Claude Monet is without a doubt one of the most famous and influential painters of Western art. Monet, alongside the group of artists known as The Impressionists, sought to break free from the Academic standards to a more unrestrained and immediate approach to painting. He was a painter who had a significant impact on the art world.
Monet and the Impressionists aimed to work in a more spontaneous way and capture the fleeting sensations of a scene, with a special focus on light. Indeed, one of the main characteristics of Impressionism as a whole is the sheer luminosity of the paintings. Also, in order to represent the idea of a fleeting sensation, the artists executed their paintings with short brushstrokes, creating visually dynamic compositions.
To better understand the importance of Monet and the Impressionists in the art world, we should first understand what was artistically dominant before their arrival.
During the early 1800s, the current art aesthetic was deeply rooted in Romantic, Neoclassical, and Academic values, precise brushstrokes, and minutely finalized paintings; Neoclassical, mythological, religious, and historical themes were elements valued in the art world.
Furthermore, the distinguished Paris Salon, held by the Academie des Beaux-Arts, virtually dictated what would be considered “good art”. By that time, artists such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel, and Jean-Leon Gerome were often considered the foremost artists of their time, praised for their technical mastery.
By the mid-1800s, an art movement known as Realism began to take place. Championed by Gustave, Jean-Francois Millet, Camille Corot, and Honore Daumier, these artists advocated for more realist and less idealized artistic standards. As a result, their production is characterized by the depiction of ordinary scenes of everyday life, especially of working people.
An important stem of the Realist movement was the Barbizon School. Greatly inspired by the landscapes of John Constable, their main focus was now on the backdrop of these rural working scenes: nature itself. Nature was no longer a mere background where figures were placed but the main focus.
The name of the group comes from the French village of Barbizon by the Fontainebleau Forest, where artists such as Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jean-Francois Millet, and Theodore Rousseau gathered to paint. Visually their paintings often had a freer execution, with more fluid, looser brushstrokes and softer edges, as opposed to the prevailing hardness of form dictated by the academy.
Eventually, the works of the Barbizon School caught the attention of younger artists, such as Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Monet, and other young Impressionists, who flocked to Barbizon to paint its sceneries outdoors. This was one of the key moments in the development of the Impressionist movement.
As said before, the Paris Salon was the most important and influential art exhibition in France and Oscar Claude Monet himself exhibited at the Salon two times.
In 1863, two-thirds of the paintings presented to the Paris Salon were rejected by the jury, including the works of Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, and Gustave Courbet. This created discomfort among artists, and in response to protests, Emperor Napoleon III instituted the Salon des Refuses, or Salon of the Rejected, comprised of paintings rejected by that year’s jury.
The exhibition had more than a thousand visitors, but that doesn’t mean it was a success; the artworks were mocked and bashed by the public and critics alike. A special outcry was aimed towards Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe”. However, it was a harbinger of a new and exciting development of art itself.
Monet and this new generation of artists brought a fresh and unique perspective to art. In 1874, some of these artists united under the name of the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., and started organizing independent yearly exhibitions, later known as the Impressionists Exhibitions. The founders of the group included Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, among others.
Their first exhibition had a massive attendance, with over 3500 visitors. However, their artworks were yet to become appreciated by most art critics. In that year, Oscar-Claude Monet exhibited his painting “Impression: Sunrise”. It was a soft and hazy depiction of the port of Le Havre during sunrise, created with fluid and loose brushwork. A critic named Louis Leroy, baffled by these very characteristics, coined the term “Impressionism” and not in a good light; he deemed these works unfinished. However, some less conservative critics began to appreciate their works, especially for their focus on scenes of modern life.
Soon, Impressionism would begin to gain traction, be seen in a good light by the public, and influence a whole new generation of artists.
In 1883, Monet moved with his family to a house in Giverny. There, the artist created the garden that became his main source of inspiration and became famous worldwide through his brushstrokes. Monet also created a Japanese garden with a bridge, and in the pond, the artist cultivated water lilies, which became the subject of several famous paintings. In fact, Monet’s water lilies are considered the most important artworks of his later career, painting them until the very end.
By the end of his career, Monet’s brushwork became increasingly loose and spontaneous, sometimes almost verging on abstraction. This was also due to his developing cataracts.
In 1914, Monet started working on a series of 8 massive canvases for the French Government. Artworks depicting his beloved water lilies were hung in a large oval room at the Musee de l’Orangerie, exhibited in a continuous, seamless manner, becoming more of a mural than individual paintings. That way, the public was immersed in 360-degrees of Monet’s beautiful paintings. Sadly, Monet wasn’t able to see this exhibition since it opened soon after the artist’s passing in December 1926.
Monet’s art had an invaluable influence on art itself. The free use of color, the dissolution of lines, form, and perspective set the stepping stones for further dissolution of form. The use of tiny brushstrokes, for example, heavily influenced the development of Divisionism or Pointillism. In fact, Monet’s paintings are often considered vital in the development of modern and contemporary art.