For many years, what I read about Monet seemed to indicate an artist with a prodigious work ethic, who went about the labor of his profession without the hindrance of temperament. His unwavering focus was almost intimidating. Finally, I read a book which described his behavior on the bad weather days - when he couldn't go out to paint the landscape. According to this book, at such times Monet was so inconsolable that he wouldn't get out of bed. What a relief to find him human! He had to have the best eyesight in human history. What Cezanne was to cerebral painting, Monet was to visual painting. Cezanne supposedly said of him, "Monet is just an eye - but God, what an eye!" His placement of forms, large and miniscule, was so precise that everything in the image was perfectly formed and placed, just like it is when we see it in nature. But anyone who has ever painted, particularly landscapes, knows that to achieve the same coherence on a blank canvas is not nearly as easy as Monet makes it look. The forms and colors are constantly misbehaving, in the wrong places, with the wrong color.
This facility with paint has led some to dismiss Monet's work, along with Impressionism, as merely visual, naturalistic, and committing the ultimate sin - formlessness. But to those who prize color over form, Monet's work is colossal in its nature - just as colossal in its own way as Cezanne. Though he began with Impressionism's fleeting moment in time, Monet's work over time became less interested in external reality, and more in the abstract qualities of paint on canvas. This development peaked with his late water lilies series of large paintings, in which color, light and paint were the subjects, anticipating mid-20th century painterly abstraction.
Claude Monet was born in Paris in 1840, but grew up in Le Havre, France. As a young man, he drew caricatures of his teachers, which revealed a draftsman's ability with portraiture. When he met the landscape painter Boudin, while Boudin was working en plein air (outside, rather than in his studio), he listened to Boudin's ideas on the value of working directly from nature. Painting outdoors didn't really become common until paint became available in metal tubes in the 1840's. Still, artists only did oil sketches outdoors, in preparation for their more ambitious work in their studio. Of the 19th century Barbizon school of French landscape painters, only Daubigny had completed his paintings outside. Boudin stressed that a painter should retain his first impression of a scene; and that working from life quickly and with great concentration added a power to the work which was lost in the studio. Boudin did many small studies, often of beach scenes, from life, which had a freshness and spontaneity very unusual for this time period. His idea raised the level of the "sketch" to a valid work in its own right. Monet was much influenced by these ideas, and soon began painting landscapes from life himself. When he announced that he wanted to study art, his business merchant father was not enthusiastic, but reluctantly gave his permission. So Monet went to Paris to study in the studio of the academic painter Gleyre.
In Gleyre's studio he met Renoir and other young students. They sometimes were resistant to the master's relatively academic methods, which included working from plaster casts of antique Roman statues in the studio. This academic training caused many 19th century paintings to be so carefully modeled and blended that the very life was sucked out of them, and the colors brown and dull, the colors of the studio, not the blue sky and green grass, red flowers of the world outside. Classicism (images down the page) and Romanticism had previously dueled in the 19th century official French art academy, the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts). Classicism was represented by painters such as Ingres (down the page), who considered line and drawing to be the important elements of painting. Delacroix (down the page) represented the Romantic school of painting, more concerned with color and brushwork. Then Courbet, with his ideas of Realism, challenged both Classicism and Romanticism, with his idea that painting should only represent the real world, with real figures, landscapes and objects of the present-day world - not the idealized world of history, mythology and classical subjects of Classicism and Romanticism. Monet was influenced by Courbet's realism, however of the two other approaches, he was definitely closer to that of Delacroix. He had experienced his military service in Algeria shortly before his student experience of 1862-63, and was most affected, as was Delacroix, by the intense light and color of Africa.
Manet was infamous for his new work - it was reviled by most critics and public alike, as scandalous and improper and revolutionary. The young painters Monet, Renoir and others were inspired to paint the life around them, in unmodeled flat areas of paint, like Manet; and out in the open air, like Boudin and the Barbizon painters, who painted from life in the forests of Fountainbleau, such as Daubigny, Corot and others. In 1863, Monet saw Manet's painting Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) at the Salon des Refuses exhibition (for those who had been rejected from the official Salon). Monet was inspired to paint a large image (20 feet wide) similar to Manet's, his own Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, from life out-of-doors, with his friends posing for him. In the same year, the Salon exhibition became an annual event. Monet first submitted a work to the Salon in 1865, and was accepted by the jury. He only exhibited there twice more after this - like the other Impressionists, his work was often rejected from the Salon. Later, in 1874, Monet convinced Manet to also paint en plein air, rather than in the studio.
Monet, as everyone knows, was primarily a landscape painter. But early in his career, he painted portraits, still lifes and interiors which showed amazing ability in these types of images, also. He simply preferred the landscape, and water in particular; first the seacoast, then the Seine River, and finally the pond in his garden at Giverny. Monet, Renoir, and by this time Pissarro, Morisot,Sisley, Bazille, and at this point Cezanne, and others were now joining together in their new vision of painting. Monet's first landscapes, although freshly and boldly painted, had not been so very far from the officially accepted rules of painting. Now he used his friends as models, at picnics under shady trees - his female companion Camille among them. They were very large, and at times his ambition exceeded his ability to pull them off. He and Renoir, in particular, began to develop their new way of applying paint, often painting together. At this early stage, their paintings are very hard to tell apart, such as their images of the boathouse parties on weekends in La Grenouillere in suburban Paris in 1869.
Meanwhile, Monet's father was not thrilled with his son's lifestyle; when Camille was pregnant with Monet's child, his father forced him to come home, leaving Camille to fend for herself. When the baby was born, Monet had the heavy responsibility of caring for them both, with the earnings of a very young, very unsuccessful painter. He carried this burden for many years, and struggled mightily with poverty and the stress caused by Camille's poor health, and his inability to pay for her medical care. His friend, the wealthy Bazille, whose family fortune and profession as a doctor enabled him to paint without worries, helped Monet financially many times. There are a number of letters from Monet to Bazille, in which Monet pleaded his financial crises. Bazille, being unfamiliar with such situations, sometimes forgot to send money. At one point, Monet threw himself in the river; after he changed his mind, he wrote to Bazille, telling him of his near fatality.
Renoir also struggled. He had been born into a working class family, and had no assistance either. But the two, as well as the other future Impressionists, kept on their path, though only a few critics and friends were supportive of their work, and much of the time they were not only rejected from the Salon, but jeered by a public used to the drab brown of the successful painters, and the careful modeling of their images. To them, it seemed that these misguided painters were simply flinging paint at the canvas randomly, not displaying the important skills of an artist - correct drawing, blended colors, subdued colors, classical subjects, etc. Monet's historic painting, Impression Sunrise, gave them the ammunition they needed, to dub the new movement Impressionism. These paintings made use of spontaneous painting - dabs, smears and scribble-type marks. Not much chance of them earning a living as a painter there... One true friend, Victor Chocquet, championed them actively by standing in front of their work and defending it to mocking passersby, trying to explain this new vision. Renoir and Cezanne both painted Chocquet's portrait in a very sympathetic manner (and very differently from one another). They were insulted, of course, by the rejection from the official Salon every year; but they also joked about it, and Cezanne supposedly considered it a badge of honor. Around 1872 was the beginning of 'true' Impressionism. In 1874 the group held the first Impressionist exhibition, the first of many over many years' time, since they couldn't show their work at the official Salon much.
It wasn't until about the age of 40 that Monet began to achieve some acceptance and success. In the meantime he continued to struggle, but he also continued to paint. Camille succumbed early on to ill health, and died in 1879, leaving Monet with his young sons, Jean and Michel. Monet eventually married a family friend, Mme. Hoschede, and they lived happily, with her children, for many years. In 1883 the family moved to Giverny, where he constructed his famous garden. His work went through a long transition, from early naturalism to Impressionism, to studies of fleeting light effects, to views of his prized garden and the Japanese footbridge he had built specially. Japanese prints had a significant effect on European artists in the second half of the 19th century, with their decorative, flat quality, and the frontal quality of their compositions. He began to paint his water lilies, first as part of the Giverny garden ensemble of water, bridge and flowers. But in his later life he began to zero in on the water lilies almost exclusively, using the surface of the water as a metaphor for the painting's surface, with freely moving lines, areas, and dabs of color. The orchestration of the color relationships is also the subject of the paintings. They were large rectangles, much wider than high, which he placed next to one another in a continuous circle, inside a specially constructed building, so that the viewer could turn 360 degrees and see all water - all painting.
In his later years he finally achieved the respect and success he had waited for. When his second wife died, he became very depressed, and stopped painting for a time - probably the only time. But he came back to it, as always, and lived a long life, until 1926. Toward the end of his life, he became so blind as to barely see, and still he painted. Some of these last paintings are very loose in handling, and the colors are so garish that you have to wonder if maybe he couldn't really see at all. But he couldn't stop, just like his fellow Impressionist Degas, who suffered the same fate and responded to it in the same way. Just keep painting.
Needless to say, many artists have been influenced by Monet's work. Probably 20th century color field painting owes him a large debt, as well as painterly abstractionists such as Jules Olitski, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, and many others. His mastery of color is unmatched; like Cezanne, his every touch is absolute without question. As all painters know, his perfection may look facile, but actually is nigh impossible to duplicate. As a young man looking at nature and trying to come up with a visual equivalent, he supposedly asked, "What do you do with all those leaves?" (other than paint each one, one by one). He figured it out, without painting each one - by just suggesting, not spelling out. Yet his images have the conviction of nature. The Impressionists are so-called not just because they worked loosely, with small spontaneous dabs. Their important contribution was their use of color - by using the color theories developed in the 19th century, they optically mixed color with red next to yellow, rather than orange, and many more subtle, unnameable colors in this fashion. Their use of color complementaries and harmonies changed the entire course of painting, going from the value-based traditional painting, to the color-based modern vision. Where black had been the common denominator, violet, red, green, yellow, and blue now described a modern world in constant motion, with casual and spontaneous force.
In this way, the Impressionists revolutionized painting; they were the first modern artists, who changed the way we see the world. And Monet was the unquestionable leader of this group - ambitious, hard-working, bold, focused - he was a damn good painter. To my mind, Impressionism is a good starting point - both historically and artistically. For a young artist, nothing is more liberating than to see color and form abstractly - not as 'leaf,' 'tree,' 'house' - but as Monet advised an American painter, an oblong of pink, a square of blue, a streak of yellow. It is the first step in learning to see form and color visually, abstractly, rather than in the conventional, non-visual way. From this freeing beginning, young artists can develop their own vision in new and unexpected ways. It is the beginning of an improvisational approach to painting.
Monet painted his Giverny water landscapes for 27 years; they reflected peace and contemplation. When he died in 1926, the foremost French painter, these landscapes were installed in two oval rooms in the Orangerie of the Tuileries Gardens. Like his mature work, they were of a kind of metaphysical naturalism. Monet's remarks to his friend Georges Clemenceau described this as not reducing the world to your measure; but to enlarge your knowledge of the world. You will then enlarge yourself and your self-knowledge. Like other creators of perfection - Cezanne, Beethoven - there is a tacit acknowledgement of a reality existing beyond appearances.
At this time, Monet also admired the Dutch landscape painter Jongkind, the American painter Whistler, and French painters Corot and Edouard Manet. Edouard Manet at this time (1860's) was making a big splash in the Parisian art world, and ruffling many academic feathers with his new way of painting. Though he was a reluctant revolutionary, Manet's work, influenced by the painting of Velazquez, dared to paint without the tradition of modeling forms with shading, and blending colors smoothly together. Not only that, his work didn't deal with images from history, mythology, or classical Greece and Rome, which were currently considered to be the acme of painting. He painted scenes of modern life, with men and women dressed in mid-19th century Parisian fashion; though some of these women were nude, and seemed to be frankly courtesans.
Manet had begun the revolution in painting - switching from the accepted tradition of chiaroscuro (shading of lights and darks to define three-dimensional form), to the new way of applying flat, unblended patches of color ("broken" color), rather than lights and darks to indicate rounded forms. This new approach was flat, rather than three-dimensional, a result of the influence of Japanese prints at this time. Rather than using perspective and other spatial cues to indicate depth into space, the new approach favored a decorative flatness, with no illusion of depth. Monet extended this pictorial idea to use dots and patches to indicate forms, such as trees and foliage. Rather than drawing with line, then filling the shapes with color, Monet drew and painted simultaneously - the color, light, value and form of the subject, with strokes of precisely related hues and values. His forms were exact - but without the use of line, and with superb paint handling. It seems to me that he was the first painter to use the color violet - as a color in itself, and as a "substitute" for black in defining forms. This reflected the new emphasis on color, rather than values of light and dark. He approached the problem of indicating the whole tree, versus indicating all the individual leaves, by inventing a visual equivalent of multiple forms (leaves) with patches of light and color, without actually painting each leaf (spelling out). Like Cezanne and all great painters, each stroke served multiple functions of value, color, spatial position, form and light. A new way of representing reality was also the replacement of the former static quality of painting with a blurry sense of flux (movement) - particularly attuned to the increased pace of life during the Industrial Revolution occurring at this time. And though earth tones were still used, they were used in conjunction with a new palette of primary and secondary colors - bright, undiluted reds, yellows, blues, greens, violets, etc.
Monet was never interested in aesthetic battles, or in theories of painting. It was just he and nature. The characteristic visual qualities of Impressionism were never carried out systematically, but rather with spontaneity. The juxtapositions of color patches, looking haphazard close up, merged when the viewer stepped back a few feet from the canvas, along with the optical mixing of red/yellow instead of orange, blue/yellow instead of green, etc. There was a great new freedom in their work, but it was also carefully composed, though often on the spot. In their work, the identity of individual objects and forms merged to form the collective whole of the composition. They didn't use linear perspective or other spatial cues to indicate distance. Their images were not of solid forms - they were interested in an atmospheric rather than a volumetric quality. When Monet painted his series of Poplars, his interest was in creating an atmosphere - the poplars were just the vehicle he used to do this. He was not only interested in light on objects, he was interested in the light between objects - the atmosphere. He was interested in recording the different light effects on forms at different times during the day. He also sometimes used an underlying rectilinear structure, or skeleton; his Rouen Cathedral and Poplar series are examples of this. He also continued to work in 'series,' that is, many paintings of the same subject. He, more than any other Impressionist, remained true to its character, in one way or another, to the end of his career. His late water lily series (close-up view) of paintings realized a long quest to work from life, on a mural-sized scale. They also were open compositions, meaning that the painting and the space seemed to continue beyond the four edges of the canvas - a modern tendency - and that there was free movement between the forms in the painting, rather than strong contour lines between them.