“One day Boudin said to me, ‘Learn to draw well and appreciate the sea, the light, the blue sky.’ I took his advice.” –Claude Monet
In April of 1874, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, a group of disaffected young artists presented an exhibition which would change the face of art. Calling themselves “The Company of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers”, the group thumbed their noses at the current art establishment. Their number included such names as Edouard Manet, Pierre-August Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet. They became known as the Impressionists, and though they didn’t set out to change the art world, they influenced art for generations to come.
“Paint what you really see, not what you think you ought to see; not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere, with the blue dome of Heaven reflected in the shadows.” ― Claude Monet
It is from Monet’s 1871 painting entitled “Impression, Sunrise” that the term “impressionist” comes, and Monet was one of the driving forces behind the movement. From his early days as a disaffected artist rebelling against the establishment, he went on to become one of the most famous painters of the late 19th and early 20th century, changing not only how we look at art but how we see the world. He broke all the conventions which constrained art in his day, throwing aside the idea of formal composition and choosing instead to paint everyday scenes, most often outdoors.
Where traditional art was usually posed and formal, he painted things on-the-fly, traffic on the street outside of a friend’s apartment, women on the way to market, bathers at a seaside resort. He abandoned line and detail and chose instead to focus on color, atmosphere, and motion. Claude Monet impressionist paintings hold the immediacy of a candid snapshot—the figures caught in mid-step, water halted in mid-wave, poised to continue moving the instant the viewer looks away.
The subjects of his paintings seem almost irrelevant, as each work seeks to capture the interplay of light and shadow above all else. Asked by a critic what the subject of a painting was, Monet responded, “The subject matter, my dear good fellow, is the light.” This is indeed the most striking aspect of all Monet’s works, the light itself and how the feeling of light is conveyed through his use of texture and color.
“When you go out to paint try to forget what object 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 emerges as your own naive impression of the scene before you.” ― Claude Monet
One of the hallmarks of Claude Monet impressionist paintings is his unexpected use of color. While conventional art of his day was mired in subdued colors and blended brush strokes, Monet employed short brush strokes and bold colors, using color and texture together to create the illusion of light and motion. “Colors pursue me like a constant worry,” he once said. “They even worry me in my sleep.”
He often worked out-of-doors, and his aim was to capture the feeling, the often fleeting impression of the scene before him. This necessitated working very quickly, before the light changed, or the wind died down, or the passers-by on the street faded from view. The short, suggestive brush style he adopted lent itself well to the quick capture of subjects. Liberated from the faithful reproduction of details, he could suggest a flower with a bright, heavy daub of color, or a ribbon with a bold flowing stroke.
For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.” ― Claude Monet
Monet was a man on a mission—to document the French countryside in paint on canvas, in different seasons, weather, and light. He would paint the same scene multiple times; in different seasons, at varying times of day, in different weather. In later years he embarked on series of paintings depicting the same subject at different times of day, in different lights, from different and sometimes surprising angles.
His focus seemed at times almost obsessive. He seemed to feel a need to not just portray the landscape, but almost to become one with it in a zen-like way. In explanation, he said that in order to paint the sea well you must look at it at every hour of the day in the same place, so that you might understand its way in that particular place. That, he said, is why he painted the same motifs over and over again. Once he had established his famous water garden at Giverny, he dedicated his time to painting it, producing 250 water lily paintings over the last 30 years of his life.
“I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers, always. My heart is forever in Giverny.” –Claude Monet
Monet often painted on a very large scale. Many of his works are intended to be viewed from a slight distance, and devolve into seemingly random daubs of color when viewed close-up. In his later years, his works became ever more diffuse–the figures and backgrounds blending together to the point where some works are practically abstract. His brilliant colors faded to muddy browns and reds with the occasional shocking splash of blue, and the near-photographic grasp of light almost entirely disappeared.
We know that he developed cataracts in later life, and underwent cataract surgery in 1923; the most abstract of his works were created in the period directly before his surgery. Post-surgery the figures become somewhat clearer and his colors abruptly change from dull reds and browns to shocking blues and violets. It has been speculated that his cataract surgery somehow allowed him to see the ultraviolet band of the spectrum, giving his world a bluish cast; we may never know the answer. Monet died in 1926 at the age of 85, having illuminated the art world with his brilliant use of light, and influenced artists well into the late twentieth century.