardly prepared him. In effect, the task required him to learn a new kind of painting at the age of 80. The paintings are characterized by a broad, sweeping style; virtually devoid of subject matter, their vast, encompassing spaces are generated almost exclusively by colour. Such colour spaces were without precedent in Monet's lifetime; moreover, their descendants have appeared in contemporary painting only since the end of World War II.
 


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Claude Monet was a key figure in the Impressionist movement that transformed French painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. Throughout his long career, Monet consistently depicted the landscape and leisure activities of Paris and its environs as well as the Normandy coast. He led the way to twentieth-century modernism by developing a unique style that strove to capture on canvas the very act of perceiving nature.

Raised in Normandy, Monet was introduced to plein-air painting by Eugène Boudin (2003.20.2), known for paintings of the resorts that dotted the region's Channel coast, and subsequently studied informally with the Dutch landscapist Johan Jongkind (1819–1891). When he was twenty-two, Monet joined the Paris studio of the academic history painter Charles Gleyre. His classmates included Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and other future Impressionists. Monet enjoyed limited success in these early years, with a handful of landscapes, seascapes, and portraits accepted for exhibition at the annual Salons of the 1860s. Yet many of the rejection of his more ambitious works, notably the large-scale Women in the Garden (1866; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), inspired Monet to join with Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, and others in establishing an independent exhibition in 1874. Impression: Sunrise (1873; Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), one of Monet's contributions to this exhibition, drew particular scorn for the unfinished appearance of its loose handling and indistinct forms. Yet the artists saw the criticism as a badge of honour, and subsequently called themselves "Impressionists" after the painting's title, even though the name was first used derisively.

Monet found subjects in his immediate surroundings, as he painted the people and places he knew best. His first wife, Camille (2002.62.1), and his second wife, Alice, frequently served as models. His landscapes chart journeys around the north of France (31.67.11) and to London, where he escaped the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Returning to France, Monet moved first to Argenteuil, just fifteen minutes from Paris by train, then west to Vétheuil, Poissy, and finally to the more rural Giverny in 1883. His homes and gardens became gathering places for friends, including Manet and Renoir, who often painted alongside their host (1976.201.14). Yet Monet's paintings cast a surprisingly objective eye on these scenes, which include few signs of domestic relations.

Following in the path of the Barbizon painters, who had set up their easels in the Fontainebleau Forest (64.210) earlier in the century, Monet adopted and extended their commitment to close observation and naturalistic representation. Whereas the Barbizon artists painted only preliminary sketches en plein air, Monet often worked directly on large-scale canvases out of doors, then reworked and completed them in his studio. His quest to capture nature more accurately also prompted him to reject European conventions governing composition, color, and perspective. Influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, Monet's asymmetrical arrangements of forms emphasized their two-dimensional surfaces by eliminating linear perspective and abandoning three-dimensional modeling. He brought a vibrant brightness to his works by using unmediated colors, adding a range of tones to his shadows, and preparing canvases with light-colored primers instead of the dark grounds used in traditional landscape paintings.

Monet's interest in recording perceptual processes reached its apogee in his series paintings (e.g., Haystacks [1891], Poplars [1892], Rouen Cathedral [1894]) that dominate his output in the 1890s. In each series, Monet painted the same site again and again, recording how its appearance changed with the time of day. Light and shadow seem as substantial as stone in his Rouen Cathedral (30.95.250) series. Monet reports that he rented a room across from the cathedral's western facade in 1892 and 1893, where he kept multiple canvases in process and moved from one to the next as the light shifted. In 1894, he reworked the canvases to their finished states.

In the 1910s and '20s, Monet focused almost exclusively on the picturesque water-lily pond (1983.532) that he created on his property at Giverny. His final series depicts the pond in a set of mural-sized canvases where abstract renderings of plant and water emerge from broad strokes of color and intricately built-up textures. Shortly after Monet died (a wealthy and well-respected man at the age of eighty-six), the French government installed his last water-lily series in specially constructed galleries at the Orangerie in Paris, where they remain today.
 


 

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Claude Monet, also known as Claude Oscar Monet, was the original founder and practitioner of the French Impressionist movement in painting. Some of his best known works include Impression, Sunrise (for which the movement was named), Water Lilies, and Haystacks.

Monet was born Claude Oscar Monet on November 14, 1840 in Paris, France to Claude-Adolphe, a grocery store owner, and Louise-Justine Aubree, a singer. As the younger of two sons, Monet's father hoped that he would continue the family grocer store business, but Monet had other ideas. To his father's dismay, Monet openly declared his love of art and his hopes of living life as an artist.

In 1851, at the age of eleven, Monet began his studies at the Le Havre school for the arts and began selling charcoal paintings to locals in the area. After studying under the watchful eye of Jacques-Francois Ochard for a few years, Monet met and befriended Eugene Boudin who helped Monet master oil paints and "plein air" techniques. In 1857, Monet's mother passed away and he left school to live with his aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre.

On a visit to the Louvre in Paris, Monet observed painters mimicking the work of famous artists. Instead of copying styles of other painters, Claude Monet, who always traveled with his paints, sat by the window and painted the view. His life in Paris brought him closer to other painters, many of whom he befriended. One of these painters was Edouard Manet.

In 1861 Monet joined the First Regiment of African Light Cavalry in Algeria where he stayed for two years. Although he was originally supposed to remain in Algeria for seven years, his aunt petitioned for his return after he contracted typhoid. In exchange for his unfulfilled work with the Cavalry, Monet agreed to study art at a university. After trying his hand at academics, Monet began studying with Charles Gleyre in 1862 and met Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille with whom Monet shared ideas on new, rapid painting techniques.

During his time with Gleyre, Monet met Camille Doncieux with whom he had a son, Jean, in 1867. Shortly thereafter, Monet ran into financial difficulties and attempted suicide in 1868. Camille helped him recover and they married in June of 1870.

When the Franco-Prussian War began in July of 1870, Monet and Camille decided to leave France and take refuge in England where Claude Monet studied other artists like John Constable and Joseph William Turner. Although his paintings were denied exhibition by the Royal Academy, Monet refused to give up and, instead, moved to Zaandam to continue his work. In the fall of 1871 Monet returned to France where he settled in Argenteuil near Paris.

During his time at Argenteuil, Monet focused more on developing his impressionistic style, painting the famous Impression, Sunrise in 1872 which later served to name the impressionist movement.

Camille fell ill in 1876 and never fully recovered. Although she eventually gave birth to their second son, Michel, Camille's body was weak and she passed away on September 5, 1879 from tuberculosis. Monet painted Camille Monet, on her death bed, a last tribute to his wife.

Camille's death was very difficult on Monet and he grieved heavily for several months. Eventually Monet became even more determined to create masterpieces and he started painting in groups and series. He and his children moved into the home of Ernest Hoshede, a patron of the arts. After Hoshede experienced some financial problems, Monet moved to Poissy with Hoshede's wife, Alice, and her six children and later to Giverny where Claude Monet planted a vast garden that later inspired his famous works featuring willows and water lilies. Although they'd been estranged for many years, Alice waited until after her husband's death to accept Monet's hand in marriage. They exchanged vows in 1892.

Monet continued his focus on series' paintings, using his garden as constant inspiration. After his wife's death in 1911 and Jean's death in 1914, Monet developed cataracts that affected his ability to see accurate colors. Claude Monet even went back and adjusted some of these colors after his surgery.

Claude Monet died in 1926 from lung cancer. He is buried in the cemetery of the Giverny church. His remaining family and heirs bequeathed his Giverny home and gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts in 1966.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008