“I must have flowers, always, and always.” – Claude Monet
Anyone who’s taken even the most rudimentary art history class can tell you that each artistic period is led by a handful of artists whose names become synonymous with the movement they champion. And perhaps the easiest example of this is Claude Monet. Of course, it doesn’t take any sort of class to know the name Monet. Beyond his invaluable contributions to impressionist art, Monet has gone on to become one of the most famous artists of all time. And his favorite muse, flowers, went along with him for every step of the journey.
Image: Claude Monet
Monet was born on November 14, 1840 in Paris, France. Monet’s father, Adolphe worked in the family shipping business while his mother, Louise, kept the home. When Monet was five the family moved from Paris to Le Havre, a port town in the Normandy region. Monet was a decent student, but much preferred to be outdoors than cooped up in a classroom. He also discovered his love of drawing at an early age. A local landscape artist, Eugene Boudin, introduced Monet to plein air painting, otherwise known as painting outdoors. Monet had found a way to combine his two favorite pastimes. He never looked back.
In his early 20s, Monet moved back to Paris. Like many young artists of the day, he spent his days surrounding himself with art at The Louvre. But, unlike his contemporaries, Monet wasn’t interested in refining his craft by copying the works of masters. Instead, he spent his days painting what he could see out the window.
In 1861 Monet was drafted into Foreign Service and spent a year serving in Algiers. After leaving the service, he returned to Paris and threw himself back into the art world. He joined the private studio of Charles Gleyre and shared studio space with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frederique Bazille and Alfred Sisley.
Monet and his new friends, who also enjoyed painting and creating outdoors, became disillusioned with the art being pushed by the prestigious art schools of the day. During this time period, the highest honor an artist could hope for would be to have their work chosen for the exhibition by the Salon de Paris, the greatest art event of the Western World. Monet did have two pieces chosen for exhibition in 1865 (La femme à la robe verte or The Woman in the Green Dress and a small landscape), but by and large, the Salon did not appreciate the new style Monet and his colleagues were experimenting with.
The accepted art of the time, the realism period, focused on life-like representations of everyday life. Impressionism, on the other hand, is about understanding the way light affects objects and color. And this was what fascinated Monet the most. He was so intent on depicting scenes as they related to light that he often painted the same scene over and over again in varying light so that it could be, in his eyes, fully represented.
Frustrated by the lack of support from the largest authority in the art community, Monet and his friends decided to stage their own show, the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, in 1874. At this first show, Monet exhibited, among others, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise). It was from this painting’s title that the art critic Louis Leroy coined the term “impressionism” to describe not only Monet’s art but also the entire movement he was representing. Though the term was meant as dismissive, the artists embraced the title; taking an insult and turning it into art history.
Image: Clos Normand
Garden at Giverny
In 1879, Monet’s wife and frequent muse Camille died of uterine cancer, leaving Monet extremely distraught. However, after several difficult months, Monet began to create some of the greatest works of his career and perhaps of the 19th century.
In 1883 Monet moved his family to Giverny. The property at Giverney included a house, a barn used as a studio, orchards, and a garden. Monet spent much time designing and enjoying his garden, building it up as his fame increased and his fortune rose.
The main garden, known as Clos Normand, stretches 100 acres and Monet designed it to be a garden of perspectives, symmetries, and colors. Monet divided the land into flower beds set at varying heights and covered the central alleyway with iron arches for climbing roses. He was interested in common, organized gardens and instead chose to pair according to color, daisies, and poppies next to rare flowers, and allowed them to grow freely.
Ten years after he first moved to Giverney, Monet bought another piece of land adjacent to his own and began work on what would become the inspiration for his lasting legacy.
Image: The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny by Claude Monet
The Water Lilies
For his water garden, Monet took inspiration from the Japanese gardens in prints he collected. He even added a Japanese bridge; built by a local craftsman and became a centerpiece of many of Monet’s later works.
Monet had the famous bridge was covered in wisterias and planted weeping willows. Of course, the real centerpiece of the garden was the water lilies. Local French white water lilies were planted along with variation imported from South America and Egypt. The mix of these different types of water lilies led to ponds dotted with yellow, blue, white, and pink.
Then, after six years spent creating the garden of his dreams, Monet began to paint it. As the historians who now run his house as a museum put it, “Never before had a painter so shaped his subjects in nature before painting them. And so he created his works twice.”
As he had always done, he would paint the same scene again and again, in different lights to capture its essence. He began with paintings where the Japanese bridge was the focal point and then loved onto the large-scale series of water lilies that would occupy the next 20 years of his life and become his most well-known works.
Nymphéas (Water Lilies) consists of around 250 oil paintings of Monet’s lily pond. Staying true to his impressionistic roots, the paintings vary between almost lifelike representations to practically abstract. It should be noted, however, that Monet’s eyesight, while never great, was deteriorating rapidly at this time.
In 1923 Monet had two surgeries to remove cataracts. His paintings of the water lilies before and after his surgery are noticeably changed. Because people with cataracts perceive red easier than other colors, the paintings were done before the surgeries have a general reddish tone. After the surgeries, when he was able to see a wider range of ultraviolet wavelengths his paintings took on a bluer hue. In fact, he even went back and repainted some of his earlier work in include more blue water lilies.
In 1926, at age 86, Monet died of lung cancer. Monet’s only son and heir, Michel, gave his home and garden at Giverney to the French Academy of Fine Arts in 1966. The estate had fallen into disrepair following WWII and it took almost ten years to restore the garden and house to the level Monet had kept them at.
Today, Monet’s home and garden in Giverny exist as a museum and people come from all over the world to walk among the types of flowers Monet himself picked out and gaze at the lily pond that inspired hundreds of masterpieces. Monet’s paintings hang in museums across the globe, but it’s only in Giverny that people can see the works he created first.
For more information on the impact of florals on impressionism, check out Chrysanthemums Crush It In Impressionist Paintings.
Clos Normand Image Source (resized):