In The Spotlight: The Hero’s Journey of Claude Monet

The hero’s journey is all about the efforts of the great storytellers to reveal the one great universal story of mankind. The quest for the universal story climaxes in the 19th century with the effort to capture the elusive moment. The power of the story in stone enticed the builders of Stonehenge, the Pyramids and the Parthenon. But it was the power of the storyin light that produced the most modern art forms, for light, the nearly instaneous messages of sensation, is the speediest, the most transient. Light has played surprising new roles in modern times for those who would re-create the world with their stories.

“Modernity,” said Baudelaire, “is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, one half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable.” For this modern half, light is the vehicle and the resource. It was the Impressionists who made an art of the instantaneous, and Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) who showed how it could be done. To shift the artist’s focus from enduring shapes to the evanescent moments required courage. It demanded a willingness to brave the jeers of the fashionable salons, a readiness to work speedily anywhere and an openness to the endless untamed possibibilities of the visual world. Cézanne summed it up when he said:

Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!’ 

The son of a prosperous grocer, Monet was born in Paris in 1840 and as a child of five moved with his family to Le Havre on the north side of the Seine estuary on the Normandy coast. That city, it was said was ‘born of the sea and so too was Monet the Impressionist. in the weather of Normandy, as generations of Channel passengers have painfully learned, the proverbially unpredictable sun, clouds, rain and fog transform the sky and its sea reflections from moment to moment. Young Monet, impatient to the flee the “prison” of school eagerly explored beaches and cliffs. Until 1883 he was frequently refreshing his vision with visits to the French coast, north or south. Then he found in the Seine, in the Thames, and in his ponds at Giverny other water mirrors for his ever-changing world. “I should like to be always near it or on it” he said of the sea, “and when I die, to be buried in a buoy”.

The first signs of his talent were his caricatures of teachers and other local characters in his school copybooks. By the time he was fifteen he was selling these in the shop of the local picture framer. There a chance encounter would shape Monet’s life as an artist and the future of Western painting. He met Boudin who preached to him the need to preserve ‘one’s first impression’.  ‘Everything that is painted directly on the spot’, he insisted, ‘has always a strength, a power, a vividness of touch that one doesn’t find again in the studio’.  “The exhortations of Boudin,” Monet recalled, “had no effect (refusal of the call to adventure!) … and when he offered to take me with him to sketch in the fields, I always found a pretext to decline politely. Summer came – my time was my own – I could make no valid excuse; weary of resisting, I gave in at last, and Boudin, with untiring kindness, undertook my education. My eyes were finally opened and I really understood nature; I learned at the same time to love it.” That summer Monet  went on an outdoor excursion with Boudin to Rouelles, near Le Havre. “Suddenly, a veil was torn away, I had understood – I had realized what painting could be.  By the single example of this painter devoted to his art with such independence, my destiny as a painter opened out to me. Boudin was urging him to capture the moment of light.

The artist’s move out of doors was not only a change of place. As Monet would show, it changed the “subject” of his painting and the pace of his work, leaving a predictable studio world of walls and windows and artificial light for scenes of evanescent light. Monet would create new ways of capturing that light and that evanescence.

At the age of 18, encouraged by Boudin,  Monet appllied to the Municipal Council of Le Havre for a grant to study art in Paris. The council turned him down on the grounds that ‘natural inclinations’  for caricature might ‘keep the young artist away from the mre serious but less rewarding studies which alone deserve municipal generosity’. Still his father sent him to Paris for advice from established aritsts and a tour of the salons where artist’s reputations were made.  Originally sent for only a month or two, he was quickly seduced by the city and decided to remanin indefinitely. He was fascinated by the artist’s café world, by the debates between the romantic ‘nature painters’ and the ‘realists’ known for their still lifes and worker’s scenes.

The headstrong young Monet refused to enroll in the Ecole des Beaux – Arts, citadel of the establishement, though it would have pleased his fathar and assured a parental allowance. Instead he joined the offbeat Académie Suisse, where there were no examinations and no tuition.  The free atmosphere and low cost had attracted some great talents. Courbet and Manet had worked there. Pissarro still stopped in occasionally to paint or meet friends, and Monet found him a kindred spirit. Perhaps the most intellectual and self conscious of the Impressionist circle, Pissarro introduced Monet to the scientific rationale for their new approach to painting.

Monet’s parents in Le Havre were alarmed at the rumors of his bohemian life in Paris, and in 1860, when young Monet was unlucky enough to have his number called for the obligatory seven years of military service, they thought they had him cornered. Monet’s father offered to ‘buy’ a substitue if Monet would commit himself to the career of a respectable artist. But they had misjudged their son.

The seven years of service that appalled so many were full of attraction to me.  A friend who was in a regiment of the Chasseurs d’Afrique and who adored military life, had communicated to me his enthusiasm and inspired me with his love for adventure. Nothing attracted me so much as the endless cavalcades under the burning sun, the razzias, the crackling of gunpowder, the sabre thrusts, the nights in the desert under a tent, and I replied to my father’s ultimatum with a superb gesture of indifference….. I succeeded, by personal insistence, in being drafted into an African regiment. In Algeria I spent two really charming years. I incessantly saw something new; in my moments of leisure I attempted to render what I saw. You cannot imagine to what an extent I increased my knowledge, and how much my vision gained thereby. I did not quite realize it at first. The impressions of light and color that I received there ware not to classify themselves until later; they contained the germ of my future researches. 

He had long admired Delacrsoix’s paintings of Algeria which had first awakened him to the wonders of the North African sun. When he fell ill with anemia and was granted sick leave, his parents bought him  out of the Chasseurs. And in the summer of 1862 he had another lucky encounter, this time with a half-mad Dutch painter, Johan Barthold Jongkind, who would inspire Monet’s later work by his bold outdoor sketches and watercolors not so much of the ships and windmills but of the changing atmosphere. “He asked to see my sketches, invited me to come and work with him, explained to me the why and wherefore of his manner and thereby completed the teaching I had already received from Boudin. From that time he was my real master, it was to him that I owe the final education of my eye.”

By the summer of 1864 Monet begun his staccato life of painting-excursions to the forests near Paris and the seacoasts of Normandy and elsewhere. It was during these twenty years that Monet developed as the Arch-Impressionist. Outside the familiar line of development of Western painting, with new ways of depicting the solid outer world, Monet instead aimed to report whatever the alert artist self could make of the moments of light that came to it.  As Monet’s biographer William C. Seitz puts it, he was “shucking off the image of the world perceived by memory in favor of a world perceived momentarily by the senses”.

Monet came to this freedom of re-creation by stages. His early success at the Salon of 1865 with a harbor seascape (Pointe de la Heve, Sainte-Adresse) and in the Salon of 1866 with his life-size portrait of Camille Doncieus showed that he had the competence to satisfy the Academicians. Zola praised the portrait (“a window open on nature”) for its “realism”, and extolled Monet as “a man amid the crowd of eunuchs”. Despite minor premature triumps more than twenty years would pass before Monet was widely recognized or could make a comfortable living. Meanwhile, he suffered all the pangs of the bohemian life, which would provide Zola’s painful details for his novels about the egoism and frustrations of the Impresssionist artists. When Zola published L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) in 1886, it ended his thirty year friendship with Cezanne and deeply offended pIssarro and Renoir. Monet still confessed “fanatical admiration” for Zola’s talent, but would never forgive him. “I have been struggling fairly long and I am afraid that in the moment of succeeding, our enemies may make use of your book to deal us a knockout blow”.

Nor was Monet exaggerating the pain of those years. In the gloomy summer of 1866 when all his possessions were about to be seized by his creditors, Monet slashed two hundred of his canvases to save them from that fate, which explains why so few of his early works survive. In those years he was continually on the move, avoiding creditors and seeking a home he could afford. For lack of any other place, in 1867 he had to go back to his family in Le Havred. There he was temporarily rescued by his wealthy artist friend Bazille who bought Monet’s Women in the Garden for twenty five hundred francs to be paid out in fifty monthly installments of fifty francs each. This work had been refused at the Salon of 1867.  When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, despite his financial difficulties Monet took Camille Doncieux, his mistress, whom he had just married, and their son born three years before, to London, and then to Holland – painting all the while. Returning to France in 1871, he found the enterprising dealer Paul Durand-Ruel willing to pay good paintings.

What is remarkable is not that Monet’s talents were not recognized sooner, but that, even without powerful  patrons, his new vision was recognized during his lifetime. Unlike many other pioneer artists of his generation, he would end his life prosperous and acclaimed. For twenty years, meanwhile, he migrated from one seacoast or river site to another, with ocassional forest and urban interludes.

During the Paris Salon of 1863 the center of interest and of controversy was Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe a large canvas of two fully dressed male artists and two fully undressed female models decorously picknicking in the woods. Monet who had seen Manet’s work decided in 1863 to have his own try at the familiar theme. His work, he hoped, would be more true to nature. Monet was already beginning to use his characteristic Impressionist technique of flat colors, bright patches and broken brushwork.  During these years Monet was developing into the bold Impressionist. On a visit to Le Havre in 1872 he painted a view of the haven. “I was asked to give a title for the catalogue, I couldn’t very well call it a view of Le Havre. So I said: “Put Impression”. The month-long exhibition attracted a large paying audience. But more seem to have come to laugh than to admire. One pundit  praised these painters for inventing a new technique. Load a pistol with some tubes of paint, fire at the canvas, then finish it off with a signature.  The Impressionist label stuck and was adopted by the painters themselves. But the laughter died away. “They are being attacked – and with good reason,” some friends responded, “because they resemble each other a bit too much and because sometimes they happen to be shapeless, so predominant is their desire of excusively sketching reality”.

The winter of 1877 was desperate for Monet back in Paris. Camille was ill and Monet had no money for food and rent. (Zola would later depict his straits in L’Oeuvre). Again, he sought help from friends and Manet again responded. Driven out of his Argenteuil house by debts, with Manet’s financial assistance he rented a house farther from Paris at Vetheuil, also on the Seine but near open country. Before this move he offered Dr. Gachet a painting in exchange for a loan to pay for the imminent delivery of his second child. He asked Zola for money to cover the cost of moving his furniture to the house that Manet had helped him rent. Disaster piled on disaster. When the celebrated singer Jean-Baptiste Faure, who had collected Monets on speculation, now put them on auction they brought depressingly small prices.

Monet had no money for paint and canvas.  “I am not longer a beginner”, he wrote a friend on december 30 1878, ‘and it is sad to be in such a situation at my age (38) always obliged to beg, to solicit buyers. At this time of the year I feel doubly crushed by my misfortune and 1879 is going to start just as this year ends, quite desolately, especially for my loved ones to whom I cannot give the slightest present’. Despite all, the indomitable Monet kept up his spirits by painting fields of poppies and views of the Seine. He had to pawn everything to pay for Camille’s last illness. She died in September 1879, ending their thirteen troubled years together. At her death Monet wrote again to the friend asking him to retrieve from the pawnshop “the locket for which I am sending you the ticket. It is the only souvenir that my wife had been able to keep and I should like to tie it around her neck before she leaves forever”. Though broken in spirit, he remained the almost involuntary servant of optical impressions. Seeing Camille on her deathbed, he could not prevent himself from capturing on canvas the blue, gray, and yellow tones of death on her face. Appalled, he compared himself to an animal that could not stop turning a millstone, for he was “prisoner of his visual experiences”. The painting now hangs in the Louvre.

With the aid of enterprising dealers and increasingly adventurous collectors, including many Americans, Monet became a self-supporting painter. By the 1890’s he was a recognized master. And Monet experimented ever more boldly with his optical self. He offered more than a new style in his way of re-creating the artist’s visual world. Monet’s early experience of the volatile atmosphere of Normandy, and of the dazzling sunshine of North Africa as we have seen, had prepared him for the fireworks of light. He had the courage to give up the publicly agreed-on world of the known for the world seen only by the artist himself. This was a revolutionary shift in focus, a change both in the resources of the artist and the demands made on the artist. For while the descriptive artist had his tasks limited by the observed world out there, the Impressionist’s assignments were infinite. And this way of re-creating the world came close to abolishing ‘subject matter’.  The Impressionist artist’s “motifs” had no other purpose than to call attention to the painting and give the viewer his bearings in the artist’s world of impressions. Gone was the need for mythological, historical, religious, patriotic, or epoch-making subject matter. The optical impressions of an artist-self at a given moment were quite enough. Monet tended toward landscape or seascape, not because of their special significance, nor from a romantic love of nature. His motifs were not so much Nature as the Out-of-Doors, a world of ambient atmosphere, of ever changing light and infitinite iridescence. No object had a fixed color and even shadow could contain the whole spectrum.

Impressionists were prophets of the new, prototypical re-creators. As the young post – critic Jules Laforgue observed of them. “The young poet-critic Jules Laforgue observed of them. “The only criterion was newness… it proclaimed as geniuses, according to the etymology of the word, those and only those who have revealed something new”.  Every Impressionist painting was of a new “subject,” which was the visual world of the artist at that evanescent moment. For novel subjects monet found nothing more fertile than water – in the sea or the river, and in the snow, constantly chaning and reflecting. And so he said “the fog makes London beautiful”.

The outdoor painter worked under stringent time limits. While the studio painter could take four years for a Sistine ceiling and another five to paint the wall behind the altar, an impression by Monet had to be painted with near-photographic speed. Monet sometimes painted for only fifteen minutes at a time on a canvas. If the light was sufficiently similar on another day he might return. Atmosphere, sun, shadow and the time of day were all crucial.

The Impressionist painter had accelerated the pace of his work to match the pace of modern life. Monet was in search of the now, and capturing a short-lived motif required a spontaneous style. Monet himself described the challenge of making a laborious art serve the aim of ‘instantaneity’.  Momentarily frustrated by the too-rapid change of light as he painted his haystack series (October 1890) he wrote:

“I am grinding away, sticking to a series of different effects, but the sun sets so early at this time that I can’t go on…. I’m becoming so slow in working as to drive me to despair, but the more I go on, the more I see that I must work a lot to succeed in rendering what I am looking for: “Instantaneity,” especially the evelope, the same light spread everywhere, and more than ever I am disgusted by easy things that come without effort.”

This kind of painting required its own kind of patience, to wait for the precise moment and come again and again in search of that moment. Monet’s friend Guy de Maupassant, who sometimes accompanied him in his search for the moment, compared Monet’s life of that of a trapper.  The Impressionist had to brave wind and rain and snow.  A journalist in 1868 at Honfleur, opposite Le Havre described Monet in his neighborhood. “We have only seen him once. It was in the winter during several days of snow, when communications were virtually at a standstill. It was cold enough to split stones. We noticed a foot-warmer, then an easel, then a man, swathed in three coats, his hands in gloves, his face half-frozen. It was M. Monet, studying a snow effect.

Of all painter’s works those of Monet are the hardest to describe in words, precisely because they had no “subject” but the momentary visual impression on a unique self. Though suspicious of all prescribed “forms”,  Monet did create a spectacular new form of painting. In the “series” he found a way to incorporate time in the artist’s canvases by capturing a succession of elusive moments. Monet’s series were his way of making peace between the laborious painter and the instant impression of the eye. In his early years Monet had sometimes painted more than one picture of the same scene, and so revealed the changing light and atmosphere. But now he planned extensive series of the same subject under variant light, season and atmosphere. Here was a new use of time and atmosphere, a new epic form, in which the differences between paintings were part of the plot. Monet had done something of this sort in his paintings of London in 1870. The series concept flourished and grew as Monet in his fifties finally put poverty behind him. Now a prosperous celebrity, he could elaborate his ideas at will, as repetively and outrageously as he  wished, with no worry of having to appeal to the market.

Monet’s first grest series seemed to have a most unpromising subject. But for this haystack series the haystack was not really his subject. “For me” he explained, “a landscape does not exist as a landscape, since its appearance changes at every moment; but it lives according to its surroundings, by the air and light, which constantly change. In May 1891 he exhibited fifteen paintings of his haystack series, showing the same motif under varying conditions of atmosphere, sun and snow, sunrise and sunset. It was this series that had inspired Maupassant’s characterization and Monet’s own complaints of the painful elusiveness of “instantaneity”.

Then, as if to show that even ‘man’s works could nourish the most subtle impressions Monet did a series of impressions of the facade of Rouen Cathedral seen from the window of a shop opposite. When twenty of the Rouen series were exhibited in the Durand-Ruel gallery in 1895, they sold for the high price of fifteen thousand francs each a price Monet had insisted on. Monet’s friend Georges Clemenceau acclaimed the series as a “Revolution de Cathedrales”- a new way of seeing man’s material works, a hymn celebrating the cathedral as a mirror for the unfolding works of light in time. Here, he said was a new kind of temporal event. Two more great series still remained in Monet’s agenda. A series on the Thames, begun in 1900, had produced more than a hundred canvases by 1904. Then, after Monet had settled down in Giverny in 1900, he began his water-garden series, which he was still elaborating at the time of his death in 1926.

It is difficult to grasp the grandeur of any of these series when we see only individual canvases in different museums. The delight of each haystack painting comes also from our view of its Impressionist companions. Monet’s fascination with the gardens of Giverny and his attention to their care were another witness to his obsession with visual change. His small home territory – Giverny, its paths, arbors, trees and flowers and its Japanese bridge – provided inexhaustible motifs for Monet in his last years. He delighted in the daily opening and closing of pond-lily blossoms and in the moving clouds mirrored in the shifting surface of the ponds. His achievement was not in the durable but in the elusive moment. He conquered time by capturing light, the speediest messenger of the senses. “I love you”,  Clemenceau wrote to Monet, “because you are you, and because you taught me to understand light”.

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