French impressionist who went to war for his art
Claude Monet (1840-1926) is such a popular artist today that it’s hard to imagine him striving for recognition as a young painter, and even harder to imagine an art world without the French Impressionism – even the term derives from his painting, Impression: Soleil Levant.
Born in Paris, his family moved to Le Havre when Oscar-Claude was five years old, and from childhood he always wanted to be a painter.
His mother, a singer, supported him – but his father would have preferred him to go into the family grocery store.
Luckily for the world, Monet made it and started training at the age of 11 and already known locally for selling charcoal caricatures.
He would paint for the rest of his life although he only achieved recognition and a stable income from his art when he was 50 years old.
Monet’s mother died when he was 16 and he was sent to live with an aunt but continued to paint, mostly landscapes.
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In 1861, he was drafted into the army and sent to Algeria. His wealthy father refused to buy him out unless he agreed to give up painting, but Monet flatly refused. A year later he contracted typhoid, and eventually his aunt arranged for him to be released and go to Paris to study art.
Monet, however, quickly became disillusioned with the teaching he received. He did not want to paint in the conventional style of the time.
He wanted to develop something new – a way to capture the way light changes colors and shapes. With Renoir, Bazille and Sisley he began to experiment with broken colors applied with rapid brushstrokes to render an ephemeral impression rather than a detailed record.
He commuted frequently between Paris and Normandy during this period, staying regularly in Honfleur.
At the time, the most influential art exhibition was the Paris Salon, organized by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
A painter whose work was refused was left out.
Monet had a few paintings accepted, including Camille (La femme à la robe verte), taking Camille Doncieux as a model. His work was well appraised and he started to get noticed even though he still wasn’t earning much.
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Forced by lack of money to return to Normandy, he painted beaches and seascapes. He also painted Camille many times and in 1867 she gave birth to their son Jean.
They survived by borrowing from friends because Monet’s family would not help them. The artist was in despair but never stopped painting, and in 1868 he was commissioned to produce a series of paintings for a wealthy businessman.
Constantly moving from one dwelling to another, in 1870 the couple finally married in Paris.
The Franco-Prussian War broke out that year and Monet moved to London. His father died in 1871 but he did not attend the funeral, fearing he would be drafted into the army. He moved to Amsterdam instead, where he painted 25 canvases in four months. At the end of the year, using the money he had inherited, Monet and his family returned to France and settled in a house in Argenteuil.
He buys a boat on the Seine and uses it as an art studio. Frustrated by the lack of recognition from the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne and Sisley organized their own exhibition in 1874.
A total of 165 works were presented; around 3,500 people paid 60 francs each to see the exhibition – but Monet’s painting, Impression: Sunrise (priced at 1,000 francs) did not sell.
One reviewer commented acerbically that the paintings were indeed “Impressionist” and that a new school of art was christened.
Family health issues took over for a while. Camille was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1876, and her condition worsened with the birth of her second son, Michel, in 1878, when she was also diagnosed with cancer. She died the following year, tragically young.
Monet sat by his bedside – realizing with horror as he painted that despite his distress he was automatically noting the individual colors on his dead face (Camille Monet on his deathbed is now in the Musée d’Orsay).
Monet’s work focuses on the study of how light changes colors and how nearby colors interact with each other. He was fascinated by reflections and how to paint them.
A series of paintings done at Gare St-Lazare explore how smoke and steam affect color, and how they are sometimes opaque and sometimes translucent. He was also interested in the effect of mist and rain on colors.
The reason for painting the same scenes over and over again was to trace how the changing light changed the colors throughout the day and through the seasons.
He painted four series in London: Houses of Parliament, Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and Views of Westminster Bridge. He also traveled in the Mediterranean, painting monuments, landscapes and seascapes as well as a series in Venice.
It was his own personal artistic journey, an exploration of what could be done with oil paints. It uses a limited number of colors: silver, white, light cobalt violet, emerald green, extra fine ultramarine, vermilion (rarely), light cadmium yellow, dark cadmium yellow and lemon yellow. He ruled out black, sometimes replacing it with dark purple, or dark chocolate mixed into all of his paints.
Monet was devastated by the death of his wife, and a family friend, Alice Hoschedé, took Monet’s two boys to live with her in Paris. Her bankrupt husband had moved back to Belgium, leaving her with six children, so maybe two more didn’t seem significant.
The following year she and all the children joined Monet in Vétheuil – and in 1883 he discovered the house in Giverny (Normandy) where he would live the rest of his life.
After renting her dream home, life finally started to flow more smoothly. There were orchards, a garden and a barn where Monet could paint. There was a school for the children and the surrounding countryside offered a variety of beautiful landscapes to paint.
Monet’s paintings began to sell and by 1890 he had earned enough to buy the house. In 1892, when Alice’s husband died, she and Monet were finally married and there was enough money to build a new art studio, expand the gardens and add a greenhouse.
Monet has a passion for gardens, creating scenes that he wants to paint. He wrote daily instructions to a team of seven gardeners on designing, arranging plantings, and purchasing new plants.
In 1893 he purchased an adjacent water meadow and also embarked on the landscaping of this area, including the creation of the water lily ponds which he would spend the last two decades of his life painting.
Alice died in 1911 and her eldest son Jean died in 1914, leaving Alice’s daughter (also Jean’s widow) to care for Monet as he developed cataracts. He had spent his life striving to paint exactly what he saw and he continued even as his eyesight deteriorated, his color palette becoming dominated by reds and yellows.
His work from this period shows the fading of detail and the disappearance of blue.
Monet made a series of paintings of weeping willows during World War I in reference to fallen soldiers but the painting became increasingly difficult.
He completely lost sight in his right eye, and by 1922 had completely stopped painting. A year later, he was persuaded to have surgery, which restored sight in his right eye.
He refused to have surgery on his left eye and used special green-lensed glasses to start painting again. He even reworked some of his pre-op works, making them more vivid and often intensifying the shades of blue.
He continued to paint until shortly before he died of lung cancer in 1926, aged 86.
He is buried in the cemetery of Giverny. He died ab intestate, meaning his surviving son Michel inherited his entire estate.
He never lived in Giverny, had no children, and on his death in 1966 bequeathed the house and gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts.
Over the years it has been restored and now attracts visitors from all over the world. It is normally open to the public, but under current circumstances, check giverny.org before planning a visit. Tickets must be purchased online.
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