"Monet is just an eye, but God, what an eye." Paul Cézzane on Claude Monet
If you forced me to choose an all-time favorite artist, I would have to go with Claude Monet. Discovering his work led me down an endless rabbit hole of color, light, and the challenge of capturing life's fleeting effects on canvas. This post is a distillation of his life and work. I'll cover:
(Before I get started, let me first recommend you watch I, Claude Monet. It's a simple documentary narrated through Monet's letters and illustrated with his work. I found it to be a clear and unbiased overview of his life. It made me realize how tragic much of Monet's life was. I had previously assumed his life was full of joy and color, like his paintings. But his letters tell a different story. Many of them are veiled in sadness as battled the many struggles of the art life. I watched it on Vimeo but you might be able to find it elsewhere for free.)
I'll briefly run through some of the key facts, events, and ideas from Monet's life:
- Monet started drawing at an early age and gained recognition for his caricatures of teachers and community members. These cheeky caricatures started it all. They gave Monet the positive reinforcement needed to fan the flames of a child's interest; they were an avenue for practice; and they led to him meeting Eùgene Boudin, who would go on to play a pivotal role in Monet's life (discussed more in the next point). In his own words:
"At fifteen I was known all over Le Havre as a caricaturist. My reputation was so well established that from all sides people came to me and pestered me for caricatures. I had so many requests, and the pocket money my mother could spare me was so meager, that I was led to take a bold step, one which needless to say shocked my parents: I started selling my portraits. Sizing up my customer, I charged ten or twenty francs a caricature, and it worked like a charm. Within a month my clientele had doubled. Had I gone on like that I'd be a millionaire today."
(You can see all of Monet's caricatures here.)
- At 17, Monet met Boudin. Boudin saw promise in Monet's caricatures and introduced him to the world of plein air painting (painting outdoors).
"Boudin came over at once and started talking to me in his soft voice, saying nice things about my work: 'I like your sketches, they're very amusing, very neatly done. You're gifted, anybody can see that. But you're not going to stop there, I hope. This is all right for a start, but you'll soon have had your fill of caricature. You want to buckle down and study hard, learn to see and paint, go out and sketch, do some landscapes. What beauty there is in the sea and sky, in animals, people and trees, just as nature made them, just as they are, with a character of their own, with a life of their own in the light and air of nature.'"
- In 1859, Monet moved to Paris and attended the Académie Suisse. There he met Camille Pissarro, who would end up being a lifelong friend and fellow pioneer of Impressionism.
- Monet's early career was challenging, as is the case for most artists. He had a few successes but struggled financially. He was supported mostly by his wealthy aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre, but it was never enough to make him feel comfortable as an artist.
- In 1865, Monet met an art model by the name of Camille Concieux. She would go on to become Monet's first wife and mother of their two children. Sadly, her life was short and tragic. Monet struggled to support her and their children and she passed away from illness at just 32, before benefiting from Monet's eventual success. This article on The Guardian provides some interesting details on her life and relationship with Monet. She is featured in many of Monet's paintings, including The Woman in the Green Dress (below). This painting was one of Monet's first commercial successes, exhibiting at the 1866 Paris Salon and selling for 800 Francs.
- In 1869, Monet traveled with Pierre-Auguste Renoir to the outskirts of Paris and the spa resort of Grenouillèr. They sat side-by-side and painted major works of the same name—La Grenouillèr. I always find it interesting when two artists paint the same subject. It demonstrates the power of perspective and how we all see the world differently. I actually prefer Renoir's painting in this case, but Monet was only starting to find his feet. You can see Monet's style evolving from his earlier and darker paintings into fresher and more lively works. But this was viewed unfavorably by the Salon judges.
Note: Throughout Monet's career, there were several pivotal moments where he decided to take the less desirable road so that he could continue pursuing his dreams and ideas about painting. He probably would have been better off had he continued as a caricaturist or a 'Salon' painter. But had he done that, we might not be discussing his work today.
- In 1874, Monet and several like-minded artists exhibited at the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects). This comprised of artworks rejected by the official Salon. Art critic, Louis Leroy, called it "impressionist" after Monet's Impression, Sunrise. Little did he know, what was meant as an insult would become the name of the movement.
- A key practice in Monet's study of color and light was painting the same subject over and over again in varying conditions. He did this with haystacks, water lilies, the Rouen Cathedral, and the Waterloo Bridge, just to name a few. Whilst I'm unsure if Monet was the first to do such a thing, he was certainly the first to practice it to such an extreme.
- Monet obsessed over his Giverny gardens in the second half of his career. They would become one of his greatest artworks, with exotic plants, poppies, roses, fruit trees, bridges, ponds, weeping willows, wisterias, and water lilies. All of which are featured throughout his later work. Monet's success in his late-career allowed him to invest significantly in his gardens. He hired numerous gardeners, acquired rare and exotic plants from Egypt and America, and had a Japanese bridge built across the pond, inspired by the Japanese prints he collected (more details on his print collection here). This page has some excellent information on the gardens. You can also see Monet scrolling through his gardens in this video.
"I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers." Claude Monet
- In his final years, Monet battled failing eyesight due to cataracts. What a tragic thought—an artist like Monet gradually losing his eyesight. But he kept on painting. You can see the dramatic effects of his condition in paintings like The Japanese Footbridge. It always amazes me how powerful the simple act of painting can be. There is something about it that compels artists to endure incredible hardships in search of those rare glimmers of pure joy and excitement. Not even failing eyesight could stop Monet from painting.
“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.” Claude Monet
Color and light are the first things that come to mind when I think of Monet. He spent his life exploring their often subtle relationships. It was as if painting was merely a vehicle for him to do this.
Many of his works are nothing more than ambient displays of color, with little focus on drawing and rendering. He had no interest in being the next Rembrandt, rather, his primary aim was to capture nature's light and color on the canvas. And he came pretty close too!
Monet's understanding of color and light is even more impressive when you consider the environment in which he worked. Scientific understanding of color and light at the time was primitive compared to today. And Monet didn't have a "Monet" or other Impressionists to study from. Sure, there were many great artists that came before him, but there were few true colorists.
As mentioned earlier, one of his key practices was painting the same subject over and over again. The constant subject allowed him to better observe the color relationships under varying conditions. Haystacks was his first major series, which he discussed in a letter to Gustave Geffroy in 1890:
"I'm hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects, but at this time of year the sun sets so fast that it's impossible to keep up with it ... the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I'm looking for: 'instantaneity', the 'envelope' above all, the same light spread over everything... I'm increasingly obsessed by the need to render what I experience, and I'm praying that I'll have a few more good years left to me because I think I may make some progress in that direction..."
A few years later in 1892, he rented an apartment in France and commenced work on his Rouen Cathedral series. A much more challenging subject, with many nooks and crannys, crevices, edges, shadows, patterns, and highlights. This allowed Monet to explore a wider and more complex range of color relationships.
His last and most recognized series is Water Lilies. An ambient display containing around 250 works. Artist, André Masson, sums it up well as the "Sistine Chapel of Impressionism".
This series is a perfect example of an analogous color scheme (colors that are close on the color wheel). Monet wove together all kinds of greens, blues, and purples. The result is a harmonious display. Every now and then he might use a warm yellow, red, or orange accent for a flower to command your attention.
You can see them all on this Wikipedia list.
"I hate darkness. Claude Monet once said that painting in general did not have light enough in it. I agree with him. We painters, however, can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it.” Joaquín Sorolla
Monet often painted within a high key (light colors). Instead of dark black and brown shadows, he opted for more colorful options—blues, greens, purples, reds, greens. Notice the deep blue shadows in the Grand Canal for example.
Painting within a high key does come at the sacrifice of the full value range. Without black, you cannot get that sharp value contrast that you might see in a Rembrandt.
Broken color was one of Monet's primary tools for capturing the effects of light. If you look closely at his work, you'll see a patchwork of distinct colors. Take the painting below, Belle-Ile, Rocks at Port-Goulphar.
If we zoom in on the painting, we can see the water is made up of many tiny and distinct strokes of color. Blues, greens, purples, and grays. It looks abstract up close, but it all comes together as you step back.
As for Monet's color palette, he said this in 1905:
“As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that? I don’t think one could paint better or more brightly with another palette. The point is to know how to use the colors, the choice of which is, when all’s said and done, a matter of habit. Anyway, I use flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that’s all.” (Source)
He made a great point: An artist's color palette is often nothing more than habit. Understanding how to use your colors is more important than the colors you have.
Monet typically used short, broken strokes. Similar to Vincent van Gogh, but less stylized.
The reasoning behind Monet's brushwork might be that it was simply a fast way to paint, as was required when painting outdoors with the changing conditions. It also allowed him to take advantage of broken color. Instead of finely blending two colors together, Monet would weave together strokes of distinct and often rich color.
He used vague detail, doing just enough to suggest form, but leaving the rest up to our imaginations. Let's go back to his Impression, Sunrise as an example. Monet and the other Impressionists were initially mocked for this brash, seemingly unfinished brushwork. Yet today Monet and the Impressionists are widely admired. That's one of the harsh realities of painting (and most aspects of life)—those who pave the way are often met with the harshest resistance.
As for how Monet went about a painting, there is limited information on this. But my best guess is that he worked in a direct manner, building up a patchwork of tiny strokes until the subject emerges. He matched his brushwork to the nature of the subject and painted with emotion. For broad objects, he used broad brushwork. For intricate, active subjects, he used smaller brushes and energetic brushwork.
Many of his paintings appear to be a mix of wet on wet and wet on dry. This suggests he rapidly filled the canvas with color, then refined it later once the paint had dried. Wet on dry is particularly effective for capturing the glimmering effects of light by scumbling a light color over a dry, dark surface.
He often worked on several paintings at the same time, changing between them to match the conditions. In 1892 he vented to his second wife, Alice Hoschedé about his Rouen Cathedral series:
"Dear God, this cursed Cathedral is hard to do… Fourteen paintings on the go today…I’m exhausted and it seems that every day the light changes: it gets whiter and higher up."
He did most of his work on location but continued to refine the paintings in his studio. This way he got the best of both worlds.
Monet had a long and prolific career, creating almost 2,000 paintings. This allows us to step back and observe how his style and skills evolved over time.
His early work is unlike what you would expect from Monet. Restrained colors, deep black and brown shadows, and intimate compositions. These were Monet's academic years, before he truly discovered color.
Below is Monet's earliest documented painting. A pleasant landscape with realistic colors and fine rendering. One of the key differences between this and his later work is the use of dark, black/green shadows. This creates a sharper value contrast (light against dark) at the expense of color.
He also painted several academic still lifes, like Still Life With Meat. It's warm and dramatic. You can tell it's an early work as it bears an unusual Monet signature—"M." or "Mo". Most of his other works are signed with his full name, plus on occasion the year.
A Jar of Peaches is another classic still life, but you can see hints of the relaxed brushwork that would later become a key feature of his work (see the highlights at the bottom of the painting).
Monet isn't remembered for these early academic paintings, but they are important in that they set the foundation for the rest of his career. His fundamentals were strong enough that he could relax his brushwork and push the colors without completely compromising the sense of realism.
Over time, Monet's paintings become more lively and colorful. The following two paintings of Étretat are a great demonstration of this evolution. This is Monet before and after color.
When you can get a chance, take a look through this full list of Monet's documented paintings so you can see his style evolution for yourself. You will also notice that some paintings are much better in a technical sense than others. Not everything he touched was a masterpiece. This is not to diminish his talents, but rather to appreciate that he too had to struggle, experiment, practice work to create his masterpieces.
Monet brushed shoulders with many other master artists. Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Vincent van Gogh, Frederic Bazille, and so on. This perhaps is one of the reasons for his success. He was exposed to such a breadth of talent and experience. And not just from other Impressionists. He was friends with master realist John Singer Sargent. Their relationship was mutually beneficial: Monet with his knowledge of color and light, Sargent with his meticulous fundamentals. You can see Monet's influence in Sargent's painting below. It is unlike Sargent's typical work, with relaxed brushwork and vague detail. An appropriate way to paint the Impressionist master.
Monet was painted a number of times by fellow artists (see below). This is a testament to his influence and standing in the art community at the time. Édouard Manet's The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil is my favorite, with Monet taking a back seat role to his wife and child.
Note: The art life can be an isolated and troublesome road to take. Make sure you connect with others, like Monet did with the likes of Renoir, van Gogh, etc. Artists need to support each other.
I could only find two self-portraits by Monet. The first is Monet in his 40s, the second in his 70s.
This painting was also attributed to Monet's brush until recently. I stumbled across this article that suggests it is by Swiss artist, Charles Giron. This makes sense based on Giron's other work—the style is very similar.
There are also several photos of Monet in his gardens. I always find it helpful to put a face to the artist. It helps us take them down from the pedestal and see them as they were—artists like us trying to make it on their own journey.
I'll run through some other personal favorites, starting with Woman Seated Under the Willows. The woman melts into the surrounding landscape. Notice the use of simplification. Monet was able to get away with only the slightest hint of form. I also love the use of rich, green accents to add depth to the foreground.
Vétheuil: What stunning use of broken color to capture the shimmering water. It must be quite a sight in person.
Pear Tree in Flower: A simple and colorful display. Notice the rich blue and red accents for the shadows.
Jetty at Fecamp in Rough Weather: A great display of emotion and drama. Monet's brushwork mimics the water's movement and nature.
Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet on the Bank of the Epte: An interesting play between the trees and the water's reflections. Also, notice how the reflections are slightly darker and richer.
Haystack: Perhaps my favorite from his haystack series. This is one of those paintings that gets more interesting and complex the closer you look. Monet was able to use such rich color without it appearing gnarish.
Foggy Morning at Pourville: A high-key (light) painting with small dark accents. This is an effective color combination that Monet often utilized. It works particularly well for sunny, glaring days.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- There can be nothing more valuable than nurturing a child's interest or talent, like Boudin did for Monet.
- The art life is rewarding yet challenging. Monet endured incredible hardships in the creation of his work.
- To truly experience color and light, paint outdoors amongst nature. A camera is helpful, but cannot replace our own sight and experience.
- Public opinion is fickle. Monet's work was initially shunned, but today is revered. Paint for yourself first and foremost.
- Painting the same subject over and over again allows you to better explore the often subtle relationships between color and light.
- Painting with more color typically means sacrificing the full value range. Unfortunately, you cannot paint with both the drama of Rembrandt and the color of Monet.
- Broken color was Monet's primary tool for capturing the effects of light.
- Monet's style evolved over time as he explored different ways of capturing his ideas. Don't be confined to the same way of painting.
- Monet brushed shoulders with many other master artists. His exposure to such a wealth of talent and experience would have played a key role in his own success.
- Looking at photos of master artists can help you take them down from the pedestal. They were artists too, with all the struggles that come with it.
Thanks for Reading!
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What's your favorite Monet painting? Let me know in the comments.
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