Who Was Claude Monet?
Claude Monet was born in 1840 in France and enrolled in the Academie Suisse. After an art exhibition in 1874, a critic insultingly dubbed Monet's painting style "Impression," since it was more concerned with form and light than realism, and the term stuck. Monet struggled with depression, poverty and illness throughout his life. He died in 1926.
Early Life and Career
One of the most famous painters in the history of art and a leading figure in the Impressionist movement, whose works can be seen in museums around the world, Oscar Claude Monet (some sources say Claude Oscar) was born on November 14, 1840, in Paris, France. Monet's father, Adolphe, worked in his family's shipping business, while his mother, Louise, took care of the family. A trained singer, Louise liked poetry and was a popular hostess.
In 1845, at the age of 5, Monet moved with his family to Le Havre, a port town in the Normandy region. He grew up there with his older brother, Leon. While he was reportedly a decent student, Monet did not like being confined to a classroom. He was more interested in being outside. At an early age, Monet developed a love of drawing. He filled his schoolbooks with sketches of people, including caricatures of his teachers. While his mother supported his artistic efforts, Monet's father wanted him to go into business. Monet suffered greatly after the death of his mother in 1857.
In the community, Monet became well-known for his caricatures and for drawing many of the town's residents. After meeting Eugene Boudin, a local landscape artist, Monet started to explore the natural world in his work. Boudin introduced him to painting outdoors, or plein air painting, which would later become the cornerstone of Monet's work.
In 1859, Monet decided to move to Paris to pursue his art. There, he was strongly influenced by the paintings of the Barbizon school and enrolled as a student at the Academie Suisse. During this time, Monet met fellow artist Camille Pissarro, who would become a close friend for many years.
From 1861 to 1862, Monet served in the military and was stationed in Algiers, Algeria, but he was discharged for health reasons. Returning to Paris, Monet studied with Charles Gleyre. Through Gleyre, Monet met several other artists, including Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille; the four of them became friends. He also received advice and support from Johann Barthold Jongkind, a landscape painter who proved to be an important influence to the young artist.
Monet liked to work outdoors and was sometimes accompanied by Renoir, Sisley and Bazille on these painting sojourns. Monet won acceptance to the Salon of 1865, an annual juried art show in Paris; the show chose two of his paintings, which were marine landscapes. Though Monet's works received some critical praise, he still struggled financially.
The following year, Monet was selected again to participate in the Salon. This time, the show officials chose a landscape and a portrait Camille (or also called Woman in Green), which featured his lover and future wife, Camille Doncieux. Doncieux came from a humble background and was substantially younger than Monet. She served as a muse for him, sitting for numerous paintings during her lifetime. The couple experienced great hardship around the birth of their first son, Jean, in 1867. Monet was in dire financial straits, and his father was unwilling to help them. Monet became so despondent over the situation that, in 1868, he attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in the Seine River.
Fortunately, Monet and Camille soon caught a break: Louis-Joachim Guadibert became a patron of Monet's work, which enabled the artist to continue his work and care for his family. Monet and Camille married in June 1870, and following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the couple fled with their son to London, England. There, Monet met Paul Durand-Ruel, who became his first art dealer.
Returning to France after the war, in 1872, Monet eventually settled in Argenteuil, an industrial town west of Paris, and began to develop his own technique. During his time in Argenteuil, Monet visited with many of his artist friends, including Renoir, Pissarro and Edouard Manet—who, according to Monet in a later interview, at first hated him because people confused their names. Banding together with several other artists, Monet helped form the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, as an alternative to the Salon and exhibited their works together.
Monet sometimes got frustrated with his work. According to some reports, he destroyed a number of paintings—estimates range as high as 500 works. Monet would simply burn, cut or kick the offending piece. In addition to these outbursts, he was known to suffer from bouts of depression and self-doubt.
The Master of Light and Color: "Impression, Sunrise"
The society's April 1874 exhibition proved to be revolutionary. One of Monet's most noted works in the show, "Impression, Sunrise" (1873), depicted Le Havre's harbor in a morning fog. Critics used the title to name the distinct group of artists "Impressionists," saying that their work seemed more like sketches than finished paintings.
While it was meant to be derogatory, the term seemed fitting. Monet sought to capture the essence of the natural world using strong colors and bold, short brushstrokes; he and his contemporaries were turning away from the blended colors and evenness of classical art. Monet also brought elements of industry into his landscapes, moving the form forward and making it more contemporary. Monet began to exhibit with the Impressionists after their first show in 1874, and continued into the 1880s.
Monet's personal life was marked by hardship around this time. His wife became ill during her second pregnancy (their second son, Michel, was born in 1878), and she continued to deteriorate. Monet painted a portrait of her on her death bed. Before her passing, the Monets went to live with Ernest and Alice Hoschede and their six children.
After Camille's death, Monet painted a grim set of paintings known as the Ice Drift series. He grew closer to Alice, and the two eventually became romantically involved. Ernest spent much of his time in Paris, and he and Alice never divorced. Monet and Alice moved with their respective children in 1883 to Giverny, a place that would serve as a source of great inspiration for the artist and prove to be his final home. After Ernest's death, Monet and Alice married in 1892.
Monet gained financial and critical success during the late 1880s and 1890s, and started the serial paintings for which he would become well-known. In Giverny, he loved to paint outdoors in the gardens that he helped create there. The water lilies found in the pond had a particular appeal for him, and he painted several series of them throughout the rest of his life; the Japanese-style bridge over the pond became the subject of several works, as well. (In 1918, Monet would donate 12 of his waterlily paintings to the nation of France to celebrate the Armistice.)
Sometimes Monet traveled to find other sources of inspiration. In the early 1890s, he rented a room across from the Rouen Cathedral, in northwestern France, and painted a series of works focused on the structure. Different paintings showed the building in morning light, midday, gray weather and more; this repetition was a result of Monet's deep fascination with the effects of light.
Besides the cathedral, Monet painted several things repeatedly, trying to convey the sensation of a certain time of day on a landscape or a place. He also focused the changes that light made on the forms of haystacks and poplar trees in two different painting series around this time. In 1900, Monet traveled to London, where the Thames River captured his artistic attention.
In 1911, Monet became depressed after the death of his beloved Alice. In 1912, he developed cataracts in his right eye. In the art world, Monet was out of step with the avant-garde. The Impressionists were in some ways being supplanted by the Cubist movement, led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
But there was still a great deal of interest in Monet's work. During this period, Monet began a final series of 12 waterlily paintings commissioned by the Orangerie des Tuileries, a museum in Paris. He chose to make them on a very large scale, designed to fill the walls of a special space for the canvases in the museum; he wanted the works to serve as a "haven of peaceful meditation," believing that the images would soothe the "overworked nerves" of visitors.
His Orangerie des Tuileries project consumed much of Monet's later years. In writing to a friend, Monet stated, "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." Monet's health proved to be an obstacle, as well. Nearly blind, with both of his eyes now seriously affected by cataracts, Monet finally consented to undergo surgery for the ailment in 1923.
Later Years and Death
As he experienced in other points in his life, Monet struggled with depression in his later years. He wrote to one friend 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." Despite his feelings of despair, he continued working on his paintings until his final days.
Monet died on December 5, 1926, at his home in Giverny. Monet once wrote, "My only merit lies in having painted directly in front of nature, seeking to render my impressions of the most fleeting effects." Most art historians believe that Monet accomplished much more than this: He helped change the world of painting by shaking off the conventions of the past. By dissolving forms in his works, Monet opened the door for further abstraction in art, and he is credited with influencing such later artists as Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.
Since 1980, Monet's Giverny home has housed the Claude Monet Foundation.
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