Claude Monet (1840-1926) was the primary inspiration for the new art movement of impressionism. Along with his contemporaries, he captured the light of nature on canvas in a unique, spontaneous and vivacious style. He painted a wide range of subjects ranging from urban scenes to his own beloved formal garden. Monet strove to capture the essence of what he saw in nature, without being constrained by formal ideas of style and substance.
“Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.”
– Claude Monet
Short Biography of Claude Monet
Claude Monet was born on 14 November 1840, in Paris, France. His family soon moved to Le Havre where he grew up. Even from an early age, he was fascinated by nature and the way the sunlight illuminated meadows and fields of wheat. At school he was easily bored, preferring to spend time in nature, or drawing ‘disrespectful’ caricatures of his teachers. His father wished him to become a grocer, but Monet’s aspirations lay in art. As he was growing up in Le Havre he developed a good reputation as a charcoal impressionist. These caricatures earned him his first income from art and encouraged him to pursue art more seriously. His father later cut Monet off from financial support because he was dissapointed at his choice of career. The money Monet saved from these early caricatures helped him to get through financial difficulties and support his career as an artist.
In 1857, Monet travelled to Paris and he spent considerable time in the Louvre. But, Monet was not satisfied with merely imitating the Old Masters, he would rather look out of a window or visit someplace in nature and draw what he saw.
In 1861, Monet joined the army for a seven-year stint in Algeria. But, after two years, illness enabled him to leave the army. He later said that his time in Africa played an important role in training his eye for his profession as a painter of light.
In 1870, Monet married, and shortly after, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war encouraged him to flee to London. After a while, he spent time in Holland before returning to Paris. He settled in Paris by the river Seine, where he was in close contact with other artists of a similar outlook. These included Auguste Renoir, Sisley, Gustave and Manet. He built a small boathouse and used it to go on the Seine to paint the people and scenes of the river bank.
His style of painting ‘plein-air’ (open-air) was unusual and was initially criticised by the artistic establishment which was firmly rooted in indoor, studio painting. Though it is worth noting, Monet didn’t always finish his paintings outdoors, he often took them back to finish later.
As well as painting directly in nature, Monet and other young artists began experimenting with the style of painting. Rather than sticking to a literal painting of what they saw, they were interested in creating the mood and spirit of the scene they saw. Monet used paint direct from the tube and put shades of colour in bright blobs next to each other.
To some it was disrespectful and amateurish, to others it opened an exciting new door of artistic expression. As his painting developed, he used new techniques such as building up images using dots or strokes which blurred the definite outline of the subject. His palette focused on warm colours, generally excluding, black and browns. Asked in 1905, Monet downplayed the importance of colour choice but said:
“The point is to know how to use the colors, the choice of which is, when all’s said and done, a matter of habit. Anyway, I use flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that’s all.”
The first impressionist exhibition
The first ‘impressionist’ exhibition was held in April 1874; it was a contemporary critic who gave the gallery the term ‘impressionist’. The critic intended this as a criticism – the fact the paintings weren’t finished with neat lines. But the artists took ‘impressionism’ as a fitting label for the art they were pursuing.
This impressionist exhibition was a key moment in the development of modern art; it featured leading impressionists, such as Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne, Guillaumin. It enabled these free-thinking artists to break away from the conservative art world that dominated the Salon de Paris. The exhibition attracted a decent attendance, although it still took time for impressionism to take off.
After a difficult few years of struggling to gain acceptance, Monet and the other impressionists slowly built a following. He became a prolific painter, often working on a series of paintings – Monet was interested in how the same subject could become a different impression as the sunlight changed. He would sometimes work on two or three canvas at the same time. As the sun set – he would switch to another canvas.
The garden at Giverny
As Monet became increasingly successful as an artist, in 1883, he was able to rent a house in Giverny on the outskirts of Paris. He planted a formal garden which included a lily pond surrounded by weeping willows and a Japanese bridge. This proved an ideal setting for many series of paintings, such as his water lilies and bridge over a pond. For Monet, nature was a significant influence, and he spent hours absorbed in nature – especially at his garden in Giverny.
“The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration. ”
– Claude Monet
Monet would later say that he may have become a painter due to the inspiration of flowers. He would also say that his greatest masterpiece was his garden.
“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
– Claude Monet
Claude Monet and the impressionist painters were particularly intrigued by the play of light and the changing colours. Monet said of his work:
“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”
During the First World War, he became close to Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister at the time. At the end of World War I, he painted a series of weeping willows out of respect for the many Frenchmen who died in the conflict.
After the war, Monet suffered a painful deterioration in his eyesight and had to have his cataracts removed. However, despite his disability, he continued to paint and continued to develop new styles and techniques.
Monet was one of the greatest modern painters. His output was prolific and he continued to develop and innovate throughout his long artistic life. His paintings are evocative of a rural ideal and the pristine beauty of nature. From Monet and the impressionist’s innovation, it opened up radical new approaches for the next generation of artists.
He died of lung cancer in December 1926, aged 86.
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