For Claude Monet the designation “Impressionist” always remained a source of pride. He chose a single genre for himself, landscape painting, and in that he achieved a degree of perfection none of his contemporaries managed to attain. Claude Monet loved Normandy passionately, and always considered it his true country. Yet he was born in Paris, on Rue Lafitte, and baptized Claude Oscar on 14 November 1840. In 1845, when Claude was five years old, his father opened a small store in Le Havre.
With his father’s consent Claude went to Paris for two months in 1854, and later extended his stay. The city fascinated him, the Louvre was inexhaustible, and the exhibits by modern painters stimulated his thinking about the future of art. Monet did not want to enrolled, ‘L’Académie Suisse’, on the Quai des Orfèvres. This was where Monet met the future Impressionist Camille Pissarro. But the stay in Paris was interrupted; the time for military service had come and he left for Algeria with the African regiment. Monet did not return from Algeria to his cherished Normandy until 1862.
Auguste Toulmouche, a Monet family relative thought it essential that Monet attend the free studio run by his own teacher, Charles Gleyre. It was there in Gleyre’s studio that Monet met Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. From the moment they met at Gleyre’s studio the young painters moved forward together, casting the weight of the classical tradition off their shoulders.
Life was hard for the young painters. Monet had the knack of persuading bourgeois Parisians to commission him and Renoir to do their portraits, and in this way he managed to pay for the group studio, the model, and coal for the heating. Fortunately one of their clients, a shopkeeper, paid them in groceries. A bag of beans was enough for about a month.
Luckily Frédéric Bazille was among them, and with the money his parents sent him he rented a studio for himself, Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. When Monet and Bazille had an apartment with a studio at Place Furstenburg, where Delacroix was living, Sisley and Renoir would come over at night. Pissarro brought Cézanne along with him. For some time this studio became their meeting place. They had stopped attending Gleyre’s studio, and together they now left to work in the region favoured by the Barbizon School painters, the Fontainebleau forest.
It was also at Chailly, in 1865, that Monet began to paint Luncheon on the Grass, inspired by Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. This painting had little in common with Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, apart from the motif of a picnic on the grass and the charm of an authentic landscape painted directly from nature. Monet had not yet got past the profusion of detail characteristic of genre painting. But already there is something here that points towards Monet’s future: the sun, as it pierces through the greenery of the trees, fragments it into small, juxtaposed patches, and the coloured shadows on the women’s elegant dresses are painted with pure colours.
In 1866 Monet painted the portrait of Camille Doncieux, his future wife – Woman in the Green Dress. During the 1860s Monet occasionally visited his parents’ home in Normandy. His disagreements with his family were a source of continual distress for him. In 1867 Monet’s father ordered him to spend the summer at Sainte-Adresse under his aunt’s surveillance to keep him away from Camille, who was just about to give birth to their first son, Jean. His father threatened to withdraw financial support completely if he married. Monet was in despair, and in such a state of nervous agitation that he even began to lose his vision.
He painted a series of landscapes at Sainte-Adresse that brought him one step further towards Impressionism. Indeed, Regattas at Sainte-Adresse (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Terrace at Sainte-Adresse, and Woman in the Garden (Saint Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum) are all dated 1867. Monet painted a bright blue sea, rippling with tiny waves, with the vast Normandy sky as smooth as a mirror and sprinkled with clouds. Pure colours appear on his canvases, unmixed with one another. Red flowers shimmer in the green grass, coloured pennants flutter in the wind. Sunlight floods his paintings.
The close of the 1860s and the beginning of the 1870s were not an easy period for Claude Monet. In 1868 he finally married Camille Doncieux. Without his father’s support, life with his family was proving very difficult. During the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune he stayed in England. In London Monet met Pissarro and Charles-François Daubigny. Paul Durand-Ruel himself passed through London during the war period, and Daubigny introduced him to Monet. From that moment and for many years onward, Durand-Ruel would be Monet’s dealer and loyal supporter. When, at the end of 1871, Monet and his family returned to France, they moved to the banks of the Seine, at Argenteuil.
Regattas at Argenteuil (Paris, Musée d’Orsay), a not very large canvas with a dazzling blue sky, a red roof and white sails, became a veritable celebration of colour. It was already there – that truly open-air painting that would be designated “Impressionism” the following year. The little garden beside his house was the only motif he needed. Monet painted this garden from different angles, each time discovering something lovely and new there. Camille and their son Jean were his constant subjects, seated beneath the trees or walking along the country paths. But even when his wife or his son or one of his friends appeared in the painting, the painter was more interested in the atmospheric haze, or patches of sunlight on light-coloured dresses. The flowering beds of lilacs became Monet’s favourite motif in the garden (Lilacs in the Sun). The pale, purple-pink flowers become a source of light. Sunlight playing over the foliage throws a pink tint over Camille’s dress, which is hidden in the shadows. But most of all there is that hazy heat that no one, before Monet, had ever tried to render in a painting. It effaces all the edges, saps everything of its sharpness and definition, and produces that very “impression” which would later give this art form its name. One of the landscapes he painted at that time was a view of the port of Le Havre, composed after the Japanese system of perspective. The image fills the entire canvas just to the upper edge (The Grand Dock at Le Havre, Saint Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum).
Claude Monet shared the general infatuation of that period with the Japanese masters, and was among the first to familiarize himself with their pictorial art. But in choosing the works for the exhibition Monet favoured the view from the hotel window, where the port could not be seen, and where the essential element was the veil of morning mist. This landscape, called Impression, sunrise would decide the fate of the exhibition’s participants. They became “Impressionists”, and Claude Monet was unanimously designated head of the group.
Another painting by Claude Monet was the revelation of the 1874 exhibit. It was his first urban landscape The Boulevard des Capucines, painted in 1873. It also had a prophetic character; it was there that, one year later, the famous exhibition would open. Two Parisians in top hats are looking out the second floor window of Nadar’s studio. There is practically no sky in this landscape: the new buildings and hotels rise to the upper limit of the canvas. Their shadow divides the space into night and day. The side lit by the sun is flooded with light, and the bare branches of the trees are nearly dissolved in it.
To be continued…
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