In his biography/critical study of Claude Monet, Paul Tucker has a problem: Monet is known chiefly for the evanescent aspects of his landscapes, his innovative use of air, light, and color—factors that have prompted critics often to ignore other aspects of his craft, such as content, composition, and historical relevance. Tucker attempts to revise this reductive critical view by analyzing the paintings in terms of Monet’s life and the political, cultural, and social complexities of his day. By blending biography with critical studies of specific paintings, Tucker shows how Monet challenged landscape conventions by complicating them, juxtaposing modern industrial imagery to idyllic nature scenes and showing the effects of the railroad and the tourist trade on vacation locales. Tucker traces Monet’s aesthetic development by looking at his paintings in chronological sequence and by exposing the modern tensions underlying Monet’s beautiful views.
Monet began his career painting nature scenes and industrial sites. From his mentor Eugène Boudin, Monet learned how to paint in plein air, how to recognize subtle changes in weather and lighting conditions, and how to incorporate contemporary developments, such as factories and train stations, which were not then considered proper subjects for landscape paintings. How could he find beauty in smokestacks? Monet searched for ways to accommodate the workaday world of industrial development into the pleasure-oriented aesthetic of French painting. In Port of Honfleur(1866) Monet juxtaposed colorful local fishing boats to steam craft and city people, thereby joining the nostalgic with the modern. With the middle-class people parading up and down a sun-drenched patio in Garden at Sainte-Adresse (1867), Monet included distant mercantile ships that suggest the hardworking business world that helps these people afford their luxury. Tucker demonstrates how this tension between opposites—the old and the new, the workaday and the leisurely, the acceptable and the innovative, and the public and the private—energizes Monet’s earlier work.
Monet arrived in Paris in the early 1860’s, when the Paris Salon determined the success or failure of every aspiring painter. Every year painters were obliged to submit paintings for the Salon judges’ harsh scrutiny in order to vie for the chance to be included in the Salon’s exhibitions. While this arrangement worked for a while, the increasing conventionality and predictable criteria of the Salon’s judges led Monet to look elsewhere to promote his art. Monet knew how to paint to suit the judges, but real artistic growth depended on his further exploring what came to be known as the Impressionist technique, which included wider, more obviously painterly brush strokes, brighter color contrasts than the Salon judges deemed customary, evanescent lighting effects, and the inclusion of alien subject matter, such as industrial sites, railroad bridges, and train stations. Torn between the desire to try innovative techniques and the need to make money, Monet eventually found the answer by joining the Impressionist exhibition that bypassed the Salon’s seal of approval.
In addition to turning away from the Paris Salon tradition, Monet traveled to broaden his scope as a painter. Always the shrewd businessman, Monet, if forced by political turmoil to visit England for a time, would take the opportunity to learn of Joseph Turner, a painter with whom he shared many affinities, or paint a series of London bridges; or he would visit Holland and paint the landscape beauties there. When in France, Monet searched for out-of-the-way towns along the Normandy coast where he could stay cheaply for a few weeks or months and produce a large quantity of paintings based on local scenery. His later series of poplar trees, haystacks, and the façade of the Rouen cathedral are masterpieces of economy as well as technique, for by keeping to one subject matter he could paint on several canvases at one time. In his final years when he turned his Giverny estate into both a European garden and an Eastern water garden, he constructed his own landscape effects in the comfort of his home. When he could no longer travel because of advanced age and cataracts, he continued to paint water lilies in such a way as to impress the public with his continued artistic growth from exhibition to exhibition.
By repeatedly returning to the same scene under different weather and lighting conditions, Monet could emphasize the mysterious impermanence of the subject matter. Critics have often ignored the subject matter of Monet’s work; Tucker counteracts this omission by analyzing the many subtle relationships within a Monet scene. For example, in The Luncheon (1873), Tucker shows how the parasol...
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