Master of Color: Considering Claude Monet

Water Lilies (c.1915–1926) by Claude Monet (Nelson-Atkins Museum Kansas City, Missouri)

In 1874, an art critic stood before a recently painted seascape and gave his opinion of it: “Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.” The art critic who penned these damning words was Louis Leroy and the painting he was dismissing was ‘Impression, Sunrise’ by Claude Monet. Damning words they may have been but posterity has both vindicated the genius of the painter while making the critic Leroy seem to be an out-of-touch philistine.

Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet (Musée Marmottan Monet Paris, France)

Rarely, in the history of human creativity, can one find a towering artistic genius who changed the world of painting to such an extent as the French painter Claude Monet (1840–1926). After J.M.W. Turner (and perhaps Van Gogh), Claude Monet ranks as the greatest painter since the Renaissance. He was a master of color and the greatest artist France ever produced. A leading Impressionist (a term taken from the above encounter and embraced), Monet was prolific — more than 2,500 paintings, drawings, and pastels by the artist are known to have been created.

Boulevard des Capucines (1873–1874) by Claude Monet (Nelson-Atkins Museum Kansas City, Missouri)

“It seems to me, when I see nature, that I see it ready made, completely written — but then, try to do it! All this proves that one must think of nothing but them [impressions]; it is by dint of observation and reflection that one makes discoveries.” -Claude Monet, from an 1864 letter to to Frédéric Bazille

Garden at Sainte-Adresse (1867) by Claude Monet

Analyses of Monet’s works and career have filled many books over the years. A single article cannot do him justice. This article will focus, quite briefly, on his artistic career after 1870. The year 1870 was a tough one for Monet. France had gone to war with Prussia and the German States, a war France would lose. Monet left the country with his family to avoid being drafted into the military. He spent some time in the United Kingdom. It was here that Claude Monet became familiar with the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), perhaps the greatest artistic genius of modern painting. Turner combined the emotional appeal of Romanticism with the modern industrial age to produce masterpieces of unparalleled beauty. Turner was well aware of scientific discoveries and incorporated them into his paintings as well (such as the complex nature of the sun’s surface or the nature of clouds). Turner also prefigured the Impressionists with his distinctive brushstrokes. Turner was obsessed with light. This can be seen in one of his masterpieces in the National Gallery in London — Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway (1844).

Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway by J.M.W. Turner

Two years later, Monet painted ‘Impression: Sunrise.’ Despite the beginnings of artistic genius emerging in Claude Monet’s work, the 1870s were a tough decade for the artist. In 1870, his wife died of uterine cancer at the age of just 32. Monet painted a haunting picture of his wife on her deathbed.

Camille Monet on her deathbed (1879) by Claude Monet (Musée d’Orsay Paris, France)

Monet’s artistic skill is perhaps best appreciated through viewing his landscapes. His mastery of color can be seen in the following two paintings from the 1870s.

The Artist’s house at Argenteuil (1873) by Monet (Art Institute Chicago, Illinois)
Poppies (1873) by Monet (Musée d’Orsay Paris, France)

Perhaps echoing Turner, Monet produced a painting of a railroad in the 1870s as well. His was not a train moving through the countryside but a train arriving at the station. Compare the atmospheric nature of the image with that of Turner’s ‘Great Western Railway’ above.

Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (c.1877) by Monet (Art Institute, Chicago)
Gare Saint Lazare (1877) by Monet (Fogg Museum, Harvard University)

Monet’s middle and later career was the period in which he produced many series paintings. He went out and painted the same subject at different times during the day and different times of the year. These include depictions of haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and his famous water lilies.

Consider several of his haystack paintings:

Wheat stacks — end of summer (1890, Art Institute, Chicago)
Grainstack — sunset (1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA)
Wheatstacks — sunset with snow (1890–1891, Art Institute, Chicago, IL)

Monet was influenced by Turner in his depiction of light and surpassed Turner in his mastery of color. Above are a mere three of the twenty-five paintings in the haystacks series. One should also be aware that, unlike the established painters of previous centuries, Claude Monet did not simply sketch scenes and confine his painting to his studio. He actually went outside, paintbrush and easel in hand, and painted from life. Additionally, the nineteenth century saw the development of commercially available paints in tubes. In centuries previous, painters needed workshops to produce their own colors. Now, a painter could procure tubes of paint and simply get to work. Pierre-August Renoir emphasized the fundamental role that tubes of paint played in nineteenth century painting: “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.”

Claude Monet in 1899 (photograph by Nadar)

In the 1880s, Claude Monet began renting a house at Giverny. He would go on to buy the property in 1890. In addition to Turner, Claude Monet was influenced by Japanese culture and his work as a gardener. Monet collected Japanese woodblock prints, including the great masters Hokusai and Hiroshige. He had over 200 by the time he died. Japan had recently ended a policy of seclusion in the 1850s. Japanese woodblock prints made their way to Europe, first as wrapping paper before being collected for their aesthetic appeal. In France, this craze for Japanese art was known as ‘Japonisme’ (a term coined in the 1870s). Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler are among the most notable artists from the period who took inspiration from the works of Japanese artists. The painting below is a direct copy by van Gogh of a print by Hiroshige from the 1850s.

The Blooming Plum Tree (1887) by Vincent van Gogh
Plum Park in Kameido (1857) by Andō Hiroshige

“ About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — [so why not go to Japan], in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.” -Vincent van Gogh, 1888 letter to his brother Theo

Claude Monet was influenced by Japanese design in his gardens. He had a Japanese-style bridge built by local craftsmen. This was a bridge made famous through Monet’s many renderings of it.

Japanese bridge over water lilies in Monet’s garden at Giverny (1889) by Monet

Monet’s water lily paintings dominated his later career. In all, he painted water lilies over 250 times. He began to suffer from cataracts. In 1911,his second wife died. Three years later all of Europe was plunged into the turmoil of the Great War. After the war, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau tasked Monet with the creation of a series of grand paintings for the Musée de l’Orangerie as a gesture in honor of those who died in the war. The result was what one critic would call the ‘Sistine Chapel of Impressionism’ — eight large water lilies murals.

Water Lilies (190–1926) by Monet (Musée de l’Orangerie Paris, France)
Water Lilies (1920–1926, Musée de l’Orangerie)

This monumental project was Monet’s last. He died in December 1926 at the age of 86. At the time, he was the most famous painter in France and the world. Posterity would grant him a position as one of the greatest creative minds in all recorded history. Such was the life of Claude Monet, artistic genius and master of color. He taught the world how to see in new ways. He shaped the way millions view painting and his influence can be seen all over the world to this day.

Japanese Foot Bridge (c.1922) by Monet (Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Texas)

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