Claude Monet

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Monet is central to the development of Impressionist painting in the 1870’s. In the 1890’s, Monet developed the concept of multiple views of one subject, and in the 1940’s and 1950’s the abstract Impressionism of Monet’s late water lily paintings provided a stimulus for the American abstract expressionists.

Early Life

Although Claude Monet was born in Paris, he grew up on the Normandy coast at Le Havre. Yet the first intimations of his future vocation came not with landscape paintings but with a series of caricatures of local personalities which earned for him a considerable reputation by age sixteen. His direction changed after meeting the marine painter Eugène Boudin in 1858. Boudin, who was already a devotee of working outdoors, introduced Monet to plein air painting, which would eventually become the touchstone of the Impressionist landscape approach.

Monet used the proceeds from his lucrative caricature business to finance his first art studies in Paris in 1859, where he met the future Impressionist Camille Pissarro at the Académie Suisse. A photograph of Monet at age twenty suggests a romantic sensitivity, but later photographs portray a more rugged, stockier individual, with a square-cut, curly beard emphasizing his square face. Monet’s studies were interrupted in 1861 by obligatory military service, but in 1862 he became ill and was sent home, after which his parents bought an exemption from his remaining service.

Returning to Paris, Monet enrolled in the studio of the academic painter Charles Gleyre. His year there was notable only because three of his future colleagues and friends, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, were fellow students; all four quickly became disillusioned with the academic curriculum. Henceforth they developed on their own, discovering for themselves the Forest of Fontainebleau and the Barbizon landscapists who had worked there since the 1830’s.

In the spring of 1865, Monet had two large landscapes of the Normandy coast accepted by the salon (the official government-sponsored exhibitions), achieving considerable success with them, as well as with the figure painting sent the next year, although some reviewers confused Monet with the slightly older painter Édouard Manet, who was creating scandals with the exhibition of such precedent-shattering paintings as Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863; luncheon on the grass). Manet’s revolutionary technique, which aimed, by the elimination of halftones, to produce the effect of forms seen in a blaze of light, was an additional stimulus toward Monet’s development as an Impressionist.

Life’s Work

Those early successes at the salon were almost the only official ones for Monet. As he became more individualistic, his paintings were increasingly refused by the tradition-bound salon juries. The first refusal was in 1867 of a major work, Women in the Garden, which has since been hailed as the first large whole-figure composition to be painted entirely outdoors. Though not a true Impressionist painting, since the treatment of light is static, it represents a major milestone in the stages leading toward the development of Impressionism.

The Impressionist movement actually began when Monet and Renoir painted together in the summer of 1869 at a suburban pleasure spot on the Seine, la Grenouillère, where the moving current of the river sparked the new approach and vocabulary of Impressionism, with its interest in transitory effects of light, color, and atmosphere. To capture these effects, the painters developed a broken technique of swift, small, separate strokes of pure color. Monet and Renoir also began developing the so-called rainbow palette, eliminating earth tones and bitumens to enhance the effects of prismatically refracted light. Throughout the 1870’s, this interest in capturing the moment was of paramount interest for the Impressionists. To achieve the effect they wanted, they required the plein air approach and subjects which lent themselves to a casual treatment, such as riverbank scenes, fields, the railway, and the crowded, newly created great boulevards of Paris.

In 1870, Monet went to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War and had a chance to study at first hand the paintings of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, whose interests in atmosphere prefigured those of the Impressionists. Upon his return, Monet moved with his family to Argenteuil, a Paris suburb on the Seine, where many of his most famous Impressionist landscape paintings were produced. Although Monet and his friends were now mature artists, the problem with salon juries did not improve, and the precarious financial situation of most of them was exacerbated by the depression that began in 1873. Therefore, in 1874, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Edgar Degas executed a plan they had been considering for some time: to bypass the salon altogether and mount their own juryless Exhibition, to which each would contribute a sum for expenses. Thirty artists, not all of them Impressionists, took part in what has come to be known as the First Impressionist Exhibition, which was held from...

(The entire section is 2135 words.)