Impressionist Claude Monet

(1) Origins and Influences (2) Early History (3) Impressionist Edouard Manet (4) Impressionist Claude Monet
(5) Impressionists Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne (6) Monet & Pissarro in London
(7) Impressionist Painting Developments (8) Impressionist Exhibitions (9) Group Splits (10) Legacy

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The Seine at Bougival (1872)
Private Collection.
By Claude Monet.

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Impressionist Claude Monet: An Insecure Life

Dedicated to Representing Nature

In 1862, the future leader of Impressionism, Claude Monet, having returned from Le Havre, meets the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891) and comes to regard him as his real master. "It is to him that I owe the definitive training of my eye ..."

He is struck by the impetuousness of his touch, the conciseness of his suggestions, the dynamism of his strokes, this man who, aided by age and experience and without preparation or revision, was able to express the volume and idea of colour as well with a brush as with a pencil or etching. Monet paints alongside him and, following his example, gives more body to his painting, multiplying the colour accents and using round strokes (more insistent than the fine hatching of Boudin) to bring more animation to his composition.

See Landscape Painting,
and the French Barbizon School.
For a review of Impressionism
and plein-air art, see:
Impressionist Landscapes.
Plein-Air Painting.

For information and examples
of portraiture, please see:
Impressionist Portraits.

For a list of great pictures in
oils, watercolours, acrylics,
see: Greatest Modern Paintings.

For more about the evolution
of oils, acrylics, watercolours
and other types of paintings,
as well as famous artists, see:
Fine Art Painting.

For a discussion of the types,
values, and significance of the
visual arts, see: Definition of Art.

The best collection of Impressionist
and Post-Impressionist paintings
hangs in the Musee d'Orsay Paris.

However, when Monet arrives in Paris, he joins the Gleyre studio at the insistence of his family. The fact that he learns little there is compensated by visits to museums and the atmosphere of Paris. About the only positive gain from the studio is to meet Sisley, Bazille and Renoir. Their friendship becomes very close and these three tyros are henceforth to constitute round him a sphere of radiance and a veritable group. His experience with Jongkind, his bold intuition and the knowledge of the possibilities ahead of him already have made Monet a lively leader of strength. It is very important that his ideas find an echo and someone to respond to them.

From 1863, he takes his companions to the forest of Fontainebleau (home of the Barbizon school of landscape painting) to experiment with the technique he has already perfected on the Normandy coast. They make no effort to follow their immediate predecessors, the Barbizon painters, who still frequent the forest but whose formulas they discard. Renoir happens to meet Diaz who for several years gives him generous help by allowing him to stock up on colours on his account. The painter of this generation for whom Monet has the highest regard is Charles Daubigny, who prefers to work north of Paris, particularly on the Oise, on a small boat laid out as a floating studio and handled by his son. Monet admires the openness of his technique, the clearness of his sketches made from the subject. For his part Daubigny never ceases to foster the future Impressionists, particularly when he becomes a member of the Salon jury.

In 1864 the Gleyre studio is closed down and the painters have all their time to themselves. After renewed visits to Chailly-en-Biere, Monet takes Bazille to Honfleur during the summer and the two friends work at Saint-Simeon farm, to be joined soon by Boudin and Jongkind. At the beginning of 1865 Monet shares Bazille's studio in the rue Furstenberg in Paris. Pissarro and Cezanne visit them. But Monet is in a hurry to get back to Chailly to carry out a vast project he has in mind. It is to paint an immense picture - about 15 feet by 20 feet - directly in the open air, grouping about ten people and also titled "Dejeuner sur l' Herbe." Monet is not yet acquainted with Manet but has been deeply impressed by the latter's exhibition at the Martinet Gallery and has not remained indifferent to the outrages heaped on "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" at the Salon des Refuses. In taking up Manet's theme and title, did he want to compete with his elder? It is more likely that he wanted to pick up the baton and succeed where the other seemed to have fallen down. Monet intends to play the game as loyally as possible, and to avoid any risk of a studio look about his work (Manet had not quite escaped it) he tries to paint his canvas completely in the open air. When he finds the gigantic dimensions of the canvas make it too big to put it in the forest as he wishes, he sets it up near the inn and goes to verify from nature all the motifs he wants to put in the picture. As far as figures are concerned he calls on Camille, who has recently become his companion, and Bazille who both pose for several figures. Monet also uses photographs which he has taken of them in different positions.

Such an enterprise does not get under way without exciting curiosity, astonishment and certain doubts because so many risks and much expense is involved. Courbet comes to Chailly to advise Monet but apparently only succeeds in upsetting him. Monet had counted on exhibiting the work at the Salon of 1866 and thus forcing a public following for himself, but misfortune dogged him. Already caught in inextricable financial difficulties he has to stop work on the project and leave the painting in pledge to the unpaid inkeeper. Later he retrieves his painting but it is lying in the corner of a room, badly knocked about that he has to cut it into pieces to conserve the best parts. In a hurry, he paints the big portrait "Camille in a Green Dress," which wins him a certain measure of success.


Nevertheless, we get a good idea of the abandoned work, not from a later reduced version so much as from the fragments which remain and which are of exceptional quality. The central piece (98 x 75 in.) shows four persons and the sumptuous still-life of the luncheon spread out on a cloth before them; the left-hand piece (164 x 59 in.), discovered some years ago in the studio of Giverny and given to the Louvre in 1957 by Georges Wildenstein, shows four figures. The painting is of exceptional quality, with a breadth of touch that Monet did not dare try again in his easel paintings, often a little too scrupulously done. And do not forget that the work remained unfinished. Important planes of colour are relieved by decisive slices of pure tones and these vast surfaces offer a possibility for strong variations to the sunlight penetrating through the trees. The figures are truly completely integrated into nature, whether their dominant features blend in with the foliage or whether they are treated in a manner more marked by light.

NOTE: To see how Monet's so-called 'naturalism' paradoxically led to abstraction, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).

It is most probable that this work, if it could have been completed, might have marked, in relation to that of Manet, a decisive step forward that could have turned the ultimate evolution of Impressionism, and Monet in particular, in a quite different direction. Even as it was, it made a deep impression on Monet's friends. What has remained the most worthy of Bazille's work, the great "Family Reunion," painted in 1867 entirely in the open under the chestnut trees on the terrace of the painter's family home in Languedoc, obviously belongs to this cycle. Monet himself soon produces a new canvas in the same spirit, although less ambitious and not so vast, Women in the Garden (1867).

The work is painted directly in the garden at Ville d'Avray where he passes the summer of 1866. A trench has been dug so that the canvas, more than eight feet tall, can be lowered on a pulley when the artist wants to reach the top parts. The composition is much less rich than that of "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe," with only four female figures placed at angles that are artificial enough, getting their light from the vegetation. Camille had posed for the four figures which show up as slightly uniform variations. The work more closely approaches that of Manet, particularly in the treatment of faces in strokes and simplified dark blobs. The work also was saved by a miracle when Monet, once more in financial straits, had to flee to Le Havre and left behind him more than 200 canvases, many of which he defaced to stop them being sold by the bailiffs.

Thus Monet had the idea of painting man in his natural scale and in his surroundings, and he was capable of succeeding in it. But he had to give it up because of an incredible series of personal disappointments, which in the years preceding the war of 1870 brought him to the point of attempting suicide. This setback reduced him to small easel paintings and to abandoning the form which in those dimensions no longer seemed to him to be sufficient basis for dealing with the problems of light and colour. He leans towards a genial analysis of fragments of nature and only at the end of his life does he succeed in returning to that analysis of monumental proportions. We can only imagine what he might have achieved if he had continued on the road he first chose.


Thus from 1865 onwards, Monet is constrained to give preference to more modest landscape in his entries for the Salon: seascapes or forest scenes. These works are of great clarity, free, concentrated and well nourished, light and new. At first they are well received. At the Salon of 1865, Manet is surprised to find placed alongside him the painter who is almost his homonym, with whom he is still not acquainted and towards whom he still feels some bitterness in realising the success of his seascapes while everyone rails against "Olympia." But soon afterwards when he gets to know the artist his prejudice disappears and accords him an undeniable friendship.

But as the years pass Monet is to encounter the same hatred, the same injustices as the older man. At the Salon of 1866 he is again accepted with "Route de Fontainebleau" and "Portrait of Camille." But in 1867, his "Women in the Garden" is rejected and the same occurs with the marvellous landscapes of La Grenouillere in 1869. Yet what variety there is in his studied elegance and in his propositions; what rich invention in works where Monet always applies himself to the solution of a new problem! In 1865, imitating Jongkind who had painted the apse of Notre-Dame Cathedral from the same place at different times of the year, Monet sets about painting the road to Saint-Simeon farm during the summer, then under snow. In 1866 he paints the first panoramic views of Paris from the roof of the Louvre opposite Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois. Although these paintings have stiff titles such as "Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois," "Le Jardin de l'Infante" and "Le Quai du Louvre," they present a vast picture of the city with several plans of the facade of the quays and the Place Dauphine, now lit up, now tinted with light shadows, dominated by the cupolas of the Pantheon, of Val-de-Grace and the Clovis Tower which stand out under great mottled skies. The masses of green or the clumps of light foliage create a space in depth, always transparent: in the foreground the animated silhouettes of fiacres (cabs) and people strolling stand out. They are the first of those urban landscapes, of those panoramic, overhead views of the boulevards and of the Pont-Neuf which later inspire so much searching by all the Impressionists right to the end of the century.

The same summer his seascapes painted at Le Havre offer very varied combinations of plan, unfolding in parallel bands or fitting into the diagonal. The artist no longer seeks to merge land, sea and sky but composes his canvas of several elements happily defined: flowered gardens, various groups of persons, silhouettes of boats, sails and other marine objects. Some are caught in full light, generally in the front row of the compositions; others are ranged against the light in skilfully-graded shades of blue or mauve. The suppleness, the fluidity of his touch evokes the atmosphere of a sea breeze and, if we compare these works with the great light monochrome variations which Whistler achieves in the same place and time with unsurpassed poetry, Monet still holds the advantage in animation and life. For more on this, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting (1870-1910).


In 1868, Monet has a brief respite from his material worries. After Boudin succeeds in having him invited, with Courbet and Manet, to an international maritime exhibition at Le Havre, he sees his portrait of Camille bought by Arsene Houssaye, who has come to the exhibition as Fine Arts Inspector, and meets a rich art-lover, M. Gaudibert, who commissions him to paint a portrait of his wife and helps him on several later occasions. This portrait, which appears to sacrifice something to the worldly type of Alfred Stevens, a friend of Manet and occasional visitor to the Cafe Guerbois, is, in reality, in its treatment and composition very close to the contemporary portraits by Manet himself, in which the individuality of the model disappears behind a multiplicity of symbols and richness of decor. For instance, in the famous portrait of Zola, the profile is an almost minor element compared with the still-life formed by the ink-well, the open book, the coloured brochures on the desk, or by comparison with the Japanese screen or with the engravings mounted in a frame. In the portrait of Duret, the face, inert as a sleeve or a hat, is reduced almost to nothing in comparison with the enormous swollen silhouette. Animation returns to the hands and there is intensity in the still-life in the foreground, the lemon and the carafe: luminous spheres which provide a balance to the heavy vertical mass of the body. In Monet's portrait of Madame Gaudibert, the head is almost completely turned and what counts is the elegance of the puce silk robe, the movement of the shawl, the bouquet of flowers, the curtains painted with great sweeps of the brush and relieved with deep blacks. But Manet, better than Monet, knows how to get rid of useless accessories. Taking a lesson from Spanish painters, in whose work opposition of blacks and live colours is magnified by their standing out against neutral backgrounds of light and cloudy ochres, he places his figures in such a setting. The most striking example of this before the portrait of Duret is his "Fifer," so concrete and striking in the brilliant colours of the uniform, but suspended in a void.

At the end of 1868 Monet is at Bougival with his family, once more without money and appealing desperately to his friends. Renoir, who lives with his mother at Ville-d'Avray, comes to work alongside him but is just as badly off, and often they have to stop work through lack of paints. However, they sense that at the ends of their brushes are ideas for wonderful canvases.

Their impressions are complementary and, working on the same subject, they are to produce for the first time parallel visions of immense interest, with each keeping his characteristic traits and both trying to create a method of painting. First, it is the theme of the boat and the water reflecting the houses and trees on the bank. Then follow the unforgettable paintings of La Grenouillere. From this point one can readily date the birth of Impressionism as a new technique for possible general application. That celebrated place on the Seine near the Fournaise restaurant, described by De Maupassant, presented an extraordinary scene of liveliness which fascinated the two friends. The landing stage, a little island with a single tree, provides a central point for composition in which they show the strollers and the elegant coming and going. In the works of these two Impressionist painters, differing but at the same time close to one another, only the treatment of the water is almost the same, with elongated strokes producing alternation of light and shade according to whether the water receives the full light and reflects it, or ripples from the shady side. In the case of Renoir, figures merge into the overhanging foliage, an almost indistinct coagulation of vegetation. People lose all individuality, enveloped in delicate shades and reflections of light. In Monet's work, on the contrary, the contrasts are very much more marked. Magic also exists in his canvases but the composition is always clear with the whites exactly divided. The decor of trees unfolds as a frieze in full focus, thus creating a depth in front of which the silhouette of the island and, on the right, the forward part of the restaurant, are detached. There are details of prodigious boldness like the bathers on the left who seem to be streaked by the light patches on the water. This masterpiece was rejected by the jury of the Salon in 1870 despite the insistence of Daubigny, who resigned over the affair. From this time also date the significant snow studies in which Monet and Renoir probed the reflection of sunlight on snow, tinted with pink or yellow and producing bluish or mauve shadows. See: Best Impressionist Paintings.

Must we see in the lack of understanding that greeted Monet a measure of the erosion of the society of that time? In this end of the Second Empire there is a general indifference, and anxiety as well; nobody believes in anything much any more. The forces of the future already exist. They are preparing themselves, re grouping, and soon will burst out. But as yet there is nothing for them but ignorance and scorn. What is pathetic about Monet's struggle against adversity is the fact that a little more understanding on the part of his family would have made it unnecessary. His parents do not lack money and they could have given way, if not to the already assured qualities of their son, then at least to his courage and perseverance.

His position becomes almost untenable when, in 1867, his companion Camille, whom he was unable to marry before 1870, bears him a son. There are times when Monet is without even a fire, or bread. His family will only consent to help him if he eats humble pie and returns under their wing. He is offered food and shelter, but only for himself and not for Camille and their child. He endures almost martyrdom to try to produce, under so many difficulties, the work in which he believes. His sole support is Bazille, who never tires of being asked for help, in whose studio Monet sometimes takes refuge for long periods, and who tries all ways of finding buyers for Monet's paintings and, when he fails, sometimes buys a rejected work himself on instalments. (But read about Monet's next patron, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.)

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Later works by Monet include:

La Grenouillere (1869) Metropolitan Museum, NY.

The Beach at Trouville (1870) Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford CT.

Impression, Sunrise (1873) Musee Marmottan-Monet.

Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (1873) Musee d'Orsay.

Gare Sainte-Lazare (1877) Musee d'Orsay.

Rouen Cathedral paintings (1892-4) Various art museums.

Water Lilies (Nymphéas) (1897-1926) series of paintings, various museums.

The Water Lily Pond: Green Harmony (1899) Musee d'Orsay.

NEXT: (5) Impressionists Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of an excerpt from Impressionism, by Jacques Lassaigne (1966).

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