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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Claude Monet (1840–1926)

Claude Monet was a key figure in the Impressionist movement that transformed French painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. Throughout his long career, Monet consistently depicted the landscape and leisure activities of Paris and its environs as well as the Normandy coast. He led the way to twentieth-century modernism by developing a unique style that strove to capture on canvas the very act of perceiving nature.

Raised in Normandy, Monet was introduced to plein-air painting by Eugène Boudin (2003.20.2), known for paintings of the resorts that dotted the region’s Channel coast, and subsequently studied informally with the Dutch landscapist Johan Jongkind (1819–1891). When he was twenty-two, Monet joined the Paris studio of the academic history painter Charles Gleyre. His classmates included Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and other future Impressionists. Monet enjoyed limited success in these early years, with a handful of landscapes, seascapes, and portraits accepted for exhibition at the annual Salons of the 1860s. Yet rejection of many of his more ambitious works, notably the large-scale Women in the Garden (1866; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), inspired Monet to join with Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, and others in establishing an independent exhibition in 1874. Impression, Sunrise (1873; Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), one of Monet’s contributions to this exhibition, drew particular scorn for the unfinished appearance of its loose handling and indistinct forms. Yet the artists saw the criticism as a badge of honor, and subsequently called themselves “Impressionists” after the painting’s title, even though the name was first used derisively.

Monet found subjects in his immediate surroundings, as he painted the people and places he knew best. His first wife, Camille (2002.62.1), and his second wife, Alice, frequently served as models. His landscapes chart journeys around the north of France (31.67.11) and to London, where he escaped the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Returning to France, Monet moved first to Argenteuil, just fifteen minutes from Paris by train, then west to Vétheuil, Poissy, and finally to the more rural Giverny in 1883. His homes and gardens became gathering places for friends, including Manet and Renoir, who often painted alongside their host (1976.201.14). Yet Monet’s paintings cast a surprisingly objective eye on these scenes, which include few signs of domestic relations.

Following in the path of the Barbizon painters, who had set up their easels in the Fontainebleau Forest (64.210) earlier in the century, Monet adopted and extended their commitment to close observation and naturalistic representation. Whereas the Barbizon artists painted only preliminary sketches en plein air, Monet often worked directly on large-scale canvases out of doors, then reworked and completed them in his studio. His quest to capture nature more accurately also prompted him to reject European conventions governing composition, color, and perspective. Influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, Monet’s asymmetrical arrangements of forms emphasized their two-dimensional surfaces by eliminating linear perspective and abandoning three-dimensional modeling. He brought a vibrant brightness to his works by using unmediated colors, adding a range of tones to his shadows, and preparing canvases with light-colored primers instead of the dark grounds used in traditional landscape paintings.

Monet’s interest in recording perceptual processes reached its apogee in his series paintings (e.g., Haystacks [1891], Poplars [1892], Rouen Cathedral [1894]) that dominate his output in the 1890s. In each series, Monet painted the same site again and again, recording how its appearance changed with the time of day. Light and shadow seem as substantial as stone in his Rouen Cathedral (30.95.250) series. Monet reports that he rented a room across from the cathedral’s western facade in 1892 and 1893, where he kept multiple canvases in process and moved from one to the next as the light shifted. In 1894, he reworked the canvases to their finished states.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Monet focused almost exclusively on the picturesque water-lily pond (1983.532) that he created on his property at Giverny. His final series depicts the pond in a set of mural-sized canvases where abstract renderings of plant and water emerge from broad strokes of color and intricately built-up textures. Shortly after Monet died (a wealthy and well-respected man at the age of eighty-six), the French government installed his last water-lily series in specially constructed galleries at the Orangerie in Paris, where they remain today.