To his own generation -- and to every generation since -- Claude Monet (1840-1926) embodied the spirit of the artistic revolution known as Impressionism. He was at the forefront when a small group of young artists, dissatisfied with the conservative standards of the jury that selected the works of art each year for the official Salon art exhibition in Paris, decided to mount their own exhibition.
Monet helped formulate the group's mission of promoting art that was individualistic in style and expression as well as modern in content. And, when their first exhibition opened to the public, it was one of Monet's works, Impression Sunrise (1872), that became the critical flash point of the exhibition, prompting critics to dismiss the unorthodox vision of the artists as nothing more than mere impressions. The group turned derision into daring and, calling themselves the "Impressionists," continued to showcase pioneering works for more than a decade.
Monet often dominated these displays, and the spontaneous and suggestive quality of his style -- achieved with the direct observation of his subjects in natural light, sparkling color, and deft brush work -- became the hallmark of the Impressionist aesthetic.
Although Monet played an essential role in the history of Impressionism, he defined his connection with the Impressionist circle as a brief interlude in his long and productive career. He participated in only five of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, and he confessed he was not happy about being responsible for the term used to describe the group. Monet had formulated the objectives of his art before the group's endeavors, and, more than any other artist in the circle, he remained true to his goal of translating his observations of the light, color, and atmosphere of the natural world into the pure expression of paint on canvas.
For Monet, painting became the means to express a lifetime's experience of visual sensation, and he perceived his art as the result of his relationship with nature, saying, "All I did was to look at what the universe showed me, to let my brush bear witness to it."
The Birth of an Artist
Born in Paris on November 14, 1840, Claude Oscar Monet spent his childhood in the coastal city of Le Havre, where his father worked for the family grocery business. As a disinterested student, young Monet covered his notebooks with drawings, but none of these works survived. By 1857, a Le Havre art dealer confirmed the adolescent's talent by regularly displaying Monet's caricatures of noted personalities in his shop window. The dealer also represented the marine painter Eugene Boudin, and it was under the influence of the older artist that Monet purchased his first box of paints and attempted to capture the light and color of nature by working outdoors. Within two years, Monet decided to move to Paris to pursue a career as an artist.
Monet arrived in the capital city in May 1859 while the annual Salon was on display. His letters reveal that he admired the most radical trends in art: the naturalism of Constant Troyon, Camille Corot, and Charles-Francois Daubigny -- painters associated with the Barbizon region who pioneered plein air (outdoor) painting -- and the realism of Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, whose modern-life subjects challenged traditional art conventions. Monet enrolled in the Academie Suisse, a freethinking studio with an unstructured curriculum, but, in 1861, he was drafted into military service.
While stationed in Algeria, Monet contracted typhoid fever and was granted a furlough to recover in August 1862. His aunt then paid to have him released from the remaining years of his service, and, with her support, he returned to Paris to enroll in the studio of Charles Gleyre. A well-respected academic painter, Gleyre offered conventional training to prepare young artists for competition in Salon. But, in the company of like-minded students such as Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Monet gained more from sketching trips to the countryside and soon left the studio.
More on Monet
Monet made his debut at Salon in 1865 as a marine painter in the style of Boudin, exhibiting Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur (1865). But his interest quickly shifted to scenes of contemporary life. Inspired by the works of Manet, such as Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), Monet attempted several compositions of fashionable young Parisians enjoying themselves outdoors.
With his friends and his future wife, Camille Donicieux (1847-79), as his models, Monet observed his figures in natural light and worked on the grand-scale canvases that Salon painters used for mythical and historical subjects. Some critics mocked Monet's ambitions, but writer Emile Zola saw the spirit of modern life in Women at the Garden at Ville d'Avray (1866-67), which had been rejected for Salon. While he admired Monet's seascapes, Zola urged him to continue to portray modern life with his "exact and candid eye."
Learn more about Claude Monet's life and his early Impressionist paintings in the next section.
Claude Monet Early Impressionist Paintings
Late in the summer of 1867, after the birth of Jean, his first son with Camille, Claude Monet moved to the resort town of Saint-Adresse to paint near the coast. Throughout his career, Monet was fascinated with the volatile effects of light on water, and, after his return to Paris, he successfully submitted two marine paintings to the 1868 Salon. With his work rejected the next year, Monet returned to working outdoors with Renoir, and, in the summer of 1869, they painted side by side at La Grenouillere, a floating cafe moored on the bank of the Seine.
With a higher-keyed palette of pure pigment that avoided black even in the deepest shadows, Monet built up his image with color. Each form was conceived as a quick series of deft brush marks, resulting in a sense of his immediate response to the light sparkling in the scene before him. The dazzling result -- a painting of sensation rather than a record of narrative description -- marked a breakthrough in Monet's approach. But his life was soon disrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870.
One month prior to the war, Monet had married Camille, and, when he left Paris for London that autumn, she and Jean followed him. There, Monet met Camille Pissarro, who shared his dedication to plein air work, as well as his first dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. In London, Monet enjoyed the challenge of painting in the mist and fog, and he studied the atmospheric mastery of British artists John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. In France, the Armistice of January 1871 ended the war, but the brief peace was immediately followed by the Paris Commune, a civil uprising that toppled the imperial monarchy. Monet delayed his return until that autumn and spent most of the summer painting in Holland.
Inspiration in Argenteuil
Late that year he rented a house for his family in Argenteuil, a middle-class suburb on the right bank of the Seine about 17 miles northwest of Paris. Argenteuil offered a quiet refuge where he could enjoy a comfortable domestic life with his family and cultivate his first garden.
But for Claude Monet, always ardent in the advancement of his career, Argenteuil had additional advantages. He could live well on less money than required in Paris. He could seek subjects in the surrounding countryside. But, above all, Argenteuil was situated on a direct rail line to Paris, allowing Monet to remain active in the competitive art world. Monet, along with his friends Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley, had become increasingly frustrated with the seemingly arbitrary judgments of the Salon jury. In the spring of 1873, they, along with Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, and Berthe Morisot, considered organizing their own exhibition.
By the year's end, they obtained a charter for the Societe Anonyme, and, on April 15, 1874, their first exhibition opened in the studio of photographer Felix Tournachon (known as Nadar). Monet was well represented in the exhibition with nine works, including The Poppy Field, near Argenteuil (1873) and Boulevard des Capucines (1873-1874). But one work attracted the most attention. He had painted a view over the port of Le Havre and had given it the title Impression Sunrise (1872). The critics pounced on the work, with its brilliant color and evocative -- rather than descriptive -- point of view. They felt Monet had left the work unfinished.
More receptive critics realized it was Claude Monet's aim to redefine landscape as an art of sensation rather than topography. In the publication Le Siecle, critic Jules Castagnary coined the term Impressionists, saying the artists expressed the sensations evoked by a subject rather than the subject itself. The exhibition attracted little positive press and resulted in poor sales. By the end of the year the charter for the Societe Anonyme was dissolved in bankruptcy, and unsold works from the exhibition were auctioned the following spring.
Meanwhile, Monet faced his own financial difficulties. Behind in his rent and under the threat of eviction, he was forced to move his family to another house in Argenteuil. Within the year, however, the artists renewed their initiative and, taking the name the critics had given them, mounted the second Impressionist exhibition in April 1876 at Durand-Ruel's Paris gallery.
Monet submitted 18 works, including La Grenouillere (1869) and Autumn in Argenteuil (1873), and he won notice for the brilliance and originality of his landscapes. That summer Monet's fortunes seemed to rise when he acquired a generous patron. Ernest Hoschede, who earned his wealth in the new department store business, commissioned a set of decorative panels for the dining room in his chateau in Montgeron
With a strengthened sense of security and motivation, Monet embarked on a new project early in 1877. Renting a small apartment in Paris near Saint-Lazare Station, the train terminal of the line from Argenteuil, he applied for permission to paint in the station. Calling it a "campaign," Monet set up his easel and painted the plumes of smoke and the rising steam of the locomotives as they pulled in and out of the glass-canopied station.
He completed at least a dozen canvases by spring, and, of the 30 works he presented in the third Impressionist exhibition, five featured Saint-Lazare Station. Using this modern industrial subject, Monet had created the idea of a series -- an ensemble of works united not by narrative or sequence but by the artist's repeated observation of the same subject to chart the nuanced changes of light and atmosphere.
Some of Monet's best known works were painted at Giverny -- learn about Monet's time in that quiet village in the next section.
Claude Monet and Giverny
By the end of the year, Monet again found himself in dire financial straits. Hoschede went bankrupt and sold off his art collection at bargain prices. In March 1878, Camille gave birth to Monet's second son, Michel, but her health began to deteriorate. Near the end of the summer, to save money, Monet moved his household to the smaller and more remote village Vetheuil, 40 miles north of Paris along the Seine. As a favor, he allowed Hoschede, his wife, and their six children to move in as well, further crowding the small house and straining the limited budget.
Hoping to attract new patrons, Monet submitted 29 works to the fourth Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1879, but sales were meager. Then, in September, Camille died of cancer. Near the end of the year, Hoschede returned to Paris to try to recover his losses, but his wife, Alice, chose to remain with Monet, and they raised their eight children together as a family.
Feeling the increasing need to advance his career, Monet once again presented his work to the Salon jury. The Seine at Lavacourt (1880), a shimmering river scene, was accepted for the Salon of 1880, and Monet declined to participate in the fifth Impressionist exhibition. In 1881, he submitted to neither Salon nor the sixth Impressionist exhibition, preferring to concentrate on advancing his work.
By the end of 1881, Monet could no longer afford the house in Vetheuil. He moved his family to Poissy, a crowded industrial suburb on the western outskirts of Paris. He cut his budget to the bone and, with nothing in Poissy to stir his imagination, took regular journeys out to the Normandy coast to paint. In 1882, he drew critical acclaim for his 35 works shown in the seventh Impressionist exhibition. In the journal La Vie Moderne, critic Armand Silvestre declared Monet the most exquisite of the Impressionists and a true poet of nature.
Last Stop: Giverny
In the following spring the lease on the house in Poissy was ready to expire, and again Monet went in search of an affordable residence. Recalling that there were many attractive hamlets along the train line from Paris to Le Havre, Monet scouted the countryside along the Epte River, a tributary of the Seine. Forty-five miles northwest of Paris, he discovered the little village of Giverny. The natural features of the region were beautiful and varied, with rolling hills to the north and marshlands to the south.
The village was nearly untouched by industry, and, with its narrow streets and cottage gardens -- and less than 300 residents -- Giverny appeared to be a rural paradise. Monet found a large two-story house on two and a half acres of land. Within the walls of the property were several outbuildings, an orchard, and a neglected garden. He signed a lease and, in May 1883, moved his family there from Poissy. With relentless energy, Monet immersed himself in his work. The decade proved a restless one for the painter, during which he faced the challenge of new demands and new desires. He decided to end his participation in the Impressionist exhibitions as well as end his submission to the scrutiny of Salon. But, in middle age with an extensive family -- as well as a love for good food, fine wine, and elegant clothes -- Monet needed to raise his professional profile.
He mounted his first solo exhibition in February 1883 in Durand-Ruel's gallery, and he also began to negotiate with other dealers, such as Georges Petit and Theo van Gogh (brother of Vincent van Gogh), who could promote his work to an international audience. In April 1886, Monet made his American debut, dominating the exhibition of Impressionism organized by Durand-Ruel in New York City with 49 works. As a result, American collectors regarded Monet as the foremost Impressionist painter
Monet applied the same fierce determination to advance his art, constantly searching for new subjects and a deeper comprehension of visual phenomena in the natural world. Every winter he traveled to the Channel coast to paint the rocky shores at Pourville and Etretat. He countered the harsh weather conditions and cold gray tones of the Channel seas with several trips to Bordighera, Italy, and the port of Antibes, France, where the bright flowers, sand, and seas, observed under a blinding sun, warmed his palette.
Monet journeyed to Brittany, France, to paint the jagged rock formations off the coast of Belle-Isle, writing to Alice that under the dark and threatening sky he struggled to find the tones to express the tragic and sinister qualities of the place. He pushed himself to the point of exhaustion, working in every type of weather to capture his elusive subject -- the volatile perception of atmosphere and illumination expressed in color that changed constantly before his eyes.
Among Monet's best-known works are his series featuring water lilies and haystacks. On the next page, learn about some of those masterpieces.
Claude Monet's Wheat Stacks, Poplars, and Water Lilies Paintings
Letters to Alice during Claude Monet's journeys reveal that he missed her, his house, and his family, and, as the decade drew to a close, he increasingly sought subjects closer to home. He painted the meadows and the fields of wild irises that grew near his house in Giverny, and Alice's daughters posed for him outdoors under natural light.
In 1888, noticing that the local farmers stored their wheat in large rounded stacks in the cleared fields, Monet set up his easel and began to observe the action of the sun on the hill-like grain stacks at different times of the day. Over the course of the next two years, he returned to the same location each season and -- equipped with several canvases -- switched from one to another as the light changed. In a letter to friend and writer Gustave Geffroy, Monet admitted that he sought to render the impossible -- the instant and ever-changing effect of light on the "envelope" of form.
By the end of 1890, Claude Monet had completed 30 canvases, and, in his first great series, he expressed the fullest range of his observations of the seasonal cycles of nature as shifting color on simple stacks of wheat.
In 1891, he turned his attention to a stand of poplars along the Epte river, painting 24 canvases, and, in 1892 and 1893, he produced 30 views of the facade of Rouen Cathedral, working on as many as a dozen canvases a day.
Love of Water Lilies
Confident of the increased prosperity ensured by his now successful career, Monet purchased his home in Giverny in 1890. Alice's estranged husband, Hoschede, died the following spring, and, on July 16, 1892, Alice and Monet were wed. Early the next year, Monet bought a small parcel of land adjacent to his house and developed plans to turn its small pond into a water garden.
Over the years, Monet had become a passionate gardener, and he had transformed the large traditional garden in front of his house into colorful beds of bright blossoms that one visitor described as "floral fireworks." Now he wanted to enhance the natural reeds, irises, and willows that grew in the marshy soil around the little pond where he hoped to cultivate water lilies. After a struggle with the local council, who feared the aquatic plants would poison the region's waters, Monet hired a crew of workers to modify the perimeter of the pond with additional reeds, lilies, and irises as well as Japanese peonies and bamboo.
His design reflected his longstanding admiration for Japanese art, and, in 1895, Monet had a small arched footbridge built to span the pond, an idea he adapted from Ando Hiroshige's esteemed print series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. After several false starts, he produced his first series of water garden paintings, which consisted of 18 views of the Japanese bridge.
Although he made three trips to London to paint during the years 1899 to 1901, Monet's fascination for his water garden only increased. In 1901, he expanded the garden and, for the next seven years, spent his summers under the shelter of an umbrella, painting at the edge of his pond. He described his motif as "the mirror of water, whose appearance changes at every instant." In observing the glassy surface, Monet saw a fleeting spectacle of reflections: a patch of sky, a branch of willow, a cloud passing overhead.
As the years passed, his paintings became increasingly daring; he eliminated the horizon and the mooring perimeter of the pond, allowing his subject to float on the canvas like the lilies on the water. The motion of the water and the random movements of the lilies -- along with the trembling reflections -- gave his art an ethereal quality. The challenge to convey the daily and seasonal change in his art gave way to a more subtle pursuit: expressing the most fugitive effects of light on the water in the static medium of paint on canvas.
Alice worried that Monet was again working to the point of exhaustion, and the painter admitted to his friend Geffroy that he had become obsessed with his subject. Durand-Ruel urged Monet to release a selection of the canvases to exhibit to the public, but Monet refused to do so until the series was completed to his satisfaction. On May 5, 1909, he exhibited 48 works in Durand-Ruel's Paris gallery under the title Les Nympheas: Series des paysages d'eau (The Water Lilies: Landscapes of Water). The critics were astonished, saying the works broke down the boundaries of earth and sky.
Claude Monet's final years were spent working on grand, large-scale works. Continue to the next page to learn about the end of Monet's life.
Death of Claude Monet
The later years of Claude Monet's life brought crisis and change. In 1909, Alice developed myelogenous leukemia, and, when his devoted companion died on May 19, 1911, Monet was inconsolable. The following year brought more crushing news: The difficulty with his sight that he had long dismissed as eyestrain was diagnosed as double cataracts. Fearful of having his vision drastically changed, Monet refused to undergo the recommended operation until July 1920.
After a bout with depression that kept him from painting from the time of Alice's death until 1913, Monet again found solace in his garden and purpose in his work. In April 1914, he informed Geffroy that he was ready to take on some large paintings.
Gift to the Nation
Over the next decade, Monet worked on an unprecedented scale: canvases roughly six and a half feet high and 14 feet wide. In 1916, he built a new studio to house the epic images of his water lilies, and, in 1918, to honor the Armistice of the First World War, he promised the paintings as a gift to the nation. He painted more than 40 panels for his Grandes Decorations, and, in the spring of 1925, he selected 22 of them to be installed in two oval rooms in Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris. He imagined the effect as being surrounded by the natural beauty of his water garden, soothing the nerves and calming the spirit.
Claude Monet died of pulmonary sclerosis on December 3, 1926, at the age of 86. He left instructions for a simple funeral, and the only tribute on his coffin was a sheaf of wheat. He had created his own legacy in painting the "restful sight of those still waters" that preserved the experience of his long and productive life, spent pursuing the fleeting impressions of nature through the testament of his brush.
Monet left a vast body of work to be admired and cherished. We'll introduce to the paintings of Claude Monet in the next section.
Claude Monet Paintings
Claude Monet's painting often feature marine scenes, landscapes, and water lilies, but you'll also find family members, contemporary technology, and the occasional interior view among his works.
Enjoy these Claude Monet paintings:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Debra N. Mancoff, Ph.D., is an art historian and lecturer and the author of numerous books on nineteenth-century European and American painting, including Publication International, Ltd.'s, Impressionism and Van Gogh. Other titles include Sunflowers, Monet's Garden in Art, Van Gogh: Fields and Flowers, and Mary Cassatt: Reflections of Women's Lives. Ms. Mancoff is a scholar in residence at the Newberry Library and an adjunct associate professor and adjunct lecturer at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.