Claude Monet and the Birth of Impressionism

6 minute read

Today I would like to tell you about one of the greatest and most beloved painters in history, Claude Monet. We are fortunate enough not only to have Monets and several other influential Impressionists in our collection, but also that our President, Bill Rau, is an expert on 19th-century European painting. In this article I will discuss Monet’s life and the beginning of the Impressionism movement, and will also include excerpts from Bill’s incredible book, Nineteeth-Century European Painting: from Barbizon to Belle Èpoque (denoted in italics).

CHILDHOOD

Falaise et Porte d’Amont par Gros Temps by Claude Monet Falaise et Porte d’Amont par Gros Temps by Claude Monet

Oscar Claude Monet was born in 1840 in Paris, France. When he was young his family moved to Le Havre in Normandy, where he attended Le Havre secondary school for the arts. While he was in school he would often sell charcoal caricature drawings to the public for 10 to 20 francs. As a child he was so fascinated with landscape painter Claude Lorrain that he dropped his first name, Oscar, to share the name of the artist who so inspired him. He befriended his mentor and first teacher Eugène Boudin on the beaches of Normandy in 1856. It was in these early sessions that Boudin taught and encouraged Monet to paint outdoors - a lesson which would prove instrumental to the future Impressionist movement.

As Bill describes: “Monet primarily painted scenes of country landscapes broken into swaths of expressive color. His goal was to deconstruct figures and forms into shades of colors that suggested a location or a time of day. This focus developed into series of paintings for Monet that centered on the same scene captured at different times of day and in different seasons. One of his most iconic series is that entitled Haystacks, a 25-canvas series which examined the play of light on the same field of haystacks from dawn until dusk.”

Eugène Boudin

Boudin grew up in Le Havre, where his father was a frame-maker. Working for his father introduced him to artists in the area who encouraged him to pursue painting. When he was 22 he moved to Paris to begin his studies, but he frequently traveled to Normandy and Brittany to paint en plein air. Eventually Boudin’s light filled works with loose brushwork won him several medals at the Salon and also knighthood in the Legion d’Honneur.

Le Rivage de Villerville, Maree Basse, by Eugene Boudin Le Rivage de Villerville, Maree Basse, by Eugene Boudin

In his book, Bill describes their first encounter: "When Boudin met young Monet on a Normandy beach in the mid-1850s, Boudin sensed his innate talent and offered to be his mentor. The duo became fast friends. As Monet once reminisced: "One day Boudin said to me, 'Learn to draw well and appreciate the sea, the light, the blue sky' and I took his advice… This was how I came to understand nature and learned to love it passionately." Boudin instructed Monet not only in the method of oil painting but also in the technique of painting en plein air, which would become essential in the future for the development of Impressionist painting.

Le Havre, Le Bassin de la Barre by Eugène Louis Boudin Le Havre, Le Bassin de la Barre by Eugène Louis Boudin

Translated as 'in the open air,' the en plein air technique was one of the biggest revolutions in art history as it allowed painting from direct observation of the landscape. Prior to the 1850s, few artists attempted such a feat. Even the majority of the Barbizon painters often would not complete paintings while in the forest, choosing instead to sketch in situ in charcoal and then begin painting once back in the studio.

This method of painting indoors was more out of necessity than preference. When the founders of the Barbizon School first headed into Fontainebleau, tube oil paint had yet to be invented. Their only option was to premix their paints by hand - including grinding the pigments themselves - and lay them out on a palette, loosely covered to protect against the elements. Then, these artists would race as fast as they could into the depths of the forest, hoping against the odds that their paints would not dry out before the day's work was complete."

Fortunately, a revolution in paint production occurred with the invention of a zinc-based tube to contain oil paint in 1841. Another revolutionary invention was that of the box easel, which folded up to the size of a suitcase for easy transportation. These two tools together became crucial for the plein air painter and set the stage for the Impressionists to revolutionize the practice.

FORMATIVE YEARS

In 1857, Monet’s mother passed away, and he was sent to live with his aunt Marie-Jeanne Lecadre. In 1861, he was drafted for service in the Chasseurs d'Afrique in Algeria, which ended when he contracted typhoid fever. After he recovered, his aunt offered to buy his exemption from military service if he agreed to go to art school.

"Having had the privilege of painting directly from nature in his early career, Monet became obsessed with capturing the play of light. It was this obsession that inspired him when he moved to the bustling metropolis of Paris and, subsequently, when he joined Gleyre's studio early in 1862. As his teacher, Gleyre felt Monet would benefit from a greater study of figural form and composition. He was displeased by the overly stylized people that populated Monet's early caricatures, and by the young artist's obsession with the landscape, and so he tried, as he had with Renoir, to instill the conventions of the Académie.

But Gleyre's efforts were for naught. Outside his studio, artistic attacks on the conventions of the Académie had already begun to break down the institution. The biggest blow was the wide acceptance of Landscape Painting, brought to the forefront nearly forty years earlier with English artist John Constable's display of The Hay Wain at the Parisian Salon of 1824. The Académie would eventually give way, and what Gleyre had seen as Renoir and Monet's artistic idiosyncrasies would transform into their greatest strengths in the eyes of history."

Esquisse de Paysage by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Esquisse de Paysage by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Despite the eventual closure of Gleyre's studio in 1864 due to mounting disapproval of the Académie and the Salon, Impressionism was further propelled forward by the invention of photography.

"Pioneered in the early years of the 1800s, photography had developed over the course of the century into a means by which one could literally capture an instant and reproduce it in pictorial form. Louis Daguerre, one of the most influential pioneers of photography and inventor of the 'Daguerreotype,' had popularized the medium in the late 1830s, taking snapshots of the people and streets of Paris. By Monet and Renoir's generation, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Félix Nadar, was carrying photography even further, experimenting most notably with aerial photography from a hot air balloon. Fascinated by this instantaneous mode of expression, the painterly cohort set out to capture the same immediacy in painting.

Abandoning past notions that highlights in a composition had to be created with the addition of white paint, or that shadow could be conveyed only through the addition of blacks and browns, these painters (Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Bazille) turned to contemporary advances in color theory to liberate their palettes. They understood that colors had both complementary and contrasting hues that, when used in place of the conventional white or black to convey light or shadow, enlivened their compositions and heightened the viewer's sensation."

Clématites by Claude Monet Clématites by Claude Monet

In 1867, Monet had his first child with Camille Doncieux, who often modeled for him, most notably in The Woman in the Green Dress (1866). In 1870, the couple married; shortly thereafter, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and they moved first to England and then to the Netherlands to seek refuge. During this time, Monet was exposed to the work of landscape painters John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner, both of whom greatly encouraged his pursuit of landscape painting.

In 1874, Monet helped to organize a groundbreaking exhibition that was directly in opposition to the tradition of the Salon. The works of Monet, Degas, Renoir, Morisot, and Pissarro anchored the exhibition, which drew numerous negative critical reviews. One reviewer in particular referenced the lack of completion of one of Monet's paintings, Impression: Soleil Levant (Impression: Sunrise). Louis Leroy of the newspaper Le Charivari wrote: "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape" in his review headlined "Exhibition of Impressionists." While Leroy intended it as an insult, the artists embraced the name, thereafter referring to themselves as the Impressionists.

Effet de Brouillard près de Dieppe by Claude Monet Effet de Brouillard près de Dieppe by Claude Monet

GIVERNY

The late 1870s were tinted with both joy and sadness for Monet. His second son was born in 1878, but his wife Camille suffered a great decline in her health after the pregnancy and was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She passed away in September of 1879. Monet made a haunting study of his wife on her deathbed that he said was driven by his need to analyze colors, which he considered both “the joy and torment of his life.” After Camille’s death Monet went on to paint some of the most important works and series of his career.

He would later marry Alice Hoschedè, who had taken in Monet’s sons after Camille’s death and raised them with her own children. In 1883, the family moved to Giverny, where they rented the house that Monet would eventually buy and surround with his famed gardens. He built a greenhouse and two painting studios on the 2-acre property, where he would paint several series of paintings, depicting the “controlled nature” of his gardens in several different lighting conditions and seasons. Monet’s dealer Paul Durand-Ruel had great success in selling these works, and at this point in his life Monet began to prosper enough to expand and develop the property with more structures and landscaping.

Alice passed away in 1911, and shortly thereafter his oldest son Jean died in 1914. Jean had married Alice’s daughter Blanche, also a painter, who went on to care for Monet in his old age. During WWI Monet’s son Michel served in the army, and Monet painted a series of weeping willow trees as an homage to the soldiers lost.

In December 1926 Monet died of lung cancer and was buried in the cemetery of the Giverny church. His home and garden were eventually bequeathed to the French Academy of Fine Arts.

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