Impressionism as a technique devoted to capturing effects of light out of doors is exemplified most purely in the painting of Claude Monet, who forced it to its limits, and then beyond.
Monet was born in Paris on February 14, 1840 the son of a grocer; his parents refused to support him in a career as an artist, offering to buy him out of his military service if he would abandon the idea. This he refused to do, and by the time he was sixteen he had a local reputation as a caricaturist in his home city of Le Havre. His interest in landscape was stimulated by painters who came to Le Havre to paint the port or the beaches, particularly by Eugene Boudin. In 1859, at the age of 19, Monet went to Paris. That year he visited the Salon several times. He refused to return home or to enter the Ecole-des-Beaux-Arts, but began instead at the Atelier Suisse, where Gustave Courbet had worked and Camille Pissarro sometimes came. At a dealer's exhibition the following year, Monet noticed pictures by Courbet, Eugene Delacroix, and the works of the Barbizon School. Meanwhile he often found members of Courbet's circle airing their ideas at the Brasserie des Martyrs.
Monet's military service interrupted
his life in Paris. Two years in Algeria in an African regiment
made him seriously ill, and his father was forced to buy him
out of the four years that remained. He returned home to Le Havre,
where he met the Dutch painter Johan
Barthold Jongkind, eventually an even stronger influence
on him than Boudin.
Back in Paris at the end of 1862, Monet enrolled, at his parents
wish, in Charles Gleyre's studio at the Ecole-des-Beaux-Arts.
Even at this stage he was a conscious rebel against the
By the beginning of 1865 Monet
was very short of money. Bazille
let him share his Paris studio. Then Monet had two views of the
Seine estuary hung at the 1865 Salon. His name was confused by
some of the spectators with that of Edouard
Manet, who was startled and irritated to be complimented
on Monet's work. Monet for his part had been an admirer of Manet since the Salon
des Rufuses of 1863 and was planning a huge Le Dejeuner sur
l'Herbe to rival his. Unlike Manet's, it was to be painted
as far as possible in the open air. In the forest at Chailly
he made preliminary studies and began the final composition.
whose freedom of brushwork he had learned to follow, came to
visit him and
In 1867 he was again in acute financial difficulties. Bazille bought Woman in the Garden, arranging to pay for it in installments over four years so that Monet should have an income. Even this did not save the situation. The picture was rejected at the 1867 Salon, and Camille was expecting a child. Monet was obliged to return home for the summer, leaving her in Paris, where she gave birth to Jean Monet. His circumstances were so hopeless that Monet was near to attempting suicide.
The following years were not much better. He often could not afford paints, and sometimes what he had been able to do was appropriated by his creditors. But in Paris at the Cafe Guerbois, a meeting place for painters and writers where technical questions were frequently discussed, he was inspired to make further experiments. With Sisley and Pissarro he concentrated on winter landscapes. And in Bougival on the Seine he and Renoir made a study of the effect of light on water. When Renoir too was desperate, Monet encouraged him.
In June, 1870, just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Monet married Camille. In the autumn he fled to London. There he was introduced to Durand-Ruel, a dealer who was to be for many years the chief patron of Impressionism. Pissarro was also in London, and he and Monet painted together in the open air and saw the Constables and Turners in the museums. After the war, and a visit to Holland, Monet returned to France to settle with Camille in Argenteuil, on the Seine near Paris. A studio boat was built so that he could watch the light on the water. Renoir sometimes worked with him, and in the summer of 1874 they were joined by Manet, who was finally persuaded to overcome his prejudice against painting out-of-doors.
Monet was largely responsible for the first group show of the Impressionists, held in Paris in 1874. It was his painting Impression: Sunrise, 1872, that gave a focal point to the ridacule roused by the exhibition and its name to the Impressionist movement. For the next few years he was still in financial straits. With some help from Manet he struggled on. His second son, Michel, was born in 1878; in the autumn of 1879 Camille died.
In desperation, Monet submitted work to the Salon in 1880, for the first time in ten years. One painting was accepted. That year he also had a show of his own, and things became a little easier. Accused by Edgar Degas of pandering to officialdom, he did not exhibit at the Salon again. But he exhibited in most of the Impressionist group shows, several times in London, in Brussels with Les XX, and in New York when Durand-Ruel took 50 of his canvases there. To the dealer's annoyance, he also showed in Paris in a rival gallery, that of Georges Petit.
Monet worked in many places, mostly near Paris, with occasional trips to the south of France, Venice, Holland, and London. After the death of Camille he lived with the widow of his friend and patron Ernest Hoschede, later she became his second wife. In 1890 he bought the house on the river Epte at Giverny that was his home from 1883 until his death in 1926.
The Works of Monet
Monet's development can be summarized in a handful of pictures that must stand for many hundreds. He was an insatiable worker. Red Boats at Argenteuil painted in 1875, is a fully developed impressionist landscape of the period of the first group exhibition. The stretch of water is shot through with strokes of blue in many different shades. The reflections of boats and shore are struck into it freely, in bright tints of greens and pinks. On its sunny side, the largest of the boats is yellow in the highest lights, shot with lavender near the water, yet a bright rosy color overall.
From a little distance these different tints and colors within single areas tend to disappear as individual strokes. The eye "mixes" them and in doing so creates colors with more vibration, more sparkle, than would have been possible if the various reds or greens or blues or pinks had been mixed on the palette and applied in large areas in the conventional way or pulled together by "blending" on the canvas. in this stage of impressionism form has not disappeared, although light, shattering against it, is already permeating and softening its surface, obscuring its details.
Monet's preoccupation with reducing all visual experience to terms of pure light became an obsession. When his young wife died he was horrified to find himself analyzing the nacreous tints of her skin in the early morning light. As he continued to paint, wishing he could have been "born blind in order to gain his sight and be able to paint objects without knowing what they were," as he began more and more to develop the ability to see light and nothing but light, light became like a corrosive substance eating away the objects bathed in it.
Between the Terrace at Le
Havre and his late pictures Monet changed from a painter
responding to nature into one fascinated by an abstract problem.
In the early pictures the attraction of subject is great; in
the Terrace at Le Havre, half the observer's pleasure
is his feeling of participation in a world of sun, air, flowers,
and water. There is a keen and delightful sense of the fresh
spanking breeze, and the presence of the sparkling sea. In the
later pictures abstraction is the whole pleasure. It must be,
for the objects from which we might have gained the sense of
participation in the scene have become devoured by a
Monet invented a name for what he was trying to achieve: instantaneity. In 1891 he exhibited, at Durand-Ruel's, a series of fifteen paintings of haystacks in the different lights of different times of day, analyzing the color-light relationships in various stages between half-lights of early morning and evening and the full blaze of midday. This faintly pedantic exhibition was a great success. Monet then set out on an even more elaborate analysis and painted some forty pictures of the Rouen Cathedral on gray days, bright days, in early light, late light, full light, light at different seasons of the year.
The water-lily paintings supplied the motif for Monet's last work, a series of large decorative panels. But in these hugely expanded canvases, with large brush strokes, the forms of nature are difficult to distinguish. If the painting are regarded as representations of lilies and water with ripples and glancing reflections of light, they never become more than great inchoate masses of opalescent color arbitrarily cut off on four sides by a frame. But if they are regarded as abstract arrangements of color applied in directed strokes, they gradually loose coalesce. One movement of strokes across the canvas is revealed as a check or buttress to another; a system beginning in one section and seeming to vanish will reappear elsewhere.
The colors are woven and built into a structure that is its own reason for being. The "systems" in these paintings are free inventions, felt rather than calculated, and the danger is to exaggerate their precision or to find within them a logic that does not exist. But it is safe to say that Monet, from his impressionist beginning when he painted spontaneous approximations of visual effects of light and atmosphere, gradually transformed his art into one of abstract surfaces where relationships of form and color exist for themselves in spite of the vestigial remains of the subject.