"Above all, I wanted to be true and exact. A landscape, for me, does not exist at all as such, because the aspect changes at every moment, but it lives through its surroundings by the light and air, which vary continually."
The shimmering light and breathtaking colors of Claude Monet's work have made him one of the world's most popular artists for almost a century. His studies of the changing effects of sunlight on haystacks, churches, fields, and water gardens were unique in his time and extremely influential to subsequent generations. As a founder of the style known as impressionism, Monet broke with many traditions to create a new method of painting—and of seeing the world around us. Without his innovations, the course of twentieth-century art would have been quite different.
Claude-Oscar Monet was born in Paris on November 14, 1840. When he was five years old, his family moved to Le Havre, a port on the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Paris. Monet's father owned a grocery store from which he supplied sailors and shipping companies. Young Monet most likely encountered many colorful characters in his father's store. He became known for his talent at drawing caricatures of people around town. In fact, he was not particularly successful at school because he spent most of his time drawing. When he was a teenager, he began to earn money for his portraiture. He met his first important teacher, Eugène Boudin, when some of his drawings were exhibited next to Boudin's paintings in the window of a local shop.
Began painting out-of-doors
Monet was not a fan of Boudin's work, but Boudin convinced him to join him in painting out-of-doors, instead of in a studio—an unusual practice at the time. Monet loved painting in the open air and did so for the rest of his life. He was able to do so early in his career because paint had begun to become available in tubes that artists could carry with them. Before, they were forced to mix colored powder and oil in jars, a very messy process that was particularly clumsy outside the studio.
Monet's family was not keen on his chosen profession; they wanted him to join the family grocery business. But when he was nineteen, one of his aunts who loved to paint gave him the money to go to Paris to study art. Still, Monet was not satisfied with the traditional styles that were being taught there. He longed to get outdoors and paint the sunlight and trees and water. In Paris Monet met other young painters who shared his desires, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille among them. Monet's family continued to scorn his career choice and the artist was frequently forced to borrow money from friends.
Work accepted into traditional exhibition
In 1866 one of Monet's paintings, a large portrait of a young woman in a green dress, was accepted into the traditional Salon exhibit sponsored by the French Ministry of Art. This success convinced his family that he was on the right track after all, and they began funding him again—until they found out that he was living with the young woman in the painting, Camille Doncieux. They ordered him to return home and cut him off financially. Meanwhile, Doncieux gave birth to Monet's first child, a son they named Jean. Monet began regular travel between Paris and the north of France in an effort to earn money to support his new family; he borrowed from anyone he could. It was a difficult time, but he nonetheless managed to paint many pictures. In 1870 he married Doncieux and the couple went to London to escape the war raging between France and Prussia.
The birth of impressionism
After the war Monet and his family settled in Argenteuil, a small town near Paris. He put together a floating studio of sorts and painted scenes on the river there. Other painters visited Argenteuil to paint with Monet. He was able to make a small living because an art dealer in Paris believed in the new style promoted by Monet and his friends Renoir, Alfred Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne. They organized an exhibit of their work in Paris in 1874. One of the paintings Monet contributed to the show was titled Impression: Sunrise. Neither critics nor the public took the work of these young painters seriously. One newspaper writer derisively referred to them as "impressionists." Monet and his colleagues wore the term like a badge of honor. Ultimately, the style called impressionism became the most important movement of nineteenth-century art.
The traditional subjects of the day in the visual arts were figures and events from history, religious narratives, or classical mythology. The predominant style featured dark, muted colors and clear, sharply outlined forms. Monet and the other impressionists, considered radical in their methods, longed to capture the ordinary sights that comprised their lives. They attempted to approximate the "impression" of light shining on water, or of water splashing on rocks. They experimented with pigment, trying to achieve just the right combination of hue and light to illustrate what their eyes took in out-of-doors. In Monet's work, the character of brush strokes was very important. If the viewer stands very close to one of his paintings, it is difficult to make out the subject—the image before the viewer appears merely as dabs and slashes of paint. But when the viewer steps back, the colorful brush strokes combine to form people strolling down a street or flowers in a field.
Not deterred by criticism
Despite the withering criticism he received, Monet continued to paint in the impressionist style. And he began to find a few bold souls who expressed an interest in the results. One of them was Ernest Hochedé, who owned some large department stores in Paris. He bought several of Monet's paintings. The Hochedé family, including Ernest and Alice and their six children, became friendly with the Monet family. But in 1877 many of Hochedé's department stores failed and he was forced to leave France. Alice Hochedé and her children remained behind. That summer she and the Monet family rented a summer house together in a small town. Soon thereafter, Monet's second son, Michel, was born. There were eight children in the house and very little money. Then, Madame Monet developed tuberculosis; she died that fall. Monet was devastated and found it almost impossible to paint. Alice Hochedé labored to care for him and all of the children. They stayed in the summer house for several years because they could not afford to return to Paris.
Eventually, Monet began to paint again. During the 1870s and early 1880s he participated in several shows with the other impressionist painters. His work of this period was dominated by landscapes and seascapes, among them The Cliff Walk at Pourville and The Cliff at Etretat, which depicts a large rock formation jutting out into the sea. He also painted the swirling steam and smoke of a steam engine at a station in Gare Saint-Lazare. Another famous painting of this time is Rue Montorgueil Decked Out with Flags, a Parisian street scene in which every window and doorway is draped with the French flag in celebration of a national holiday. The colorful banners, which seem to wave in the wind, lend the work great energy and excitement.
Settled near scenic Giverny
As soon as Monet was able to sell a few paintings, he began to look for a more suitable home for himself, Madame Hochedé, and the eight children. He located the perfect residence in the small town of Giverny, roughly sixty miles from Paris. Monet lived in this house from 1883 until his death on December 5, 1926—over forty years. He spent much time planting the garden there, which grew both flowers and vegetables. The children were charged with weeding and watering. There was also a river nearby where the children could swim and boat. The garden and river provided inspiration for many of Monet's paintings. The house and gardens are today the Monet Museum. They are maintained very much as they were when Monet and his extended family lived there.
In 1892, after receiving word that Ernest Hochedé had died, Monet and Alice Hochedé were married. By then Monet's paintings had become not only accepted, but highly prized; though he hated to part with them, the works earned him a handsome sum when he did. Art dealers from as far away as America journeyed to Giverny to see Monet. It was during this time that he began to paint his acclaimed series. Focusing on a single subject, he would paint it at various times of the day to demonstrate how the shifting light changed the appearance of the scene. Day after day, he would return to the same spot to capture just the light he sought. He painted haystacks, poplar trees, the cathedral of the city of Rouen, and the bridge over the river near his home. Perhaps his most famous series was produced near the end of his life. He had created a water garden at his home at Giverny and painted large canvases of the water lilies growing there. He painted them almost exclusively for the last ten years of his life. The results are on display in an impressionist art museum in Paris; just two of them take up the wall space of an entire room.
Began to lose sight in older age
As he grew older, Monet suffered from cataracts, a painful eye disease that rendered him almost blind. He continued to paint, but many of his pictures took on a predominantly reddish hue and appeared blurry. When he finally underwent surgery to correct the condition, the vivid colors and sun-dappled forms that had made him famous returned to his paintings. By the 1920s Monet was arguably the best-known artist in France—if not in all the world. Honors and praises were heaped on him, though he did not pay them much mind. He was never quite satisfied that he could capture light and color exactly as he saw it. But admirers of his art concur that what he did capture was extraordinary. Indeed, a New York Times contributor attested shortly after Monet's death in 1926 that the artist "lifted landscape painting into a region of shimmering illusion that ... had a singularly enlivening effect upon the spirits—as when the sun itself comes out and clears away the fog and darkness."
- 1866: Women in the Garden
- 1866: Terrace at the Seaside, Sainte-Adresse
- 1872: Impression: Sunrise
- 1874: Wild Poppies
- 1877: Gare Saint-Lazare
- 1878: Rue Montorgueil Decked Out with Flags
- 1882: The Cliff Walk
- 1887: Boating on the River Epte
- 1891: Poplars
- 1891: Haystacks
- 1894: Cathedral at Rouen
- 1899-1900: Water Garden at Giverny
- 1903: The Houses of Parliament
- 1916-23: Water Lilies
- Bjork, Christina, Linnea in Monet's Garden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987.
- Muhlberger, Richard, What Makes a Monet a Monet?, Viking, 1993.
- Spate, Virginia, Claude Monet: Life and Work, with over 300 Illustrations, 135 in Colour, Rizzoli, 1992.
- Tucker, Paul Hayes, Claude Monet: Life and Art, Yale University Press, 1995.
- Venezia, Mike, Monet, Children's Press, 1990.
- Waldron, Ann, Claude Monet, Abrams, 1991.