“I must have flowers, always and always.” (Claude Monet).
Oscar-Claude Monet was born in Paris in 1840. His father, Adolphe, had a grocery and shipping business while his mother, Louise, was a trained singer. Claude was a second son; he had an older brother named Léon. In 1845, the family moved to Le Havre, a port town in the Normandy region of France. From an early age, Monet had a love of drawing and being outside. In 1851, he enrolled at Le Havre Secondary School for arts.
Monet was well-known for the caricatures he drew of his teachers, and earned money selling them. Adolphe wanted Claude to go into business, but Louise supported his ambition to be an artist. Sadly, she passed away in 1857. Monet was sent to live with his widowed aunt, Marie-Jeanne Le Cadre.
1857 was the same year when Monet met artist Èugene Boudin, a local landscape artist. Boudin introduced Monet to the idea of painting outdoors, en plein air, which would become a cornerstone of Monet’s work. They spent the summer of 1858 outside painting nature together. “If I have become a painter,” Monet said, “I owe it to Boudin.”
Monet often travelled to Paris to visit the Louvre and, in 1859, he moved to the city. In June of 1861, he was drafted into military service in Algeria. Adolphe could have provided the funds necessary to exempt his son from military conscription, but refused to do so because he still resented Monet’s determination to become an artist. Monet only lasted two years out of his seven-year contract because he contracted typhoid. Monet’s aunt intervened at this point and purchased his way out of the service on the condition that he attend art school. She was perhaps prompted to do so by landscape painter (and Impressionist forerunner) Johan Barthold Jongkind, whom Monet knew and was influenced by. Monet commented that, in addition to the complementary teaching of Boudin, Jongkind was “from that moment my true master. It was he who completed the education of my eye.”
In 1862, Monet began taking private art lessons with Charles Gleyre and became friends with fellow students Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. The four of them were disillusioned with the traditional art being taught in school. They shared a new approach to art, and enjoyed painting outside. Monet, especially, loved how the weather and the changing light could make a scene entirely new, and would paint the same landscape multiple times in order to capture these daily and seasonal differences. The four artists would set up their easels right in the scene they wanted to paint whether it was on a river bank, in a garden, or on the platform of a train station. They focused on painting the effect of light using quick brush strokes and broken colour. Method would become style and, from this, “Impressionism” was born.
In 1865 Monet was sharing a studio with Frédéric Bazille, who introduced him to a young eighteen-year-old model named Camille Doncieux. Monet was captivated by her, particularly her eyes, and asked her to pose in Luncheon on the Grass. Camille and Monet began a romantic relationship as Monet worked on the large-format painting, which Monet planned would span 13 feet tall by 19.5 feet wide. The painting was a response and challenge to Édouard Manet’s painting of the same title. Monet had wanted to exhibit the painting in the Salon of 1866, but realized that he wasn’t going to be able to finish it in time. Instead, he exhibited another painting that featured Camille, The Woman in the Green Dress. It was the first work that brought him major recognition. Camille would also model for Renoir and Manet. Monet’s unfinished Luncheon on the Grass was given to his landlord around 1866 as security for his rent payments. The landlord rolled it up and put it in a cellar. When Monet finally had the money to purchase the painting back twenty years later, the neglected painting had contracted a serious case of mould. Monet tried to rescue it by cutting it into three sections of different sizes. One of the panels disappeared, presumably because in the end Monet didn’t think it was worth saving.
As the story with the painting and the landlord illuminate, Monet received critical praise for his work but struggled financially early in his career. Adolphe did not provide his son with much financial help. In addition to his continued bitterness over Monet’s choice of career, Adolphe heavily disapproved of Monet’s relationship with Camille. Camille was seven years younger than Claude and, being a merchant’s daughter, came from humble origins. When Camille became pregnant, the couple’s dire financial straits resulted in Monet leaving Camille behind in Paris while he moved into his aunt’s countryside estate. By pretending he had abandoned his pregnant mistress, Monet would receive a small monthly stipend from his family.
Camille gave birth to their first son in August 1867. Monet secretly visited them in Camille’s one-room apartment for a few days before having to return to his aunt’s place. He came again during the Christmas holidays and in early 1868 he returned to Paris to live with them. The young family had to move around to dodge Monet’s creditors, at one time even being thrown out of an inn for failure of payment. Monet suffered from depression and the stress of his financial situation resulted in him trying to drown himself in the Seine River in 1868. Shortly after, Monet found his first patron: art collector Louis Joachim Gaudibert (who was also a patron of Boudin). Gaudibert helped Monet rent a house in Étretat in late 1868. This helped to buoy Monet’s spirits and he was able to complete five paintings. He submitted one of these, The Magpie, to the Salon of 1869. The Academie des Beaux-Arts, the conservative French learned society that sponsored the Salon, rejected it as being “too common and too coarse.” Monet’s experimental use of colour and non-academic style were too surprising and new to be appreciated at the time. It would take a while for Monet’s work, and the artists who painted in a similar style, to appeal to critics and buyers.
Monet and Camille were married on June 28, 1870. Camille’s parents attended the ceremony while Adolphe was pointedly absent. Camille’s parents provided her with a small dowry on the condition that it remained in her name so it would be safe from Monet’s creditors. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in July, Monet fled to England to avoid conscription (as well as those pesky creditors). Camille and Jean followed him to London in October. In London, Monet was inspired by the works of John Constable and Joseph Turner. He also met Paul Durand-Ruel, who would become his first art dealer.
1871 was a busy year for Monet and his family. In January, the Franco-Prussian War concluded and Adolphe passed away and left his son an inheritance. Monet, Camille, and Jean moved to Zandaam in May. Monet painted 25 pieces during their times in the Netherlands city. In December, the family relocated to Argenteuil, a small French village located on the Seine a short distance outside of Paris. In addition to his inheritance, Monet’s London art dealer was beginning to successfully sell his paintings. Although Monet would still experience stretches of financial hardship, he had moved beyond his usual state of poverty and would even have periods of relative ease. Argenteuil is where Monet got to live in close proximity to his main motif: the landscape with its changing seasons, weather, and light conditions. During the summer months Monet would be joined by visiting artists from Paris, including Édouard Manet and his old friends Pissarro, Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley.
Monet and his fellow artists experienced continued rejection from the Salon. They banded together in 1873 and formed the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs (Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers) so they could exhibit their work independently. They held their first exhibition in April 1874; all that was required to enter the show was to pay a fee. One of the paintings Monet entered was that of a port landscape in Le Havre entitled Impression, Sunrise. Art critic Louis Leroy used the title of this painting and coined the term “Impressionists” to explain the style and the artists. He meant this disparagingly, but Monet and his fellow artists appropriated the descriptor and happily applied it to themselves and their work. Another art critic reviewing the show, Jules-Antoine Castagnary, described Impressionists as artists who “do not reproduce a landscape, but rather the sensory perceptions triggered by the countryside.”
In 1876, Camille contracted tuberculosis, and her health would continue to degrade over the next couple of years. This was also the same year that Ernest Hoschedé, department store owner and noted Impressionist art collector, commissioned Monet to paint several landscape paintings as well as decorative panels for his home, the Château de Rottembourg, located in Montgeron. It is possible that at this point Monet began having an affair with Hoschedé’s wife, Alice. Some sources have speculated that Monet may have been the father of Ernest and Alice’s youngest son, Jean-Pierre, who was born in August 1877.
In 1877, Hoschedé went bankrupt, and had to sell his extensive art collection (including several of Monet’s pieces) for a pittance. He fled to Belgium to escape his creditors. It was a hard financial time for many Impressionists, including Monet, as their work had not quite reached critical mass. Monet’s circumstances were hardened in 1878 when Camille gave birth to their second son, Michel, in March. The pregnancy and childbirth had been hard on her already frail health. Additionally, she was diagnosed with cancer and her medical treatments were costly. Monet proposed that Ernest, Alice, and their six children (including Jean-Pierre) move in with his four-member family. They would need a bigger space for all twelve people, plus Monet’s servants, and so the combined families moved to Vétheuil in August 1878. Vétheuil, located northwest of Paris along the Seine, was a small farming community that numbered around 600 residents. Ernest found employment at a Parisian newspaper and so he spent most of his time in the city. Alice nursed Camille through the final stage of her illness and took care of all eight children. On September 5, 1879, Camille passed away. Ever his muse, Monet painted his wife on her deathbed. He later confessed that his obsession with colour was a joy and a torment to his life and, in this case, decidedly the latter, saying “I one day found myself looking at my beloved wife’s dead face and just systematically noting the colours according to an automatic reflex.” Camille was only 32 years old.
After Camille’s death, Alice took all of the children (including Monet’s two sons) to Paris while he remained behind in Vétheuil. He began to paint feverishly, producing several groups of landscapes and seascapes in his mission to document the French countryside. He converted a houseboat into a floating studio and used it to go up and down the Seine, mooring in front of whatever scenes he wished to paint.
In 1880, Alice and the children rejoined Monet in Vétheuil. However, tensions between Hoschedé, Alice, and the recently-widowed Monet were fraught. Although Alice and Monet may have begun their romantic relationship up to two years prior to Camille’s death, it was harder for Hoschedé to ignore it now that Camille was gone. In 1880, a Parisian newspaper (not the same one that Hoschedé worked at) referred to Alice as Monet’s “charming wife.” However, Alice was still Hoschedé’s wife, even if she and the widowed Monet were living together in a spouse-like relationship while Hoschedé spent most of his time in Paris. Hoschedé would occasionally visit Alice and his children, at which point Monet would leave the household. But his separation from Alice would greatly distress him, and sometimes left him unable to paint. Hoschedé also experienced fits of jealousy, and even refused to pay his part of the upkeep for Alice and the children.
In December 1881, Monet and his household moved to Poissy. Poissy was also a small town located along the Seine, but it was closer to Paris than Vétheuil. Monet despised it. However, it was while living there that Monet glanced out a train window and spotted the place where he would make his final home. In April of 1883 the family moved to Vernon and then, in May, relocated just across the river to Giverny. Monet rented a house and two acres of land that included a barn (which he used as a studio), orchards, and a small garden. Happily, the late 1880s were when Monet’s paintings finally began to pick up steam in the art market. His increased prosperity gave him the opportunity to develop what had been a small farming plot into a garden that more suited his artistic tastes. In 1886, there was more domestic strife when Hoschedé showed up and demanded that Alice and their children return with him to Paris. Alice refused. She and Monet were happy and settled in their new home.
By November 1890, Monet was prosperous enough to purchase the house, the surrounding buildings, and more land for his gardens. Now that the land was his to do with entirely as he pleased, he truly dedicated himself to his landscaping task. He started with hiring two full-time gardeners and gradually increased this number to six. He built a greenhouse to house his expanding botanical collection as well as a second studio. He swapped seeds, cuttings, and advice with fellow Impressionist and avid gardener Gustave Caillebot. He planted primrose, daffodils, willowherbs, nasturtiums, peonies, asters, Oriental poppies, delphiniums, irises, and many species of sunflowers. He planned the planting of the flower beds so that just as some blooms began to wilt and die, they would be replaced by more just coming into bud. He mixed primary and contrasting colours together according to his own artistic satisfaction. He painted his house using his favourite colour combination, pink with green shutters. For a man who had struggled to profit from his passion for so long, it must have been an immense pleasure for Monet to build based on creativity and beauty, rather than affordability.
Ernest Hoschedé developed a severe case of gout in 1891, a consequence of years of overeating and drinking. Alice came to Paris to care for him as his illness grew more severe. He passed away in March, and his funeral was held in Giverny. The following year, in February 1893, Monet and Alice married. In that same month, Monet purchased the first bit of land that he was planning to convert into a floating Japanese-style garden. The project was not without its difficulty; it was separated from Monet’s by a railway line (the same one from which he had first spotted Giverny) and a major street. The marshy land also contained a small pond which local farmers had used to water their cattle. The locals vehemently opposed Monet’s plans believing that his exotic plants would contaminate their water supply. But in spite of this heated opposition, Monet received the authorization he needed in July to acquire the rest of the land that he wanted for his ambitious plans. He proceeded to build the garden that would later serve as the inspiration for some of his most famous work. By 1895 he had built two Japanese bridges. He stocked the ponds with local French water lilies as well as varieties that he had imported from South America and Egypt. He couldn’t resist as new species of water lilies in shades of red, magenta, lavender, and purple were developed. Irises and bamboo flanked the shorelines. Finally, in 1899 Monet began painting his beloved water lilies set amidst the serene surface of his pond and its ever-changing reflections. It would become a beautiful obsession whose content he would depict in nearly 300 paintings, over 40 of which were large format.
Beyond his gardens, Monet found many other notable sources of inspiration. This includes a series he painted featuring the Rouen Cathedral in 1892-94, showcasing the structure of the church in different lighting scenarios such as early morning, late afternoon, grey weather, and so on. He went to London and painted the Thames, Charing Cross Bridge, and views of the Parliament buildings. He painted the haystacks/grainstacks (known interchangeably in English by both terms) dotting the countryside around Giverny throughout the four seasons.
Blanche Hoschedé, the second daughter of Ernest and Alice, was the only child in the combined household to take an interest in art. She began painting at the age of eleven and, by seventeen, was Monet’s assistant and only student. She often painted outside with him. He encouraged her work and she participated in many solo and group exhibitions. She married Monet’s oldest son, Jean, in 1897. They lived in Rouen where Jean worked as a chemist for Monet’s brother, Léon.
Sadly, Alice died in May 1911. Monet was stricken with grief, and his depression consumed him once more. He didn’t paint from the time of Alice’s death until 1913. His melancholy was deepened in 1912 when his vision began to deteriorate due to cataracts. For a man so obsessed with colour and light, this must have been a crushing development. He put off cataract surgery for the time being because he was terrified of impairing his sight even further. The pieces he created during this time have a reddish tone, which is characteristic of cataract vision.
In February 1914, the loss of his son Jean in February 1914 was a further blow. Now a widow, Blanche returned to Giverny to take care of her father-in-law. Despite his vision loss, Monet continued to paint. The pieces he created during this time have a general reddish tone, which are characteristic of cataract vision. World War I broke out in 1914 and Monet’s younger son, Michel, served in the military. Monet painted a series of Weeping Willow trees to commemorate the French soldiers killed during the campaign.
The inspiration for Monet’s most ambitious work first came in 1914, when he was still hurting from the loss of Alice and Jean. While struggling to find some hope for the future, Monet decided that he wanted to undertake something on a grand scale. Monet struck up a friendship with French politician Georges Clemenceau, who was Prime Minister of France during the First World War. On November 12, 1918, the day after the Armistice, Monet wrote to Clemenceau saying that he was on the verge of finishing two decorative panels and wanted to offer them to the French state, with Clemenceau acting as intermediary. He wanted the paintings to serve as a symbol of peace. Clemenceau convinced Monet to increase the number of panels from two to a whole decorative series. The gift became official in 1920. Monet made an agreement with the director of the Museé des Beaux-Arts for a gift to the French state of 12 decorative panels. The director, Paul Léon, and architect, Camille Lefèvre, would oversee the installation in the Musée de l’Orangerie, according to Monet’s instructions. Monet wanted the paintings and the gallery that would house them to serve as a refuge, offering serenity to visitors from the chaotic war-torn world outside. He wanted viewers to be able to immerse themselves completely in the paintings. In 1922, the panels grew in number to 19. In a letter, Monet stated to a friend that “these landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me. It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”
Nearly blind, Monet underwent two operations to remove his cataracts in 1923. It is suggested that after the surgeries, he was able to see certain waves of ultraviolet light that the lens of the human eye normally excludes. This may have also affected how he experienced colour, giving the world around him an increased cast of blue versus the reddish-brown of the cataracts he had been living with before. Monet repainted some of his earlier works so that the water lilies were more vividly blue.
Monet’s work on the water lily panels consumed the last few years of his life. Monet painted and repainted them obsessively, even destroying some. Clemenceau tried to encourage Monet to finish with the panels, telling him that “you are well aware that you have reached the limit of what can be achieved with power of the brush and of the mind.” Depression and perfectionism led Monet to declare that “age and chagrin have worn me out. My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear.” Depression really is a cruel trickster. One of the most talented and famous artists of all time believed, until his final days, that he was still worthless and had accomplished nothing. Monet refused to relinquish the decorative panels, still believing they weren’t good enough, up until the point he died of lung cancer on December 5, 1926, at the age of 86.
Monet’s funeral was held at Giverny on December 8. A black cloth had been draped over his coffin and, seeing this, Clemenceau cried, “No! No black for Monet!” He scoured Monet’s house until he found a cretonne – a brightly coloured heavy cotton fabric printed with forget-me-nots, hydrangeas, and periwinkles. Clemenceau used this as a more fitting tribute for a man whose life and paintings had been awash with bold, vivid colour. Clemenceau and Léon then had Monet’s Water Lilies installed in the Musée de l’Orangerie. The exhibit was opened to the public on May 17, 1927.
Monet has been described as the “driving force behind Impressionism.” He helped begin a movement toward abstraction in painting at a time when the art world was being disrupted by a new technology, photography. It can be argued that Monet’s work, as well as that of his fellow Impressionist artists, helped save painting. Throughout human history, drawing and painting had been the only means to capture and share the world in a visual format. But a painter, no matter how skilled his or her hand, couldn’t possibly compete with the sharp and exact focus of a photograph. The Impressionists began the road to abstraction in art, a cause that would soon be taken up and pushed even further by Modernists such as Picasso, Matisse, and more.
For a man who struggled to profit from his work early in his career, today Monet’s paintings fetch incredible prices. In 2004 his piece London, the Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Opening in Fog, sold at auction for 20.1 million U.S.
The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil was purchased in 2008 for 41.4 million U.S.
The Basin with the Water Lilies sold at auction for nearly 72 million U.S. (for 80.4 million including fees) in 2008.
The high value of Monet paintings has made a few of them the targets of several high-profile thefts. A painting of Monet’s, Cliffs Near Dieppe, has been stolen twice from the Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Cheret in Nice. The first time it was stolen in 1998, the piece was found a week later on a houseboat in a nearby town. The then-curator of the museum had staged a heist in which two accomplices took him “hostage” and “forced” him to take them to a museum; they later fled the scene in the curator’s car. The painting was stolen again in 2007 by five masked gunmen. It was found nearly a year later in 2008 in a utility vehicle in Marseille along with the other three paintings that had been stolen.
Sadly, two paintings by Monet were stolen from the Kunsthal art museum in Rotterdam on October 16, 2012, along with five other paintings that included a Picasso, a Gauguin, and a Matisse. The paintings are presumed to have been destroyed by the mother of one of the perpetrators. She confessed that she had burned the paintings to protect her son, but then later retracted the statement. However, investigators found pigments and nails in her fireplace that matched the age of the stolen pieces.
Even Monet’s seminal 1872 piece Impression, Sunrise (featured above) was one of nine Impressionist paintings stolen from the Musée Marmottan in Paris in 1985. The four other Monet pieces that were stolen were Field of Tulips in Holland, Camille Monet and Her Cousin on the Beach at Trouville, Portrait of Jean Monet and Portrait of Poly, Fishermen of Belle-Isle. Renoir’s Portrait of Monet (also featured above) was also taken. Happily, the paintings were recovered in 1991.
Neil and I saw a lot of Monet during our trip to Paris. We went to the Musée Marmottan Monet, the Musée de l’Orangerie, and the Musée d’Orsay, all of which feature his paintings and those of his fellow Impressionist artists. We also took a day trip out to Giverny to see his home and gardens. More on all of these experiences coming up in future posts!
Images taken from Wikipedia and/or the Google Art Project, unless otherwise noted.