I n 1874, a group of artists departed from the strict traditions of the Paris Salon and staged an exhibition so radical, it revolutionised the art world. Among the artists featured was Claude Monet, who exhibited a painting titled Impressionism Sunrise (1873). Comprising foggy hues of greens and blues; faint silhouettes of figures on boats; hazes of pinks and yellows as sky and punctuated with a blazing round sun and its rippling reflections on the water, Impression Sunrise proved to be groundbreaking. Not only did its title inadvertently coin the term ‘Impressionism’ – setting the tone for the long line of ‘isms’ that came after it – but through its painterly technique: all rough, brash, feathery and light-filled strokes, it used new techniques to capture the quickening pace of modern life.
Monet | The Father of Impressionism
Often hailed as the ‘father’ of Impressionism, Monet brilliantly conveyed the reality of living in the throes of a rapidly-changing world. Born in 1840 and raised in the Normandy town of La Havre where he often drew caricatures of local figures, he came of age at a time of immense industrialisation and societal transformation. Artistic traditions were being challenged, and painters were increasingly mobile, able to travel with unprecedented ease, taking the new small metal tubes of paint and foldable easels, to cliff tops and coastlines, to paint en plein air.
From the age of seventeen, Monet dedicated his practice to painting nature. Uninterested in representing a true likeness of the world – after all, recent technologies such as photography had been invented for that – he crystallised through paint, our experiences of seeing. Acutely observing weather conditions, the changes in light, or the exact mood of the place or room, Monet translated into visual form the temporal nature and quickness of life. Even when his late wife Camille was dying in 1879, he painted her cloaked in an ocean of purple strokes, documenting the warm blood rushing from her face and her transition from the terrestrial to the celestial.
The five works in this set span a pivotal trajectory of fifteen years in Monet’s career, during which he moved from being a representative painter to developing a style that verges on the abstract. The first in this series, Prunes et Abricots (c.1882–5) is a jewel of a canvas and a naturalistic likeness of his subject that reveals a more intimate way of looking. Most likely painted indoors – something indicated from the subdued, colder palette and restrained composition – Prunes et Abricots hints at the artist’s later painterly development, through small wisps and flickers of colour. Applied with thick, scratchy licks of white, green, grey, and blue, with dabs of yellow and red, the prunes teeter on the brink of the motion that he would amplify in subsequent paintings.
As the decade progressed, Monet’s painting transformed. Visits to the rocky terrain of Northern France and the glimmering warm-toned coasts of the Mediterranean informed a new way of experiencing light, shade, water, and wind. From the early 1880s, Monet based himself in Giverny, where he dedicated hectares of his land to flowers, in his words, “for the pleasure of the eye and also for motifs to paint”. He had also been amassing an enormous collection of Japanese prints: scenes which captured the essence of modern life, embraced the flat planes and utilised bright colour – further complementing his flowers.
Working in series to focus on the nuances that each season offered, Monet continued to paint with increasing attention to atmosphere. As if to transport us directly into his experience of the scene, Glaçons, Environs de Bennecourt (1893) gives the distinct sensation of being in an icy climate. Although frost lines the slow ripples of water – to reference the heavy snow fall that occurred in Paris in the winter of 1892/3 – a glimmer of spring is evident through the orb-like glow set beyond the horizon line. The more we look, the fresher, lighter and warmer the air becomes – as if the ice is slowly melting away as we examine the work. Praised for his studies of water, it is no wonder his contemporary, Édouard Manet, called him “Raphael de l’eau”.
During the early 1890s, Monet was fascinated by the haystacks near his home in Giverny, which resulted in Les Demoiselles de Giverny (1894) (The Young Ladies of Giverny). This is a superb example of Monet's route into abstraction. With its sculptural application of paint, a foggy horizon line and the dabs of colour making up the shimmering golden-pink haystacks that appear to sway, crumbling and malting as we view them, Les Demoiselles de Giverny was a thrilling new way of looking at nature.
Now on his way to preparing for his greatest series: the water lilies, Sur la Falaise Près de Dieppe, Soleil Couchant (1897), captures Monet’s sensorial approach to painting. Adapting, as John House has written, “his paint-handling to the specific scene and weather conditions”, Monet paints the dramatic rolling coast of Northern France with a palette evocative of the Mediterranean. Beaming in hues of lilacs, oranges, greens and blues, this work appears almost spiritual, with its flickers of white that dance atop the wide-open ocean. Reducing his landscape to merely a few organic contours and forms, he paints the sensation of being wrapped in hot air in the midst of a summer evening.
But it is Massif de Chrysanthèmes (1897) which charts his arrival to an abstraction, of sorts. Relinquishing perspective and the horizon line entirely, Monet situates the viewer both above and within the bed of flowers. Upending all traditions of the ‘still life’ genre, the chrysanthemums feel set in motion, sprouting from their stalks in mesmeric streams and smears of luminous colour, dazzling textures, scratchy surfaces, and an all-encompassing atmosphere, shifting the depth of the composition and spreading it from edge to edge. Monet would go on to develop this technique in his studies of waterlilies in years to come, but here, Massif de Chrysanthèmes submerges its viewer in its subject – as if we are swimming in paint, immersed in the act of looking, enraptured by the scene, and the divinity of nature.