Impressionist Claude Monet
4. Claude Monet: An Insecure Life
Dedicated to Representing Nature
In 1862, the future leader of Impressionism, Claude Monet, having returned from Le Havre, meets the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891) and comes to regard him as his real master. "It is to him that I owe the definitive training of my eye ..."
He is struck by the impetuousness of his touch, the conciseness of his suggestions, the dynamism of his strokes, this man who, aided by age and experience and without preparation or revision, was able to express the volume and idea of colour as well with a brush as with a pencil or etching. Monet paints alongside him and, following his example, gives more body to his painting, multiplying the colour accents and using round strokes (more insistent than the fine hatching of Boudin) to bring more animation to his composition.
IMPRESSIONISM & PORTRAITS
MEANING OF ART
However, when Monet arrives in Paris, he
joins the Gleyre studio at the insistence of his family. The fact that
he learns little there is compensated by visits to museums and the atmosphere
of Paris. About the only positive gain from the studio is to meet Sisley,
Bazille and Renoir. Their friendship
becomes very close and these three tyros are henceforth to constitute
round him a sphere of radiance and a veritable group. His experience with
Jongkind, his bold intuition and the knowledge of the possibilities ahead
of him already have made Monet a lively leader of strength. It is very
important that his ideas find an echo and someone to respond to them.
Nevertheless, we get a good idea of the
abandoned work, not from a later reduced version so much as from the fragments
which remain and which are of exceptional quality. The central piece (98
x 75 in.) shows four persons and the sumptuous still-life of the luncheon
spread out on a cloth before them; the left-hand piece (164 x 59 in.),
discovered some years ago in the studio of Giverny and given to the Louvre
in 1957 by Georges Wildenstein, shows four figures. The painting is of
exceptional quality, with a breadth of touch that Monet did not dare try
again in his easel paintings, often a little too scrupulously done. And
do not forget that the work remained unfinished. Important planes of colour
are relieved by decisive slices of pure tones and these vast surfaces
offer a possibility for strong variations to the sunlight penetrating
through the trees. The figures are truly completely integrated into nature,
whether their dominant features blend in with the foliage or whether they
are treated in a manner more marked by light.
Thus from 1865 onwards, Monet is constrained to give preference to more modest landscape in his entries for the Salon: seascapes or forest scenes. These works are of great clarity, free, concentrated and well nourished, light and new. At first they are well received. At the Salon of 1865, Manet is surprised to find placed alongside him the painter who is almost his homonym, with whom he is still not acquainted and towards whom he still feels some bitterness in realising the success of his seascapes while everyone rails against "Olympia." But soon afterwards when he gets to know the artist his prejudice disappears and accords him an undeniable friendship.
But as the years pass Monet is to encounter
the same hatred, the same injustices as the older man. At the Salon of
1866 he is again accepted with "Route de Fontainebleau" and
"Portrait of Camille." But in 1867, his "Women in a Garden"
is rejected and the same occurs with the marvellous landscapes of La Grenouillere
in 1869. Yet what variety there is in his studied elegance and in his
propositions; what rich invention in works where Monet always applies
himself to the solution of a new problem! In 1865, imitating Jongkind
who had painted the apse of Notre-Dame Cathedral from the same place at
different times of the year, Monet sets about painting the road to Saint-Simeon
farm during the summer, then under snow. In 1866 he paints the first panoramic
views of Paris from the roof of the Louvre opposite Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois.
Although these paintings have stiff titles such as "Saint-Germain
l'Auxerrois," "Le Jardin de l'Infante" and "Le Quai
du Louvre," they present a vast picture of the city with several
plans of the facade of the quays and the Place Dauphine, now lit up, now
tinted with light shadows, dominated by the cupolas of the Pantheon, of
Val-de-Grace and the Clovis Tower which stand out under great mottled
skies. The masses of green or the clumps of light foliage create a space
in depth, always transparent: in the foreground the animated silhouettes
of fiacres (cabs) and people strolling stand out. They are the first of
those urban landscapes, of those panoramic, overhead views of the boulevards
and of the Pont-Neuf which later inspire so much searching by all the
Impressionists right to the end of the century.
In 1868, Monet has a brief respite from his material worries. After Boudin succeeds in having him invited, with Courbet and Manet, to an international maritime exhibition at Le Havre, he sees his portrait of Camille bought by Arsene Houssaye, who has come to the exhibition as Fine Arts Inspector, and meets a rich art-lover, M. Gaudibert, who commissions him to paint a portrait of his wife and helps him on several later occasions. This portrait, which appears to sacrifice something to the worldly type of Alfred Stevens, a friend of Manet and occasional visitor to the Cafe Guerbois, is, in reality, in its treatment and composition very close to the contemporary portraits by Manet himself, in which the individuality of the model disappears behind a multiplicity of symbols and richness of decor. For instance, in the famous portrait of Zola, the profile is an almost minor element compared with the still-life formed by the ink-well, the open book, the coloured brochures on the desk, or by comparison with the Japanese screen or with the engravings mounted in a frame. In the portrait of Duret, the face, inert as a sleeve or a hat, is reduced almost to nothing in comparison with the enormous swollen silhouette. Animation returns to the hands and there is intensity in the still-life in the foreground, the lemon and the carafe: luminous spheres which provide a balance to the heavy vertical mass of the body. In Monet's portrait of Madame Gaudibert, the head is almost completely turned and what counts is the elegance of the puce silk robe, the movement of the shawl, the bouquet of flowers, the curtains painted with great sweeps of the brush and relieved with deep blacks. But Manet, better than Monet, knows how to get rid of useless accessories. Taking a lesson from Spanish painters, in whose work opposition of blacks and live colours is magnified by their standing out against neutral backgrounds of light and cloudy ochres, he places his figures in such a setting. The most striking example of this before the portrait of Duret is his "Fifer," so concrete and striking in the brilliant colours of the uniform, but suspended in a void.
At the end of 1868 Monet is at Bougival with his family, once more without money and appealing desperately to his friends. Renoir, who lives with his mother at Ville-d'Avray, comes to work alongside him but is just as badly off, and often they have to stop work through lack of paints. However, they sense that at the ends of their brushes are ideas for wonderful canvases.
Their impressions are complementary and,
working on the same subject, they are to produce for the first time parallel
visions of immense interest, with each keeping his characteristic traits
and both trying to create a method of painting. First, it is the theme
of the boat and the water reflecting the houses and trees on the bank.
Then follow the unforgettable paintings of La Grenouillere. From this
point one can readily date the birth of Impressionism as a new technique
for possible general application. That celebrated place on the Seine near
the Fournaise restaurant, described by De Maupassant, presented an extraordinary
scene of liveliness which fascinated the two friends. The landing stage,
a little island with a single tree, provides a central point for composition
in which they show the strollers and the elegant coming and going. In
the works of these two Impressionist
painters, differing but at the same time close to one another, only
the treatment of the water is almost the same, with elongated strokes
producing alternation of light and shade according to whether the water
receives the full light and reflects it, or ripples from the shady side.
In the case of Renoir, figures merge into the overhanging foliage, an
almost indistinct coagulation of vegetation. People lose all individuality,
enveloped in delicate shades and reflections of light. In Monet's work,
on the contrary, the contrasts are very much more marked. Magic also exists
in his canvases but the composition is always clear with the whites exactly
divided. The decor of trees unfolds as a frieze in full focus, thus creating
a depth in front of which the silhouette of the island and, on the right,
the forward part of the restaurant, are detached. There are details of
prodigious boldness like the bathers on the left who seem to be streaked
by the light patches on the water. This masterpiece was rejected by the
jury of the Salon in 1870 despite the insistence of Daubigny, who resigned
over the affair. From this time also date the significant snow studies
in which Monet and Renoir probed the reflection of sunlight on snow, tinted
with pink or yellow and producing bluish or mauve shadows. See: Best
His position becomes almost untenable when, in 1867, his companion Camille, whom he was unable to marry before 1870, bears him a son. There are times when Monet is without even a fire, or bread. His family will only consent to help him if he eats humble pie and returns under their wing. He is offered food and shelter, but only for himself and not for Camille and their child. He endures almost martyrdom to try to produce, under so many difficulties, the work in which he believes. His sole support is Bazille, who never tires of being asked for help, in whose studio Monet sometimes takes refuge for long periods, and who tries all ways of finding buyers for Monet's paintings and, when he fails, sometimes buys a rejected work himself on instalments. (But read about Monet's next patron, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.)
Meanwhile what of Edgar Degas and the others?
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