The French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) was the seminal figure in the evolution of impressionism, a pivotal style in the development of modern art.
The second half of the 19th century witnessed profound and disrupting shifts within the larger course of Western art. Many artistic attitudes which had prevailed since the beginning of the Renaissance gave way to approaches which differed radically from the practices of the Old Masters. In painting, for instance, illusionism was one of the fundamental Renaissance values: paintings were regarded as windows through which one viewed the natural world. But in the 19th century a new approach gradually replaced the illusionist aim: paintings became increasingly two-dimensional, openly declaring flatness as an intrinsic feature of their identity. They became events in themselves, phenomena to be confronted rather than windows to be seen through.
Impressionism occupies a crucial, yet paradoxical, position in the 19th century's changing interpretation of the painting enterprise. In the hands of Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and others, the new style (it was not called impressionism until 1874) was initially conceived in the spirit of illusionism. As it evolved, however, certain of its tenets emerged as being, in effect, anti-illusionist. Monet's art reveals both the complexities and the paradoxes of this historical phenomenon. In addition, it reveals how impressionism constitutes a turning point in the development of modern art.
Monet was born in Paris on Nov. 14, 1840. In 1845 his family moved to Le Havre, and by the time he was 15 Monet had developed a local reputation as a caricaturist. Through an exhibition of his caricatures in 1858 Monet met Eugène Boudin, a landscape painter who exerted a profound influence on the young artist. Boudin introduced Monet to outdoor painting, an activity which he entered reluctantly but which soon became the basis for his life's work.
By 1859 Monet was determined to pursue an artistic career. He visited Paris and was impressed by the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, Charles Daubigny, and Camille Corot. Against his parents' wishes, Monet decided to stay in Paris. He worked at the free Académie Suisse, where he met Pissarro, and he frequented the Brasserie des Martyrs, a gathering place for Gustave Courbet and other realists who constituted the vanguard of French painting in the 1850s.
Monet's studies were interrupted by military service in Algeria (1860-1862). The remainder of the decade witnessed constant experimentation, travel, and the formation of many important artistic friendships. In 1862 he entered the studio of Charles Gleyre in Paris and met Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Jean Frédéric Bazille. During 1863 and 1864 he periodically worked in the forest at Fontainebleau with the Barbizon artists Théodore Rousseau, Jean François Millet, and Daubigny, as well as with Corot. In Paris in 1869 he frequented the Café Guerbois, where he met Edouard Manet.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Monet traveled to London, where he met the adventurous and sympathetic dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. The following year Monet and his wife, Camille, whom he had married in 1870, settled at Argenteuil, which became a semipermanent home (he continued to travel throughout his life) for the next 6 years.
Monet's constant movements during this period were directly related to his artistic ambitions. The phenomena of natural light, atmosphere, and color captivated his imagination, and he committed himself to an increasingly accurate recording of their enthralling variety. He consciously sought that variety and gradually developed a remarkable sensitivity for the subtle particulars of each landscape he encountered. Paul Cézanne is reported to have said that "Monet is the most prodigious eye since there have been painters."
Relatively few of Monet's canvases from the 1860s have survived. Throughout the decade, and during the 1870s as well, he suffered from extreme financial hardship and frequently destroyed his own paintings rather than have them seized by creditors. A striking example of his early style is the Terrace at the Seaside, Sainte-Adresse (1866). The painting contains a shimmering array of bright, natural colors, eschewing completely the somber browns and blacks of the earlier landscape tradition.
As William Seitz (1960) wrote, "The landscapes Monet painted at Argenteuil between 1872 and 1877 are his best-known, most popular works, and it was during these years that impressionism most closely approached a group style. Here, often working beside Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte, or Manet, he painted the sparkling impressions of French river life that so delight us today." During these same years Monet exhibited regularly in the impressionist group shows, the first of which took place in 1874. On that occasion his painting Impression: Sunrise (1872) inspired a hostile newspaper critic to call all the artists "impressionists," and the designation has persisted to the present day.
Monet's paintings from the 1870s reveal the major tenets of the impressionist vision. Along with Impression: Sunrise, Red Boats at Argenteuil (1875) is an outstanding example of the new style. In these paintings impressionism is essentially an illusionist style, albeit one that looks radically different from the landscapes of the Old Masters. The difference resides primarily in the chromatic vibrancy of Monet's canvases. Working directly from nature, he and the impressionists discovered that even the darkest shadows and the gloomiest days contain an infinite variety of colors. To capture the fleeting effects of light and color, however, Monet gradually learned that he had to paint quickly and to employ short brushstrokes loaded with individualized colors. This technique resulted in canvases that were charged with painterly activity; in effect, they denied the even blending of colors and the smooth, enameled surfaces to which most earlier painting had persistently subscribed.
Yet, in spite of these differences, the new style was illusionistically intended; only the interpretation of what illusionism consisted of had changed. For traditional landscape artists illusionism was conditioned first of all by the mind: that is, painters tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world—leaves, branches, blades of grass—as they had studied them and conceptualized their existence. Monet, on the other hand, wanted to paint what he saw rather than what he intellectually knew. And he saw not separate leaves, but splashes of constantly changing light and color. According to Seitz, "It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless color patches." In an important sense, then, Monet belongs to the tradition of Renaissance illusionism: in recording the phenomena of the natural world, he simply based his art on perceptual rather than conceptual knowledge.
During the 1880s the impressionists began to dissolve as a cohesive group, although individual members continued to see one another and they occasionally worked together. In 1883 Monet moved to Giverny, but he continued to travel—to London, Madrid, and Venice, as well as to favorite sites in his native country. He gradually gained critical and financial success during the late 1880s and the 1890s. This was due primarily to the efforts of Durand-Ruel, who sponsored one-man exhibitions of Monet's work as early as 1883 and who, in 1886, also organized the first large-scale impressionist group show to take place in the United States.
Monet's painting during this period slowly gravitated toward a broader, more expansive and expressive style. In Spring Trees by a Lake (1888) the entire surface vibrates electrically with shimmering light and color. Paradoxically, as his style matured and as he continued to develop the sensitivity of his vision, the strictly illusionistic aspect of his paintings began to disappear. Plastic form dissolved into colored pigment, and three-dimensional space evaporated into a charged, purely optical surface atmosphere. His canvases, although invariably inspired by the visible world, increasingly declared themselves as objects which are, above all, paintings. This quality links Monet's art more closely with modernism than with the Renaissance tradition.
Modernist, too, are the "serial" paintings to which Monet devoted considerable energy during the 1890s. The most celebrated of these series are the haystacks (1891) and the facades of Rouen Cathedral (1892-1894). In these works Monet painted his subjects from more or less the same physical position, allowing only the natural light and atmospheric conditions to vary from picture to picture. That is, he "fixed" the subject matter, treating it like an experimental constant against which changing effects could be measured and recorded. This technique reflects the persistence and devotion with which Monet pursued his study of the visible world. At the same time, the serial works effectively neutralized subject matter per se, implying that paintings could exist without it. In this way his art established an important precedent for the development of abstract painting.
Monet's wife died in 1879; in 1892 he married Alice Hoschedé. By 1899 his financial position was secure, and he began work on his famous series of water lily paintings. Water lilies existed in profusion in the artist's exotic gardens at Giverny, and he painted them tirelessly until his death there on Dec. 5, 1926. Still, Monet's late years were by no means easy. During his last two decades he suffered from poor health and had double cataracts; by the 1920s he was virtually blind.
In addition to his physical ailments, Monet struggled desperately with the problems of his art. In 1920 he began work on 12 large canvases (each measuring 14 feet in width) of water lilies, which he planned to give to the state. To complete them, he fought against his own failing eyesight and against the demands of a large-scale mural art for which his own past had hardly prepared him. In effect, the task required him to learn a new kind of painting at the age of 80. The paintings are characterized by a broad, sweeping style; virtually devoid of subject matter, their vast, encompassing spaces are generated almost exclusively by color. Such color spaces were without precedent in Monet's lifetime; moreover, their descendants have appeared in contemporary painting only since the end of World War II.
An excellent monograph on Monet is William C. Seitz, Claude Monet (1960). The most comprehensive survey of Monet's art in relation to impressionism is John Rewald, The History of Impressionism (rev. ed. 1961). A well-written and well-illustrated but less scholarly survey is Phoebe Pool, Impressionism (1967).