Claude Monet

French painter, one of the creators of impressionism, in some ways its most steadfast practitioner but also the one who took impressionism into new, contradictory ways to become, in the 1940s, a major influence on abstract expressionism.

He was born in Paris, son of a merchant who took his family to Le Havre in 1845. Young Monet had a talent for caricature. Boudin took an interest in him, showed him how to paint landscapes in the open and advised him to seek further training in Paris.

Monet went there in 1859, but ignored the guidance he had gone to seek. He got unreliable financial support from his family, maintained himself by selling caricatures, associated with Courbet’s circle and, working at the Academic Suisse, became friends with Pissarro.

He spent a year on military service in North Africa, fie returned to Normandy in 1862 and met Jongkind who helped him transmit into painting what his eyes, already opened by Boudin’s example and the clear light of Africa, showed him.

Late that year Monet returned to Paris and, partly to reassure his relatives, entered the studio of Gleyre. There he met Bazille, Renoir and Sisley who responded to his pursuit of naturalistic landscape painting.

In 1864, he worked on the Normandy coast near Honfleur, painting seascapes two of which were accepted by the 1865 Salon and well received by the critics.

He was in the Barbizon area in 1865, and painted his Dejeuner sur I’Herbe, echoing Manet’s controversial work but in much more visually truthful terms. He hoped to show it in the Salon but it was not finished in time; it was damaged by damp later and only portions of it remain.

Unlike Manet, he was never tempted to adapt time-honoured formulations, but he was open to a wide range of stimuli from 19th-century art, not only that of France.

In 1870, he was in London, fascinated by Turner, Constable and the fog; in 1871 and 1872, he travelled in the Netherlands. About this time he began collecting Japanese woodblock prints.

His father’s death in 1871 meant the end of family support; friends helped financially and the dealer Durand-Ruel had begun to buy paintings from him but it was to be some years before Monet escaped the handicap of poverty.

In 1871, he settled with Camille, whom he had married the previous year, on the banks of the Seine at Argenteuil. Renoir joined him there and they worked together, developing the technique which became known as impressionism – thanks to Monet’s painting of 1874, Impression, Sunrise, shown that year in the first impressionist exhibition.

The river at Argenteuil, and from 1878 at Vetheuil, winter weather (especially the hard snow and ice of 1878-79), and in 1876-77 the Paris station of Sainl-Lazare, provided his chief subjects.

In 1886, he rented a house at Giverny, which he later bought and which remained his home.

He travelled occasionally in France and to Holland in search of alternative motifs – later he went further afield, to Norway and repeatedly to London and Venice.

He told a critic in 1880; innocence and spontaneity were the basis of his art.

Increasingly he painted in the studio, using studies made out of doors, or linished indoors pictures begun outside; increasingly too he saw painting as a campaign of visual enquiry, returning to his motif in order to study it under different conditions of light. This enquiry can be seen both as scientific and as musical a composing of variations on the same theme, and it may have been his reponse to the methodical, and thus to some critics the more intelligent and solid, methods of Seurat and his disciples.

Some of Monet’s motifs dominate over the visual effects nature’s light and atmosphere work on them: dramatic rock formations on the Etretat and Belle Ile coasts (1883-86), the winding colonnade of poplars along the Ept (1891), the front of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94).

In other instances – the haystacks near his house (1889-91), a quiet section of the Seine observed from his boat studio in the mornings under diverse conditions (1806-08) – nature is the prime theme; even London’s Houses of Parliament (1904) provide merely a stage set for nature’s performance.

Meeting with more certain public response, he paid great attention to his image in French art and to his status.

In 1889, during the great Exposition, he shared a large and lavishly catalogued show in Paris with Rodin. The 145 works he exhibited included his Creuse Valley series of that year, hung together to bring out his responsiveness to the variability of visual experience.

It was a success, critically and financially, but also established that purchasers would always break up his series. As he grew older his eyesight was afflicted with cataracts so that some of the effects he wanted eluded him and he had to rework canvases again and again. When possible, he kept series by him so as to finish all the canvases together, in relationship to each other, before exhibiting the ensemble one critic declared him ‘a symphonist and a decorator’ and another echoed it: Impressionism, once seen as the art of capturing transient effects of light, had matured into an expansive art, capable of development.

The experience of a moment had always been the latent motif of his art; Andrew Forge suggests that in the later painting Monet meditates on time, on the moment as something anticipated, remembered a enshrined in color.

From around 1910, the Japanese bridge he had built at Giverny, his flower beds and paths arched over with trees, above all his waterlily pond flanked by weeping willows, became his prime and obsessional motifs. His paintings grew in area, soon demanding two, three even four canvases per image and a specially constructed studio, and they gave rise to the idea of a gallery in which they would envelop the spectator.

1918 brought the thought of donating paintings to the state to celebrate the victorious ending of the war.

In his last years the plan was realized, with the energetic help of the great political leader, Clemenceau, in terms of two elliptical galleries developed in the pavilion of the Orangerie in Paris’s Tuileries Gardens, lined with his Nympheas or Waterlilies on twenty-two canvases. These are only a small part of his amazing production of the time, though he destroyed many works and of the pictures that remain many were substantially repainted before he considered them finished. The largest is eighty-five times larger than impression, Sunrise.

In fluent brushstrokes he reinvented his experience of water and flowers, reflections and shadows, depths and upper spaces, weaving them together as a tapestry of paint.

Monet’s long adventure with paint and light has earned increasing admiration and stimulated endless debate. By the time he died abstract painting was well established and some had wondered whether his paintings too would not soon lose all references to nature. But nature remained the only master he admitted to, and it was a symphonic metamorphosis of nature, time transformed into a surface hinting at polyphonic spaces, that these last works present us with.

The Orangerie, the Musee Marmottan and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris are prime sites for seeing Monet’s work. Americans were among his busiest early purchasers so that several USA galleries display his work, notably the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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