Claude Monet – it is a name that has become nearly synonymous with the term impressionism. One of the world’s most celebrated and well-known painters, it was his work, Impressionism, Sunrise, that gave a name to that first distinctly modern art movement, Impressionism. As the pivotal movement’s founding father, Monet’s remarkable oeuvre occupies a central place in the history of art, and he is credited for influencing generations of artists to come.
Birth of a Legend
Born on November 14, 1840 in Paris, Oscar-Claude Monet spent much of his childhood in Le Havre, a bustling town on the Normandy coast. The artist would return to the stormy coastline and looming cliffs of his childhood town throughout his career, and the atmospheric Normandy seascape provided ample inspiration for the budding artist. His first artistic training came in 1857 under the tutelage of François-Charles Ochard, a former pupil of Jacques-Louis David. Yet, Ochard would have little influence on the young Monet, who devoted much of his artistic energies to portraits, particularly caricatures.
It was the French landscape painter Eugène Boudin who would change Monet’s artistic trajectory. He met Monet in 1858, and, recognizing his talent, took the budding artist along with him on painting excursions into the countryside. These outings were Monet’s first introduction to painting en plein air, and from Boudin he learned to observe and record the effects of light, tonal values, and perspective. The lessons would undoubtedly change the course of his career.
Early Years in Paris
While Boudin first opened Monet to the possibilities of painting, Paris was where his revolutionary style would evolve and flourish. He moved there in 1859 to study at the Atelier Suisse, forming a friendship with Camille Pissarro. After serving briefly in the military, Monet returned to Paris to enroll in the studio of the Swiss painter Charles Gleyre. Remembered today more for his instruction than his production, Gleyre taught a number of young artists who rose to prominence - Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Jean-Louis Hamon and Louis-Frederic Schützenberger, among others, all passed through his studio. Through Gleyre, Monet met Renoir, Sisley and Frédéric Bazille, the group that became the first Impressionists.
Monet and his fellow artists were at times resistant to Gleyre's academic methods, which called for a careful modeling and a deliberate use of colors. It was also at this time that the daring Edouard Manet was beginning to make a splash in artistic circles – his flattened canvases of middle-class subjects were a marked departure from traditional Academic ideals. From Manet, the young Monet learned to paint in unmodelled flattened swatches of paint, though the influences of Boudin and the Barbizon painters still kept him largely outdoors.
In 1865, Monet first submitted a work to the Paris Salon, which was accepted. It would be just one of three to ever be shown at the annual exhibition – the traditionally conservative Salon would continuously reject the Impressionists’ works over the coming years. Despite some success, Monet was plagued by financial difficulties that would persist for many future decades.
Impressionism: A Movement is Named
With the Franco-Prussian War looming on the horizon, Monet left France for London with Pissarro in 1870. There, he studied the work of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner while painting en plein air in the London parks. Most significantly, he also met the dealer Durand-Ruel, who would later become his gallerist and one of the greatest supporters of Impressionism. He returned to France in 1871, settling in Argenteuil and forming the Société Anonyme des Artistes, the Anonymous Society of Artists, as an alternative to the Salon. While in in Argenteuil, Monet produced some of the most momentous works of the Impressionist movement, as did his visitors, including Manet, Sisley, and Renoir.
In 1874, Monet submitted a sensational painting to the Société Anonyme des Artistes’ first Salon that would irrevocably change the way the world viewed his work and that of his contemporaries. Entitled Impression, Sunrise, the early morning view of Le Havre caused a sensation, though it fell under harsh criticism from critics. The work also gave a name to the budding movement after a critic mockingly called the group “impressionists,” a term the artists themselves soon adopted in spite of the sarcasm. Today, the work is celebrated as a quintessential symbol of the Impressionist Movement.
Monet continued to exhibit with the Impressionists throughout the next few years, though by the 1880s many of the original group had moved on to different styles of painting. Camille Pissarro delved into Neo-impressionism with Georges Seurat, while Renoir fell under the influence of the Old Masters. Sisley and Monet were the two painters who remained steadfast in their dedication to the impressionist aesthetic, with Monet’s oeuvre embodying these ideals almost absolutely.
Monet’s interest in recording the effects of light and atmosphere reached its peak during the late 1880s and 90s, which were largely dominated by his “series” paintings. In these works, Monet observed the same subject at varying times of the day, resulting in complex sequences of a single scene. Haystacks, poplar trees, the Normandy seaside, Rouen Cathedral, and others took on a new life under Monet’s keen observations of atmosphere and light. His first exhibition of his series paintings, Grainstacks, was mounted by Durand-Ruel in 1891, and the pieces were met with high acclaim from critics.
The Grainstacks series was also highly influential upon a new generation of young independent artists, including Piet Mondrian, Maurice Vlaminck, André Derain and Wassily Kandinsky. After seeing one of the pieces at a Moscow exhibition, Kandinsky in particular experienced a remarkable shift in thinking. Standing in front of the work, he failed to see what subject it represented, but also came to realize that this absence of recognition did not diminish the painting's effect. What did become clear, according to Kandinsky, was the "unsuspected power of the palette, previously concealed from me, which exceeded all my dreams" (in Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, 1994). It marked the true beginnings of Monet’s contribution to the development of abstract art.
The Garden at Giverny
With his growing critical and financial success, Monet was able to purchase a home at Giverny, which he had rented since 1883. Immediately, he set about tearing up the land and installing flower beds, indulging his other great passion in life - gardening. By late 1893, he had transformed over three thousand square feet in a lavish botanical retreat, complete with the water lily pond and Japanese bridge immortalized on his canvases.
Once complete, the garden at Giverny provided Monet with an endless source of inspiration that he would explore almost exclusively in the last decades of his life. Yet, he did not embark on his water lily series immediately; he once claimed “It took me time to understand my water lilies. I had planted them for the pleasure of it; I grew them without ever thinking of painting them” (in Marc Elder, A Giverny, chez Claude Monet, 1924). In 1899, he undertook a series of paintings that brought together both the water lilies and Japanese bridge, though the focus was largely on the latter. It was not until 1904 that Monet would view his pond, with its colorful, blooming water lilies, as a subject in and of itself.
Following this revelation, Monet set about to work zealously, completing over sixty new canvasses of his pond between 1905 and 1908. Over these pivotal years, Monet experimented with different perspective and painting techniques, from rich impastos to long, light brushstrokes. More significant, however, were Monet’s experiments with the pictorial plane. Most of his canvases from this period removed all elements of perspectives, ignoring banks, borders, and bridges to focus solely on the surface of the water as subject. This revolutionary approach allowed Monet to capture both the depths of the pond as well as the world it reflected above, resulting in a wholly disarticulated composition of surfaces and forms. Exhibited at a show in 1909, these extraordinary canvasses were met with overwhelming enthusiasm. They were the first unqualified success of the artist’s career.
Final Years and Lasting Legacy
Monet would devote the rest of his career to his garden at Giverny, moving beyond conventional easel painting to monumental canvases and triptychs. As he slowly lost his eyesight with age, the details faded more and more from his canvases, but he never stopped putting paint to canvas. These later works became a synthesis of impressions, both of his memories and his actual observation.
The exhibition of his final series, the Water Lilies Decorations, would take place 5 months after his death at the Paris Orangerie. The exhibition of monumental works was described by André Masson as the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism” (in Monet le fondateur, Revue Verve, 1952), and it would represent Monet’s final break with traditional painting.
For the next generation of painters, these late works would prove to be profoundly influential. The Impressionists, with Monet at their helm, truly revolutionized the way we see the world, and taught young artists to experience color and form visually. Kasimir Malevich, Henri Matisse, Robert Delaunay and Piet Mondrian all fell under the influence of the master, and the 20th-century Abstract Expressionists certainly owe him a great debt – particularly Mark Rothko. The spirit of his works, with their deference to color, gesture and expression, remain just as influential today.