Oscar-Claude Monet (14 November 1840 – 5 December 1926) was a French painter and founder of impressionist painting who is seen as a key precursor to modernism, especially in his attempts to paint nature as he perceived it. During his long career, he was the most consistent and prolific practitioner of impressionism's philosophy of expressing one's perceptions before nature, especially as applied to plein air (outdoor) landscape painting. The term "Impressionism" is derived from the title of his painting Impression, soleil levant, exhibited in the 1874 ("exhibition of rejects") initiated by Monet and his associates as an alternative to the Salon.
Monet was raised in Le Havre, Normandy, and became interested in the outdoors and drawing from an early age. Although his mother, Louise-Justine Aubrée Monet, supported his ambitions to be a painter, his father, Claude-Adolphe, disapproved and wanted him to pursue a career in business. He was very close to his mother, but she died in January 1857 when he was sixteen years old, and he was sent to live with his childless, widowed but wealthy aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre. He went on to study at the Académie Suisse, and under the academic history painter Charles Gleyre, where he was a classmate of Auguste Renoir. His early works include landscapes, seascapes, and portraits, but attracted little attention. A key early influence was Eugène Boudin who introduced him to the concept of plein air painting. From 1883, Monet lived in Giverny, also in northern France, where he purchased a house and property and began a vast landscaping project, including a water-lily pond.
Monet's ambition to document the French countryside led to a method of painting the same scene many times so as to capture the changing of light and passing of the seasons. Among the best known examples are his series of haystacks (1890–91), paintings of the Rouen Cathedral (1894) and the paintings of water lilies in his garden in Giverny that occupied him continuously for the last 20 years of his life.
Frequently exhibited and successful during his lifetime, Monet's fame and popularity soared in the second half of the 20th century when he became one of the world's most famous painters and a source of inspiration for burgeoning groups of artists.
Birth and childhood
Claude Monet was born on 14 November 1840 on the fifth floor of 45 rue Laffitte, in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. He was the second son of Claude Adolphe Monet and Louise Justine Aubrée Monet, both of them second-generation Parisians. On 20 May 1841, he was baptised in the local parish church, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, as Oscar-Claude, but his parents called him simply Oscar. Despite being baptised Catholic, Monet later became an atheist.
In 1845, his family moved to Le Havre in Normandy. His father, a wholesale merchant, wanted him to go into the family's ship-chandling and grocery business, but Monet wanted to become an artist. His mother was a singer, and supported Monet's desire for a career in art.
On 1 April 1851, he entered Le Havre secondary school of the arts. He was an apathetic student who, after showing skill in art from young age, begun to draw caricatures and portraits of acquaintances at age 15 for money. He began his first drawing lessons from Jacques-François Ochard, a former student of Jacques-Louis David. In around 1858, he met fellow artist Eugène Boudin, who would encourage Monet to develop his techniques, teach him the "en plein air" (outdoor) techniques for painting and take Monet on painting excursions. Monet thought of Boudin as his master, whom "he owed everything to" for his later success.
In 1857, his mother died. He lived with his father and aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre; Lecadre would be a source of support for Monet in his early art career.
Paris and Algeria
From 1858 to 1860, Monet continued his studies in Paris, where he enrolled in Académie Suisse and met Camille Pissarro in 1859. He was called for military service and served under the Chasseurs d'Afrique (African Hunters), in Algeria, from 1861 to 1862. His time in Algeria had a powerful effect on Monet, who later said that the light and vivid colours of North Africa "contained the germ of my future researches". Illness forced his return to Le Havre, where he bought out his remaining service and met Johan Barthold Jongkind, who together with Boudin was an important mentor to Monet.
Upon his return to Paris, with the permission of his father, he divided his time between his childhood home and the countryside and enrolled in Charles Gleyre's studio, where he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Frédéric Bazille. Bazille eventually became his closest friend. In search of motifs, they traveled to Honfleur where Monet painted several "studies" of the harbor and the mouth of the Seine. Monet often painted alongside Renoir and Alfred Sisley, both of whom shared his desire to articulate new standards of beauty in conventional subjects.
During this time he painted Women in Garden, his first successful large-scale painting, and Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, the "most important painting of Monet's early period". Having first debuted at the Salon in 1865 with La Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide and Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur to large praise, he hoped Le déjeuner sur l'herbe would help him breakthrough into the Salon of 1866. He could not finish it in a timely manner and instead submitted The Woman in the Green Dress and Pavé de Chailly to acceptance. Thereafter, he submitted works to the Salon annually until 1870, but they were accepted by the juries only twice, in 1866 and 1868. He sent no more works to the Salon until his single, final attempt in 1880. His work was considered radical, "discouraged at all official levels".
In 1867, his then-mistress, Camille Doncieux—who he had met two years prior as a model for his paintings—gave birth to their first child, Jean. Monet had a strong relationship with Jean, claiming that Camille was his lawful wife so Jean would be considered legitimate. Monet's father stopped financially supporting him as a result of the relationship. Earlier in the year, Monet had been forced to move to his aunt's house in Sainte-Adresse. There he immersed himself in his work, although a temporary problem with his eyesight, probably related to stress, prevented him from working in sunlight.
With help from the art collector Louis-Joachim Gaudibert, he reunited with Camille and moved to Étretat the following year. Around this time, he was trying to establish himself as a figure painter who depicted the "explicitly contemporary, bourgeois", an intention that continued into the 1870s. He did evolve his painting technique and integrate stylistic experimentation in his plein-air style—as evidenced by The Beach at Sainte-Adresse and On the Bank of the Seine respectively, the former being his "first sustained campaign of painting that involved tourism".
Several of his paintings had been purchased by Gaudibert, who commissioned a painting of his wife, alongside other projects; the Gaudiberts were for two years "the most supportive of Monet's hometown patrons". Monet would later be financially supported by the artist and art collector Gustave Caillebotte, Bazille and perhaps Gustave Courbet, although creditors still pursued him.
Exile and Argenteuil
He married Camille on 28 June 1870, just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. During the war, he and his family lived in London and the Netherlands to avoid conscription. Monet and Charles-François Daubigny lived in self-imposed exile. While living in London, Monet met his old friend Pissarro, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and befriended his first and primary art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel; an encounter that would be decisive for his career. There he saw and admired the works of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner and was impressed by Turner's treatment of light, especially in the works depicting the fog on the Thames. He repeatedly painted the Thames, Hyde Park and Green Park. In the spring of 1871, his works were refused authorisation for inclusion in the Royal Academy exhibition and police suspected him of revolutionary activities. That same year he learned of his father's death.
The family moved to Argenteuil in 1871, where he, influenced by his time with Dutch painters, mostly painted the Seine's surrounding area. He acquired a sail boat to paint on the river. In 1874, he signed a six-and-a-half year lease and moved into a newly built "rose-colored house with green shutters" in Argenteuil, where he painted fifteen paintings of his garden from a panoramic perspective. Paintings such as Gladioli marked what was likely the first time Monet had cultivated a garden for the purpose of his art. The house and garden became the "single most important" motif of his final years in Argenteuil. For the next four years, he painted mostly in Argenteuil and took an interest in the colour theories of chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. For three years of the decade, he rented a large villa in Saint-Denis for a thousand francs per year. Camille Monet on a Garden Bench displays the garden of the villa, and what some have argued to be Camille's grief upon learning of her father's death.
Monet and Camille were often in financial straits during this period—they were unable to pay their hotel bill during the summer of 1870 and likely lived on the outskirts of London as a result of insufficient funds. An inheritance from his father, together with sales of his paintings, did, however, enable them to hire two servants and a gardener by 1872. Following the successful exhibition of some maritime paintings and the winning of a silver medal at Le Havre, Monet's paintings were seized by creditors, from whom they were bought back by a shipping merchant, Gaudibert, who was also a patron of Boudin.
Death of Camille and Vétheuil
In 1876, Camille Monet became seriously ill. Their second son, Michel, was born in 1878, after which Camille's health deteriorated further. In the autumn of that year, they moved to the village of Vétheuil where they shared a house with the family of Ernest Hoschedé, a wealthy department store owner and patron of the arts who had commissioned four paintings from Monet. In 1878, Camille was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She died the next year. Her death, alongside financial difficulties—once having to leave his house to avoid creditors—afflicted Monet's career; Hoschedé had recently purchased several paintings but soon went bankrupt, leaving for Paris in hopes of regaining his fortune, as interest in the Impressionists dwindled.
Monet made a study in oils of his late wife. Many years later, he confessed to his friend Georges Clemenceau that his need to analyse colours was both a joy and a torment to him. He explained: "I one day found myself looking at my beloved wife's dead face and just systematically noting the colours according to an automatic reflex". John Berger describes the work as "a blizzard of white, grey, purplish paint ... a terrible blizzard of loss which will forever efface her features. In fact there can be very few death-bed paintings which have been so intensely felt or subjectively expressive."
Monet's study of the Seine continued. He submitted two paintings to the Salon in 1880, one of which was accepted. He began to abandon Impressionist techniques as his paintings utilised darker tones and displayed environments, such as the Seine river, in harsh weather. For the rest of the decade, he focused on the elemental aspect of nature. His personal life influenced his distancing from the Impressionists. He returned to Étretat and expressed in letters to Alice Hoschedé—who he would marry in 1892, following her husband's death the preceding year—a desire to die.] In 1881, he moved with Alice and her children to Poissy and again sold his paintings to Durand-Ruel. Alice's third daughter, Suzanne, would become Monet's "preferred model", after Camille.
In April 1883, looking out the window of the train between Vernon and Gasny, he discovered Giverny in Normandy. That same year his first major retrospective show was held.
Monet's struggles with creditors ended following prosperous trips; he went to Bordighera in 1884, and brought back 50 landscapes. He travelled to the Netherlands in 1886 to paint the tulips. He soon met and became friends with Gustave Geffroy, who published an article on Monet. Despite his qualms, Monet's paintings were sold in America and contributed towards his financial security. In contrast to the last two decades of his career, Monet favoured working alone—and felt that he was always better when he did, having regularly "long[ed] for solitude, away from crowded tourist resorts and sophisticated urban settings". Such a desire was recurrent in his letters to Alice.
In 1875, he returned to figure painting with Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son, after effectively abandoning it with The Luncheon. His interest in the figure continued for the next four years—reaching its crest in 1877 and concluding altogether in 1890. In an "unusually revealing" letter to Théodore Duret, Monet discussed his revitalised interest: "I am working like never before on a new endeavor figures in plein air, as I understand them. This is an old dream, one that has always obsessed me and that I would like to master once and for all. But it is all so difficult! I am working very hard, almost to the point of making myself ill".
In 1883, Monet and his family rented a house and gardens in Giverny, that provided him domestic stability he had not yet enjoyed. The house was situated near the main road between the towns of Vernon and Gasny at Giverny. There was a barn that doubled as a painting studio, orchards and a small garden. The house was close enough to the local schools for the children to attend, and the surrounding landscape provided numerous natural areas for Monet to paint.
The family worked and built up the gardens, and Monet's fortunes began to change for the better as Durand-Ruel had increasing success in selling his paintings. The gardens were Monet's greatest source of inspiration for 40 years. In 1890, Monet purchased the house. During the 1890s, Monet built a greenhouse and a second studio, a spacious building well lit with skylights.
Monet wrote daily instructions to his gardener, precise designs and layouts for plantings, and invoices for his floral purchases and his collection of botany books. As Monet's wealth grew, his garden evolved. He remained its architect, even after he hired seven gardeners. Monet purchased additional land with a water meadow. White water lilies local to France were planted along with imported cultivars from South America and Egypt, resulting in a range of colours including yellow, blue and white lilies that turned pink with age. In 1902, he increased the size of his water garden by nearly 4000 square metres; the pond was enlarged in 1901 and 1910 with easels installed all around to allow different perspectives to be captured.
Dissatisfied with the limitations of Impressionism, Monet began to work on series of paintings displaying single subjects—haystacks, poplars and the Rouen Cathedral—to resolve his frustration. These series of paintings provided widespread critical and financial success; in 1898, 61 paintings were exhibited at the Petit gallery. He also begun a series of Mornings on the Seine, which portrayed the dawn hours of the river. In 1887 and 1889 he displayed a series of paintings of Belle Île to rave reviews by critics. Monet chose the location in the hope of finding a "new aesthetic language that bypassed learned formulas, one that would be both true to nature and unique to him as an individual, not like anyone else."
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