Isabelle SPAAK
(e-mail: isabelle.spaak@wanadoo.fr)
Claude Monet,
becoming one with nature

by I. Spaak, France

In the evening of his life, Claude Monet wrote to his friend Georges Clemenceau, “I’ve simply looked at what the universe has shown me, to bear witness with my brush.” When, on Monet’s death in December 1926, Clemenceau discovered a dark pall draped over the painter’s casket, he exclaimed, “No! No black for Monet.” Looking around the room, his eyes lighted on an “old cretonne in the colors of periwinkles, forget-me-nots, and hydrangeas,” which he had spread over the Impressionist master’s coffin, in homage to his work and to his love of gardens. Monet has been reproached for representing everything in the same way, whether figures, stones, clouds, water, or wind. His iridescent subjects too have been criticized, along with his colored vibrations and the unreality of his touch. Yet it was Claude Monet who brought us out of the stuffy exhibition rooms and academies where painting was stagnating. He stripped away prejudice and convention, and gave us new ways of seeing. Showered with honors during his lifetime, yet lauded as a “classic of modernity” by later generations of Cubists and Surrealists, Monet was also praised years after his death by abstract painters moved by the almost monochrome waterscapes that engrossed him in his final years at Giverny. Reconciling deep attachment to the nature he revered and a freespirited poetic world, Monet abolished the distance between artist and beholder, who together become one with nature.

Medicographia. 2011;33:101-108 (see French abstract on page 108)

Seven minutes. One session on a canvass in his Peupliers (Poplars) series (1890-1892) could not exceed seven minutes, Claude Monet explained to a young American woman artist. Because, in that time, the light slipped from the leaf he was observing to the next, a subtle change that triggered a new “impression.” And a painting that mixed diverse impressions would denature the authenticity of the vision.

Monet stressed the importance of freshness in the way of seeing a landscape. Seeking to explain Monet’s method of harmonizing touches of paint as a succession of scattered patches, an art critic wrote how his landscapes were arranged on the canvas like “that child’s game where objects are reconstituted piece by piece.

« Considered as the “father” of the Impressionist movement, Claude Monet (1840- 1926) had but one ambition: to capture the moment. He devoted his life to this, tirelessly depicting the nature he venerated, seeking absolute proximity. To the point of imagining the creation of a garden at his property in Giverny that would no longer only be a source of inspiration, but a work of art in its own right, a kind of painting in three dimensions in which painter, nature, and beholder would be united.

Poplars, Wind Effect [Effet de vent, série des peupliers] (1890-1892).
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Musée d’Orsay, RMN/Patrice Schmidt.

By dint of unremitting work, and at the cost of never-ending dissatisfaction with the results, Monet created a masterly body of work. For sixty years, he painted: the Normandy beaches of his youth; the Forest at Fontainebleau, where he loved to set up his easel with his painter friends Renoir and Bazille; the open-air dance halls along the banks of the Seine; lunches in the garden of his house at Argenteuil; the Côte d’Azur in the sun; snow; Paris in festive mood; family life; and magnificent series of paintings—Haystacks, Poplars, and Cathedrals. He depicted the quintessence of a subject without betraying the play of light and shade.

“I grasped what painting could be”

Claude Monet was born in Paris on November 14, 1840, and spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Le Havre, where his parents set up in 1845. And it was in Le Havre that as a schoolboy he started to paint. Or rather draw. Apart from sketches of landscapes and boats, he won a modest reputation as a caricaturist, a talent he exploited at the expense of his fellow townspeople. A stationer/picture framer exhibited his caricatures alongside canvasses by Eugène Boudin, who would become a skilled painter of Normandy beaches and earn from Camille Corot the accolade, “king of the skies.” Monet remarked:

It’s true. I knew Boudin, who was fifteen years older than me, I believe, in Le Havre when I was doing my utmost to make a name for myself as a caricaturist. I was fifteen or so.

Portrait of Claude Monet (1840-1926) in his garden
at Giverny. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Musée d’Orsay, RMN/Jean Schormans.

Imbued as he then was with the “academic principles of art,” Monet admitted that at first he disliked Boudin’s “open air” painting. Until the day, at Boudin’s urging, he joined him on a long walk along the coast. “You’re gifted,” Boudin told him. “Drop this other work, which you’ll tire of. Your drawings are excellent, but don’t stop there. Do like me, learn to draw well, to love the sea, the light, the blue sky.” Boudin’s insistence was determinant for the future Impressionist master.

I agreed to go and work outdoors with him. I bought a paint box and off we went to Rouelles (north-east of Le Havre)… Boudin put up his easel and set to work. It was like a veil that suddenly falls: I understood, I grasped what painting could be. I owe it to Eugène Boudin that I became a painter.

Haystack, Morning Snow Effect [Meule,
effet de neige, le matin]
(1891). Oil on canvas
(65×92 cm). Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, USA.

© Museum of Fine Arts.

Was it the revelation of nature or of instantaneity that marked Monet forever? Thereafter he devoted his art to the first instant, which conditions the way of seeing as if each time the eye is seeing the scene for the first time. The American artist Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933), Monet’s neighbor at Giverny for ten years, said of him:

He would have wanted to be born blind and then, after suddenly recovering his sight, to start painting while knowing nothing of the objects placed before him. The first look at the subject was, he maintained, always the truest.

Painting as the bird sings

Although Monet hated theories and lessons, he lavished advice on the young American:

When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.

This original purity, Monet’s obsession, was coupled with a fundamental need to throw open the doors of his studio so he and his subjects could breathe fresh air. Wasn’t it him after all who set up his easel on a balcony of the Louvre to paint a street scene (Le quai du Louvre [1867]), while his classmates copied the great masters inside the museum? He wanted “to paint as the bird sings,” turning his back on interpretations, idealizations, and other conventions taught in Parisian artists’ studios in the 1860s and 1870s. This stance, moreover, made him a hero for a handful of young artists resistant to the overly scholastic restrictions of academic teaching. From 1863, Monet studied at the Paris studio of the Swiss painter Charles Gleyre, along with Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille. But he couldn’t stomach Gleyre’s bidding that they respect the classical style rather than paint reality. “I immediately urged them to revolt,” Monet remembered. “Let’s leave,” I told them. “The place lacks sincerity.” He headed for Chailly in the Forest of Fontainebleau, a few kilometers from Barbizon, once a source of inspiration to nonconformist landscape painters like Corot, Rousseau, Millet, and Daubigny.

Rouen Cathedral. The Portal and the Tour d’Albane in the
Sunlight [Le portail et la tour d’Albane, plein soleil]
Oil on canvas (92.2×63 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Service presse RMN/Thierry Le Mage.

The Port of Le Havre, Night Effect [Le Port du Havre, effet de
(1873). Oil on canvas (60×81 cm). Private collection.

© All rights reserved.

Part of The Luncheon on the Grass [fragment du Déjeuner
sur l’herbe]
(1865). Oil on canvas (248×217 cm). Musée d’Orsay,
Paris, France.

© Service presse RMN/All rights reserved.

Camille or The Woman in the Green Dress [Camille ou
Femme à la robe verte]
(1866). Oil on canvas (231×151 cm).
Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen, Germany.

© Kunsthalle Bremen/Bridgeman Art Library.

Monet took classes there and showed a pronounced liking for large perspectives (Le pavé de Chailly [1864]), undergrowth, centennial trees, clearings, and thickets. Inspired by Manet’s scandalous Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (see page 97) exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of the Rejected), he worked for months on a canvass intended for the salon of 1865. The salon was a sort of rite of passage, where painters sought official recognition and hoped to become known to art lovers and critics. Monet worked tirelessly on his immense composition (4.60 meters by over 6 meters) organized around a group of young women in pale dresses and their companions in morning coats or waistcoats, picnicking with cakes and fruit, glasses, plates, and bottles placed on a spotless tablecloth spread on the ground. But Monet never did complete the painting of life-size figures at an open-air luncheon bathed in the play of light filtering through the leaves, and instead turned for inspiration to a quite different scene.

“A story of energy and truth”

Monet’s portrait, Camille, of his 19-year-old model and future wife Camille Doncieux, depicts a typical Parisian figure of this period, shown from behind wearing a dazzling striped dress and jacket trimmed with fur. Painted indoors in four days, and later named Femme à la robe verte (The Woman in the Green Dress), the painting was praised to the skies by a young critic and close friend of Paul Cézanne—Emile Zola:

Tired of coming across no new talent, I noticed this young woman trailing her long dress…I don’t know him—Monet— yet it seems to me that I am one of his oldest friends. Because his picture tells a story of energy and truth. And yes, here’s a character, here’s a man in a crowd of eunuchs. Look at the dress. It’s flowing and solid. It trails gently, it lives, it proclaims who this woman is.

With Femme à la robe verte, Monet took his first step on the path to fame and to relative financial ease.

I’m happier and happier. I have resolved to withdraw to the country. I work a lot, with greater determination than ever. My success at the Salon has helped me sell several paintings.

At his new home in Ville d’Avray (near Paris),Monet again started work on a huge composition—Femmes au jardin (Women in the Garden [1867])—where once more we see Camille Doncieux, soon to give birth to their son Jean on August 8, 1867. One art critic suggested that the four women portrayed are in fact four different versions of Camille.

During his to-ing and fro-ing between the Paris area and Normandy, Monet created his dazzling vision of a moment of happiness with his father, aunt, and a distant cousin in Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse (Terrace at Sainte-Adresse [1867]), fusing with virtuosity the combination of sea, figures, and gardens, all dear to the painter. Flags flutter in the wind, flowers glow in sunlight that flattens rather than sculpts forms, small craft sail on a choppy sea, azure waves draw the eye to outlines of ships steaming along the horizon.

“I’ve always hated theories”

Patches of color, the interplay of light and shade, and spontaneity all heralded the Impressionism that drew so many barbs in 1874 when Monet and his fellow painters organized their first independent exhibition. Yet these young rebels of painting were not the first to seek to recreate the most basic components of vision. Jean-Baptiste Corot (1796-1875), for example, had already exhorted artists not to lose the simplicity of guileless ways of seeing. Art critics then spoke of “childish scribbles” or of clumsy sketches that ran counter to the artistic conventions of the time. It was Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (see page 94) painted in 1873 at Le Havre that gave its name to this new school of painting, nicknamed “Impressionism” by its detractors. Influenced by the paintings of Turner discovered in London during his self-imposed exile during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the siege of Paris, Monet never considered this canvas a finished work. And he regretted having been the source of the label “Impressionism.”

I’ve always hated theories…My only quality is to have painted directly from nature by seeking to render my impressions of the most fleeting effects, and it grieves me to have been the cause of the name given to a group.

Terrace at Sainte-Adresse [Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse]
(1867). Oil on canvas (98×130 cm).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

© Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributor: Service presse RMN/image
of the MMA.

Guy de Maupassant accompanied the painter on several outdoor painting trips from1885 and described the hours of walking in the open air searching for a country scene that Monet deemed right for painting. When Monet stopped, it was be- cause he “saw.” It was as if he was possessed by a vision, the pristine impression that he was tracking, recapturing, pursuing, deepening. “He was, in truth, no longer a painter, but a hunter,” wrote Maupassant. Maupassant observed Monet weighed down with paintbrushes, easels, and paints:

He was followed by children carrying his canvasses, five or six on the same subject at different times of day with different effects. He took or returned the canvasses one by one depending on the changes in the sky. Before the subject, he watched the light and shade, and in a few brush strokes caught the sunbeam that falls, the cloud that passes. I saw him seize this way a glittering light on white cliffs and fix it with a run of shades of yellow that rendered strangely surprising the effect of this elusive and blinding dazzle.

Poppies at Argenteuil [Les Coquelicots à Argenteuil] (1873). Oil on canvas (50×65.3 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Service presse RMN/Hervé Lewandowski.

One of his favorite motifs was a large panorama with nothing to impede the eye’s gaze. He avoided picturesque subjects and meaningful details, and when they do appear, they blend into the whole as if the painter feared defining them too clearly at the expense of general harmony. Figures too: the small boy seated on the ground, the young women walking away in Le déjeuner (around 1873-74), the woman with a parasol in La promenade (1875) and Les Coquelicots à Argenteuil (1873), and the people in the Essais de figures en plein air (1886). All these figures are treated “as landscapes,” explained Monet, who in the end removed them altogether from his paintings.

“An eye, but what an eye!”

The absence of contours, the doing away with contrasts is common to all the Impressionists. Through pure colors, dull paste, and no glaze, Monet above all sought a subtle harmony of the whole, where each detail blends to give the viewer the feeling not of a passive onlooker, but of a participant in the scene.

Cézanne bowed before the virtuosity of his contemporary: “An eye, but what an eye!” Monet himself conceded that he had exceptional visual acuity: “Perhaps in me originality is reduced to rendering the complexity of visual phenomena too fleeting to be captured by an ordinary eye.” He confessed though to permanent discontent and to the need to work ceaselessly. “It really is dreadfully difficult…It all proves thatyou have to think of nothing but that, and by dint of thinking, you find it,” he wrote to his friend Bazille, and on July 25, 1890, to a journalist:

I’m wretched and sick and tired of painting. It’s assuredly a constant torture! Don’t expect to see anything new. The little that I have been able to do is destroyed, scraped off, or slashed. You don’t realize how terrible the weather has been for the last two months. It drives you mad when you’re trying to capture the weather, the atmosphere, the mood.

He boasted, exaggerating somewhat, that he never worked on paintings except at the site itself, and then only if the atmospheric conditions allowed. Yet in complete contradiction to his assertions of total spontaneity, one day he declared: “You aren’t an artist unless you carry the painting in your mind before executing it.” Those close to himknewhowthings really stood. Monet never hid from his art dealer Paul Durand- Ruel that he needed time to rework and perfect his creative outpourings. This was how he proceeded with his masterful paintings of water lilies in the ornamental lake created for him at Giverny, which he reworked in a studio constructed especially for the purpose.

“I’m becoming more and more of a homebody”

Almost all the subjects Monet painted between 1890 and 1898 were in the immediate vicinity of his house at Giverny, which he bought in 1890, seven years after moving there. Trips to London, Venice, and Norway renewed his inspiration, pushing to the extreme his obsession with light in the mists and fogs on the Thames and the pinkish glow of Venetian palaces. But the older he got, the harder he found it to leave his beloved garden. “I’m becoming more and more of a homebody, enjoying the beautiful things before my eyes.”

Nymphéas (1904). Oil on canvas (90×93 cm).

Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux, Le Havre, France. © Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux.

However, his eyesight was deteriorating, despite two cataract operations. “I work not without difficulty, because my eyesight is fading day by day,” he complained in 1920. But he worked furiously. “I am a slave to work, ever seeking the impossible. I have little time left and must devote all of it to painting.”

Water Lilies: Morning [Les Nymphéas : Matin] at the Orangerie Museum in Paris, France.

© RMN (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Hervé Lewandowski.

For the last thirty years of his life, Monet worked tirelessly on his series of Water Lilies. Originally a simple commission to decorate the walls of a dining room, these stretches of plants and still waters became an obsession. As he grew old, Monet sought to render “the illusion of a whole without end, of a wave without horizon or shore.” He applied paint in thinner and thinner layers, reducing the water lilies to their essence in his last paintings, which are both profound and disquieting. Conceived especially for the Orangerie Museum in Paris, Monet gave eight compositions of large decorative panels to the state to celebrate the victory of 1918. He planned to install them close to the floor as he wanted to make visitors bend forward as they would to peer into a pond: a last act of humility demanded by the painter in homage to sublime nature. _