Claude Monet - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Claude Monet
Born in Paris, Oscar Claude Monet moved at the age of five to Le Havre, a seaside town in northern France. His father was a successful grocer that later turned to shipping. His mother died when he was 15. The ocean and rugged coastline of Northern France had a profound effect on him at an early age, and he would often run away from school to go for walks along the cliffs and beaches. As a youth, he received instruction at the College du Havre from a former pupil of the famous Neo-Classical artist Jacques-Louis David. Creative and enterprising from an early age, he drew caricatures in his spare time and sold them for 20 francs apiece. Capitalizing on his early aptitude for art, he managed to save a good bit of money from his art sales.
A pivotal experience occurred in 1856 when Monet became friends with Eugéne Boudin, a landscape painter famous for his scenes of northern French coastal towns. Boudin encouraged him to paint outdoors, and this en plein air technique changed Monet's concept of how art could be created: "It was as if a veil was torn from my eyes; I had understood. I grasped what painting could be."
Despite being rejected for a scholarship, in 1859 Monet moved to Paris to study with help from his family. However, instead of choosing the more customary career path of a Salon painter by enrolling at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Monet attended the more avant-garde Académie Suisse, where he met fellow artist Camille Pissarro.
Obliged to serve in the military, in 1861 Monet was sent to Algiers. Like Eugène Delacroix before him, the north African environment stimulated Monet and affected his artistic and personal outlook. Coming home to Le Havre after his service, his "final education of the eye" was provided by the Dutch landscape and marine artist Johan Jongkind. Following this, Monet again left for Paris, attending the studio of Swiss artist Charles Gleyre, which included such students - and future Impressionists - as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille and Alfred Sisley.
In 1865, the Paris Salon accepted two of Monet's seascapes for exhibition. However, the artist was feeling confined by working in a studio, preferring his earlier experience of painting in nature, so he moved just outside Paris to the edge of the Fontainebleau forest. Using his future wife, Camille Doncieux, as his sole model, his ambitiously large Women in the Garden (1866-67) was a culmination of the ideas and themes in his earlier work. Monet was hopeful that the work would be included in the Paris Salon, but his style kept him at odds with the jurors and the picture was refused, leaving the artist devastated. The official salon at this time still valued Romanticism. (In 1921, to assuage the 50-year-old insult, Monet made the French government purchase the painting for the enormous sum of 200,000 francs.)
To escape the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Monet took refuge in London, producing many scenes such as Westminster Bridge (1871). His wife and their new baby boy Jean joined him. He visited London museums and saw the works of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, whose romantic naturalism clearly influenced his use of light. Most importantly, he met Paul Durand-Ruel, who ran a new modern art gallery on Bond Street. Durand-Ruel became a major supporter of Monet and Pissarro, and later Renoir, Degas, and other French Impressionists.
Returning to France after the war, Monet settled his family in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris along the Seine River. Over the next six years he developed his style and documented the changes in the growing town in over 150 canvases. His presence also attracted Parisian friends including Renoir and Manet. While Manet was 10 years older and became an established artist much earlier than Monet, by the 1870s each influenced the other in significant ways, and Monet had successfully won Manet over to plein air painting by 1874.
In a continued effort to protest the salon system, Monet and his friends organized their own exhibition in 1874, held in the vacated studio of photographer and caricaturist Nadar. This became known as the first Impressionist exhibition. These artists, including Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro, were the first artists to collectively respond to the changes in their city. The modernization of Paris was evident in the wider boulevards needed to accommodate the expanding fashions of public life and growing traffic of consumerism. Not only was their subject matter new, but the way they portrayed this reality was unique as well. Intuitive feeling and the essence of spontaneity, of the moment, were impressed upon the canvas. It was through the 1873 work Impression, Sunrise that Monet inadvertently gave the movement its name, although that name was actually initially used by writers to criticize these types of works.
While Monet's upbringing was rather middle class, his extravagant tastes led him to live much of his life in varying degrees of poverty and debt. His paintings were not a decent source of income and he often had to borrow money from his friends. After receiving several commissions throughout the 1870s, Monet enjoyed some financial success, but was in dire straits by the end of the decade.
In 1877, the Monet family was living in the town of Vetheuil with Alice Hoschede and her six children. The Hoschede family were great friends and patrons of Monet's work, but the husband's business went bankrupt, and he ended up abandoning his family. Thus, Monet had to find an inexpensive house for the large household. Camille gave birth to their second son, Michel in 1878. But when Camille died about a year and a half later, there was a change in Monet's work, focusing more on the flux of experiential time and the mediating effects of atmosphere and personality on subject matter. Alice continued living with Monet, and she became his second wife in 1892 (after Ernest Hoschede passed away).
In 1883, Monet was looking for a house for Alice and their (combined) eight children. He happened on a property in a sleepy town called Giverny, that had a total of 300 inhabitants. He fell in love with a house and garden that he as able to rent, and later buy (and greatly expand) in 1890. The property at Giverny was Monet's primary inspiration for the last three decades of his life. He created a Japanese garden for contemplation and relaxation, making a pond filled with water lilies with an arched bridge. He famously said: "My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece. I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers. Always. My heart is forever in Giverny, perhaps I owe it to the flowers that I became a painter."
It was at Giverny that Monet found his ultimate success. His paintings began to sell in the United States, England, and locally. He became quite the gentleman employing a large staff in his house, including six gardeners that maintained his beloved garden and lily pond.
Monet was less concerned with modernity in his works and more with atmosphere and environment. His series of grainstacks, painted at different times throughout the day, received critical acclaim from opinion-makers, buyers, and the public when exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery. He then turned his sights to Rouen Cathedral, making similar studies of the effects of changing mood, light, and atmosphere on its facade at different times of the day. The results were dozens of canvases of brilliant, slightly exaggerated colors that formed a visual record of accumulated perceptions.
Late Years and Death
Ultimately, Monet preferred to be alone with nature, creating his paintings rather than participating in theoretical or critical battles within the artistic and cultural scene of Paris. Whereas he traveled throughout the 1880s and 1890 to places like London, Venice, Norway, and around France - in 1908 he settled for the remainder of his life in Giverny. The year 1911 saw the death of his second wife Alice, followed by the passing on of his son Jean. Shattered by these deaths, the ragings of the First World War, and even a cataract forming over one of his eyes, Monet essentially ceased to paint.
At the time, the French statesman Georges Clemenceau who happened to also be Monet's friend asked Monet to create an artwork that would lift the country out of the gloom of the Great War. At first, Monet said he was too old and not up to the task, but eventually Clemenceau lifted him out of his mourning by encouraging him to create a glorious artwork - what Monet called "the great decoration". Monet conceived a continuous sequence of waterscapes situated in an oval salon as a world within a world. A new studio with a glass wall facing the garden was built for this purpose, and despite having cataracts (one of which he had surgically removed), Monet was able to move a portable easel around to different places within the studio to capture the ever-changing light and perspective of his water lilies. He continued to work on his water paintings right up until the end of his life.
The Orangerie museum was ultimately built with two eliptical rooms constructed to house Monet's water lilies. The all-over compositions of the canvases and the designed rooms allowed the viewer to feel as if they were within the water surrounded by the foliage. The ultimate installation was loved by many critics, and was most famously proclaimed "the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism" by the Surrealist writer and artist Andre Masson.
The Legacy of Claude Monet
Monet's extraordinarily long life and large artistic output befit the enormity of his contemporary popularity. Impressionism, for which he is a pillar, continues to be one of the most popular artistic movement as evidenced by its massive popular consumption in the form of calendars, postcards, and posters. Of course, Monet's paintings command top prices at auctions and some are considered priceless, in fact, Monet's work is in every major museum worldwide.
Even though his works are now canonized, for a number of years after Monet's death, he was only known in select circles of art lovers. The major renaissance of his work occurred in New York by the Abstract Expressionists. Artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and critics such as Clement Greenberg learned much from Monet's large canvases, and semi-abstract, all-over compositions. Pop artists also referred to Monet's haystacks in pieces like Andy Warhol's repeating portraits. Similarly, many Minimalists used the same technique in their serial display of objects. In fact, Impressionism and Monet are now considered the basis for all of modern and contemporary art, and are thus quintessential to almost any historical survey.