Claude Monet (1840-1926) Part II

Impressionism, broadly viewed, was a celebration of the pleasures of middle-class life; indeed, Monet’s subject matter from this period often involved domestic scenes featuring his wife, son, and garden. Yet, painting la vie moderne (“modern life”) was not to be the primary aim of Monet’s art. Of more significance in his case was his ceaseless search for painterly means to implement his radical view of nature. More so than his ambitious figure paintings, such works as The River (1868) or The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1867) give a clear accounting of Monet’s advance toward the Impressionist style. In the beach and sea pictures of 1865–67 Monet was plainly not trying to reproduce faithfully the scene before him as examined in detail but rather attempting to record on the spot the impression that relaxed, momentary vision might receive—what is seen rather than what is known, with all its vitality and movement. Boats, buildings, incidental figures, and the pebble beach are swiftly brushed in as flat color patterns, with little attention paid to their weight or solidity.


Monet’s life during the 1860s was precarious and itinerant, and he sold almost nothing; but several works were accepted for exhibition in the yearly Salons, most notably, and with great success, a fine but not yet Impressionist portrait of his future wife, Camille. Having already painted in Paris, Le Havre, Chailly, Honfleur, Trouville, and Fécamp and at other stations between Paris and the sea, Monet ended the 1860s at the Seine River resort known as La Grenouillère, at Bougival, where he and Renoir worked together for the first time. In canvases almost identical in style, they made rapid notations of pleasure-seekers and bathers, rowboats bobbing in the foreground, and the scintillating reflections in the lapping water. Regarded by Monet as “bad sketches,” they were precursors of the Impressionist style. Both artists’ Bougival studies interpret the light and movement of outdoor life in strong, abbreviating strokes, improvised at the moment of perception, that serve as equivalents for visual experiences never before committed to canvas in such a direct manner. In 1870 at Trouville, in broad, assured gestures, Monet painted a study of Camille on the beach. It is as animated an example of visual realism as had ever been painted: grains of sand remain embedded in the pigment.

As the 1870s began, Monet continued his pursuit of natural phenomena. In order to avoid the Franco-German War, he left his son and Camille, whom he had just married, and traveled to London. There, with Pissarro, he was introduced by Daubigny to Paul Durand-Ruel, who was to become his dealer. In 1871 and 1872 he painted canals, boats, and windmills in the Netherlands and worked again at Le Havre. On his return, Monet rented a house at Argenteuil, on the Seine near Paris. The years he lived there mark the height of the Impressionist movement. He helped organize an independent exhibition, apart from the official Salon, of the Impressionists’ work in 1874. Impression: Sunrise (1872), one of Monet’s works at the exhibition, inspired the journalist Louis Leroy to give the group their name.

Monet’s celebrated method of producing works in series, each representing the same motif under different light and weather conditions, was not fully implemented until the 1890s, but what is usually regarded as the first series was executed in or around the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris during the winter of 1876–77. A total break with the customary Impressionist subjects, these works portray the train engines belching smoke and steam in the great shed, recalling J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway of 1844 and prefiguring the mechanical subjects painted by Italian Futurists after 1909. Monet’s life was less happy after he moved to Vétheuil, farther from Paris. In 1876 a liaison began between Monet and Alice Hoschedé, the wife of a department-store owner and collector. Monet had incurred a burden of debts in Argenteuil, and Camille was pregnant and ill. At Vétheuil the Monets were joined by Hoschedé, who had left her husband, and six of her children. Using funds from her dowry she assumed Monet’s debts and cared for Camille, who died in September 1879.

To be continued in part III; part IV

See the beginning of this article in part I



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