Biography of Claude Monet
Claude Monet is probably the most famous impressionist today. If you asked a man on the street to name an impressionist painting he would probably reply “water lilies”.
Unlike Edouard Manet who died young, Monet lived to the age of 86. That meant he lived to enjoy acclaim and the financial success of his works.
But the road to recognition was anything but smooth: Monet was often rejected by the conservative art establishment; his Impression Sunrise was mocked when the impressionists first exhibited together in 1874; he often lived from hand to mouth and frequently had to beg his friends and supporters for money; his first wife, Camille Doncieux, died aged 32, leaving him with two young sons to care for; he almost died when he was swept into the sea trying to finish a painting; and he once even tried to commit suicide.
Thank goodness he did not succeed. Monet may have been the best painter of light—perhaps the best painter—the world has ever seen: he produced sparkling seascapes, modern scenes (such as the Gare Saint-Lazare) and pictures of the Seine and Venice; he produced glimmering water lilies; and he produced collections of the same subject at different times of day—including Haystacks, Poplars, Rouen Cathedral, and the Houses of Parliament.
Monet's art now sells for tens of millions of dollars (for example, a version of Haystacks sold in May 2019 for $110.7 million). He is rightly regarded as the greatest of the impressionists.
1840-1865: Monet's early years
Monet was born into a humble Parisian household on 18 November 1840, the second son of a shopkeeper.
When he was six, Monet's parents decided to move to Le Havre so that his father could join his brother-in-law’s chandler's business. The move suited Monet: he loved roaming the beaches and cliffs, often playing truant from school.
He also had an early talent for art, or rather caricature. Starting with sketches of school friends and teachers, he was soon poking fun at local celebrities and selling his works for between 10 and 20 francs a go at the local picture framer's shop. Our first picture is of one of his caricatures, always signed Oscar (Claude-Oscar was Monet's first name).
It was at the picture framer's that Monet met Eugene Boudin, a landscapist who painted en plein air (outdoors). This was a recent phenomenon, made possible by paint becoming available in metal tubes. It was also looked down on by the art establishment, who thought that sketches should be made outside and paintings produced in studios.
Boudin took the young Monet under his wing and showed him how to paint. Monet was later to say:
“if I became a painter, it was thanks to Boudin. He was a man of infinite kindness and took it upon himself to teach me.”
Although Monet’s father disapproved, he did not stand in the way when his maternal aunt produced a letter of introduction to one of her painter contacts in Paris. This soon led to Monet turning up at Suisse’s painting studio in 1859, where he met Camille Pissarro (1830-1903).
Paris, the army, back to Le Havre and Jongkind
In 1860, Monet was conscripted into the army. He opted to serve in Algeria but promptly caught typhoid fever. He came back to Le Havre to recuperate and his family bought him out of the army.
It was at this stage that Monet met Johan Jongkind, a Dutch landscapist. Jongkind taught Monet how to appreciate light, with Monet later describing him as his “true master” and the person who
“completed the education of my eye”.
But Jongkind was a notorious drunk and womaniser and Monet’s family did not approve of his new friend. This was the main reason why they were happy for him to go back to Paris on condition that he sought to obtain entry to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (the respectable but highly conservative fine arts school). They even provided a small allowance.
He also encountered Paul Cezanne, regarded by other students as an oddball.
Monet was a cocky student. Good looking, witty and confident in his abilities, he was popular with the ladies. He once rebuffed an unwanted advance by saying:
“I’m sorry, but I only sleep with duchesses or maids. Anything in between I find revolting. My ideal woman would be a Duchess’ maid!”
On another occasion, Gleyre returned to find Monet on the model’s podium, rearranging the position of the nude female posing for the class.
1865-70: Early successes and failures
Monet was 25 in 1865. The next five years were mixed: he had success and failure with his work; he had a son; and he had major money worries.
Initial Salon success
The 1865 Salon* was overshadowed by Manet’s infamous Olympia. This canvas of a nude prostitute, staring brazenly at the viewer, was found shocking by the establishment, critics and the public alike. It is surprising that it was accepted by the jury in the first place.
But 1865 also marked Monet’s Salon debut, with two landscape works: the Mouth of the Seine at Hornfleur (pictured) and The Bridge at Heve at low tide. They achieved some positive commentary, much to Manet’s fury: he thought the younger Monet was trading off his name!
Woman in the Green Dress
Worse was to come for Manet: Monet’s 1866 entry was a huge hit. Entitled Camille or The Woman in the Green Dress, the painting shows the green and black train of a silk dress. Emile Zola, who was to become one of the impressionists’ biggest supporters, said that the dress was
“both supple and firm. Softly it drags, it is alive, it tells us quite clearly something about the woman”.
The critic of La Lune (The Moon) said:
“Monet or Manet? Monet. But we have Manet to thank for Monet. Bravo, Monet. Thank you, Manet.”This probably irked Manet. But it was a compliment. He had given the other impressionists the confidence to paint in their own way and not conform with what the conservative Academy des Beaux-Arts expected.
And failures ...
Monet’s 1867 Salon entry was, by contrast, a complete flop. Entitled Women in the Garden, this scene of four women was probably rightly rejected by the jury.
In the aftermath of this rejection, Monet first floated the idea that the impressionists should hold their own independent exhibition; but the proposal is taken no further because of a lack of finance.
In 1869 (there was no Salon in 1868), both of Monet’s entries—the Magpie and a seascape—were rejected. So too were his entries for 1870.
These rejections came at a tumultuous time in Monet’s personal life. Monet had had money worries since 1864. But things came to a head in 1867 when his girlfriend and later wife, Camille Doncieux, fell pregnant.
Frederic Bazille helped by buying the rejected Women in the Garden for the (absurdly high) price of 2,500 francs, doled out in instalments of 50 francs a month. But that was insufficient to pay for painting materials and feed and clothe Monet and his young family.
Things go so bad that, in the summer of 1868, Monet made a rather half-hearted suicide attempt by throwing himself into the Seine. He was too good a swimmer to let himself drown, and he soon regained his senses. But the fact of his attempt shows how bad things were.
1870-76: War, London and the early impressionist exhibitions
The early 1870s was an interesting time for Monet: he fled Paris for London to avoid the Prussian war; he met Durand-Ruel, who was to become the main impressionist dealer; and he took part in the first two impressionist exhibitions.
War and London
Napoleon III’s disastrous foreign policy came to a head in 1870 when he declared war on the Prussians. The French army was soon defeated and it became clear that Paris would be surrounded. Some—Manet and Berthe Morisot included—stayed. But Monet fled to London.
This turned out to be a real stroke of luck. Monet met art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in London, who had an interest in a gallery on Bond Street. Durand-Ruel had previously been a dealer and advocate for the Barbizon School, but he was quick to see the potential of the impressionists.
The first impressionist exhibition
The first of eight impressionist exhibitions was held in 1874 at the studio of the photographer known as Nadar on the Rue du Capucines. The lead-up to the exhibition saw wrangling amongst the artists about the articles of association for a company formed for the occasion called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers etc.
Once the company was incorporated the exhibition came together. Thirty painters exhibited 165 works in all. The leading contributors were Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and Berthe Morisot (Manet helped behind the scenes but refused to exhibit, focussing on the Salon).
Degas, Renoir and Monet were the main organisers. Entrance was one franc and the exhibition ran for a month from 15 April.
Around 3,500 people came, around 100 a day. But the reviews were horrific. Monet’s Impression Sunrise was singled out for particular censure by the acidic critic Albert Woolf:
“Impression! Of course. There must be an impression somewhere in it. What freedom ... what flexibility of style. Wallpaper in early stages is more finished than that.”
Only Paul Cezanne’s canvasses attracted worse reviews. The day before the exhibition closed there was an ironic entry in the exhibition news column of La Patrie:
“There is an exhibition of the intransigents in the Boulevard des Capucines, or rather, you might say, of the lunatics, of which I have already given you a report. If you would like to be amused, and have a moment to spare, don’t miss it.”
At the end of the year, Renoir chaired a meeting of the Society. With cash of 278 francs and liabilities of almost 4000 francs, each exhibitor owed 278 francs!
The second exhibition
The second impressionist exhibition, held two years later, did little to improve matters. Durand-Ruel lent the group his gallery on the Rue Le Pelletier.
Gustave Caillebotte largely funded the exhibition and took over much of the organisation (much to Degas’ irritation). Manet again refused to be involved. And Caillebotte’s The Floor Strippers stole the show.
Monet has some success too. His colourful Japanese Girl sold for 2,000 francs. And the press was not all bad. Henry James wrote a positive article in the New York Tribune. But Woolf again was implacably opposed to the movement. He wrote:
“The Rue de Pelletier is certainly having its troubles. After the fire at the Opera, a new disaster has befallen the district. An exhibition of so-called painting has opened at Durand-Ruel’s. ... Here, five or six lunatics deranged by ambition ... have put together an exhibition of their work. ... They take canvas, paint and brushes, splash on a few daubs of colour here and there at random, then sign the result. The inmates of the Ville-Evrard asylum behave in much the same way.”
At least the show turned a (very small) profit!