Claude Monet: Painter Of Light

Impression, Sunrise (1874)
Impression, Sunrise (1874)

Known by some as the father of Impressionism, Claude Monet was a prolific French painter of the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. His works still command impressive prices at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, almost a hundred years after his passing, and with good reason.

He was one of the first few artists to break out of the highly refined style of Neo-classicism, facing endless criticism and rejection for his foray into a more expressionistic style. Nevertheless, he persisted in capturing fleeting glimpses of landscapes and movement, both sunlit and shadowed; impressions of the world around him, wrought in paint. By painting in series, he was able to display how light affected a single subject, and how that portrayed the passage of time.

Monet’s mastery of color and light continues to fascinate viewers today, his extensive oeuvre of work a testament to the wondrous beauty of the visible world.

History

Self Portrait in Beret (1886)
Self Portrait in Beret (1886)

Oscar-Claude Monet was born 18 November 1840 in Paris. His father Adolphe Claude Monet was a businessman, and his mother Louise Aubreé had been a singer before her marriage. Growing up, Monet loved art- a passion that was most likely fueled by his artistic mother, who had herself been a competent artist in various fields. 

Monet received his first formal lessons in art through Jacques-François Ouchard, who was a teacher at his school and also formerly a student of the famous Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David. From there, the young and enterprising Monet went on to create charcoal caricatures of his teachers and fellow students, which he then sold at ten to twenty francs each at a local shop. He came into frequent clashes with his father over his art- the latter wanted him to focus more on his classes and join the family business, while Monet had little interest in ship-chandling and being a grocer. 

As he persisted in selling his drawings, the artworks caught the eye of Eugene Boudin. Boudin was a pioneer in then-new art of painting en plein air, and he felt that the young Monet showed much promise. The two became friends. He taught Monet how to use oil paints to capture scenery as they appeared, rather than work tedious hours from various sketches and memory on minutely refined landscapes as was the custom. It was duing this period that Monet first began to consider the use of light in his paintings seriously, inspired by the beautiful play of sunlight in Boudin’s maritime works. 

However, tragedy struck. Monet’s mother died the year after he began working on his landscapes.  Still in major disagreement with his father over his future, Monet moved out to live with his aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre. His aunt was supportive of his artistic career, unlike his father, and was able to sponsor him in an advanced art course in Paris. Monet became friends with several artists who would become well known names during his time in the course, such as Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  

The Woman in a Green Dress (1866)
The Woman in a Green Dress (1866)

In his twenties, Monet met his future wife Camille Doncieaux, who was the model for a painting he worked on with his friend Frédéric Bazille. She became his muse, and featured in many of his paintings, such as The Woman in the Green Dress

He submitted several paintings to the Académie des Beaux-Arts for their exhibitions at the Salon de Paris during this time, hoping to support his new family (Camille gave birth to their first son in 1867), but the conservative Académie did not appreciate his vision. They considered his paintings to be amateur and unrefined. Facing countless rejections and prolonged poverty, Monet attempted suicide in 1868. Fortunately, he survived the attempt, and lived to see his fortunes turn. 

In 1874, finally tired of the  Académie’s strictures, he became part of an artist group that held their own exhibition featuring their avant-garde works. It was at this exhibition that he displayed a work titled ‘Impression, Sunrise’– a work that would lend its name to the future Impressionists. 

The exhibition was not initially well-received by critics. They dubbed the works by these young artists unfinished, unpolished. The textured brushwork was deemed sloppy, while the application of paint like mud slung upon the canvases. Despite the criticism, the group of artists found patrons who appreciated them, and continued on with several more exhibitions with greater success in the following years.

In 1879, Camille died of tuberculosis. Monet was grief-stricken. He spent several months in mourning before he began to paint in earnest again. During this time, he entrusted the care of his children to the wife of a friend, Alice Hoschedé, who would later become his second wife. 

Coastal landscape (1864)
Coastal landscape (1864)

In this period he began to document scenery of the French countryside. He moved from village to village, studying the effects of light and colour across various subjects. In 1883, he finally settled in the village of Giverny where he would spend the next half of his life. He painted works that would become the best known series of his career- series such as Haystacks, and Water Lilies. Because of the constancy of the subjects, he was able to show the infinite variations that weather and atmosphere had, able to depict how drastically a single scene could change from morning to night, from a sunny day to a gloomy one.

Monet fell in love with his home and garden. Over the years, he gradually transformed his residence to the famous one we know today- an East Asian inspired garden with a Japanese bridge over a large pond, brimming with beautiful water lilies of various breeds. He was intensely involved in the design of the garden, going as far as to hire seven gardeners and rejecting most of their work. In order to paint the garden at its best, he even hired workers to row out in the mornings to clean any dust off the water lilies before he sat down to work. 

Claude Monet died at the age of 86, leaving behind him an impressive gallery of over two thousand works.

Top Works Sold

Meules
Meules

While his works always set up a flutter in the auction room, Monet’s Meules went for an all-time height of $110.7 million in May 2019 at an evening sale by Sotheby’s.

This painting, one out of 25 canvases in his famous Haystacks series, portrays the luminous beauty of the sun low in the sky, filtering through a line of haystacks. Emphasizing the unusual colors found in light and shadow, the canvas is a incandescent look at an otherwise mundane scene. 

Nympheas en fleur
Nympheas en fleur

Part of the Water Lilies series, Nympheas en fleur was sold for $84.7 million in August 2018 at a Christie’s auction. Prior to its sale, it had been in the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller of New York. 

Like its siblings in the series, the subject is water lilies in Monet’s famed garden. This work showcases the pond in cool shadows, azures and violets dominating the color palette while being grounded by the warm green. Here and there, white water lilies glow amidst the canvas.

Meule
Meule

Not to be mistaken for Meules which sold in May 2019. Meule is another part of the Haystacks series and depicts a solitary haystack in low but warm light, almost like the simmering embers of a cooling fire. It was sold for $81.4 million in November 2016. 

Famous Works

Woman with a Parasol- Madam Monet and Her Son, 1875
Woman with a Parasol- Madam Monet and Her Son, 1875

Sometimes known as La Promenade, the painting depicts Camille Monet on a walk with their son Jean Monet. Masterfully worked, the bright light of the blue afternoon is captured through the filter of the parasol deflecting the sun and through a translucent veil that Camille wears, multiple reflected colors bouncing off the white of her dress.

Waterlilies and Japanese Bridge (c.a. 1897 to 1899)
Waterlilies and Japanese Bridge (c.a. 1897 to 1899)

A series of about 250 paintings in total. These paintings focus on the Asian-inspired garden that Monet built in his home in Giverny. Recurring imagery in the series include the titular water lilies, many of which were foreign species, a Japanese bridge across the pond, and the weather conditions reflected in the water.

The Magpie (1868 to 1869)
The Magpie (1868 to 1869)

An evocatively worked painting portraying a winter scene of a magpie resting on a fence, surrounded by snow which is depicted with various chromatic hues. This is one of the earliest instances of Monet’s use of color in shadows, which would continue on to be a hallmark of Impressionist painting in general.

Trivia

  • Monet developed cataracts later in life, which lent a reddish hue to his works. After his surgery, his paintings showcased an intense blue-violet, which was attributed to the removal of his corneal lens, and a possibility that he might have been able to see UV light.
  • During his year of conscription in Algeria, Monet felt that the year in such a different climate inspired him greatly in the perception of color. Sadly, his drawings and sketches from the period have not survived.
  • At his funeral, Georges Clemenceau (Prime Minister of France during the first world war) took the black cloth off his casket and replaced it with a flowered one, declaring, “No black for Monet!”
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