Guided by an intense interest in the natural world, Claude Monet created works that reflected the magical nuances and subtleties he observed in vast seascapes, quiet lily ponds, and other locales. His art played a key role key role in the development of the Impressionist movement in the 19th-century, and though it was derided by critics early on, it continues to fascinate audiences around the world today. His paintings can be found in the collections of major international museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery in London, and many more. To mark the prolific painter’s birthday on November 14, ARTnews took a look back at his pioneering career.
As a young man, Monet learned about plein-air painting from artist Eugène Boudin.
Born in 1840 in the town of Le Havre in France’s Normandy region, a site that would be the subject of a number of his paintings, Monet moved to Paris in 1859 and enrolled at the Académie Suisse in 1860. Around this time, the French landscape painter Eugène Boudin taught Monet about plein-air techniques that would become central to the artist’s practice. Monet also studied with the Dutch landscape painter Johan Jongkind during this period, and at age 22, Monet joined the Paris studio of academic painter Charles Gleyre, who was mainly known for his figurative mythological scenes filled with rich details. Gleyre would also go on to train some of Monet’s contemporaries, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and others.
Some of Monet’s earliest works featured Camille-Léonie Doncieux.
Monet painted his lover Camille-Léonie Doncieux in a number of his early paintings, including Camille (The Woman in the Green Dress), a figurative painting from 1866 depicting a woman flaunting the long train of her emerald dress, and On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868), which shows an idyllic riverside view and hints at the development of Monet’s impressionistic mark-making. Though not yet fully formed in the latter painting, Monet’s signature style would ultimately represent a radical rejection of the dominant mode at the time, realism, which privileged imagery that looked a lot like life itself. Monet and Doncieux married in 1870 after the birth of their first son, Jean. That same year, the couple fled the chaos Franco-Prussian War for London, where Monet met the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Durand-Ruel would become closely associated with the Impressionists as an advocate of their avant-garde style. Also in London, Monet would be influenced by the landscapes of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner.
Monet’s works are largely rejected by major institutions in the early 1870s.
While Monet was still living in London, his work was excluded from an 1871 exhibition at the Royal Academy, and later that year he would return to France to live in the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil. Over the next few years, the artist embarked on several major projects. He completed his famed painting Impression, Sunrise in 1872, and that work would debut two years later in the first Impressionist exhibition organized by the Société Anonyme des Artistes on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The group got their name from the artist and critic Louis Leroy, who, upon seeing the exhibition, coined the term “impressionists” as a pejorative. During these years, Monet faced serious financial difficulties and struggled to establish commercial success as an artist.
[Read about how Impressionism took hold as an artistic movement in 19th-century France.]
In the 1880s, Monet begins to exhibit his works more widely.
Throughout the next decade, Monet had exhibitions at the Paris Salon and Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, as well as a retrospective of 145 paintings at Galerie Georges Petit. His keen interest in the natural world remained a defining part of his practice, with paintings of seascapes and coastal rock formations among his favorite subjects during these years. Low Tide at Varengeville (1882), for instance, depicts a marshy patch of land beneath an imposing seaside cliff. Following the death of his first wife, Camille-Léonie Doncieux, in 1879, Monet married a woman named Alice Hoschedé, the widow of one of the artist’s patrons, in 1892.
Monet settles in Giverny, where he would create some of his most iconic painting series.
In the early 1890s, Monet bought property and land in the village of Giverny, in Normandy. The artist’s gardens and storied water lily pond would serve as rich inspiration for his best known paintings; today, they are popular tourist destinations. He created hundreds of water lily paintings in the final 30 years of his life, exploring the dreamy effects of the flowers’ reflections in water on both small- and large-scale canvases. During the 1890s Monet also created his famed Rouen Cathedral series, which served as studies of the structure’s Gothic facade over the course of different seasons and times of day, and his haystacks series, which was presented at Galerie Durand-Ruel and received widespread praise upon its debut.
The artist was also inspired by his encounters abroad during the later part of his career.
From the early 1880s to the early 20th-century, Monet made trips to paint series focused on Mediterranean seascapes in Italy and landmarks in London, including the city’s Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge. The last years of his life, however, were dedicated to his monumental, panoramic water lily paintings. An exhibition of those works in bespoke galleries opened at the Paris Orangerie just months after Monet’s death at age 86 in 1926. Despite early years of hardship, the artist died having become both wealthy and famous as a result of his unorthodox style.
Monet’s legacy looms large in the annals of art history.
Having gone against the grain of the French Academy and played a pivotal role in forging an entirely new artistic movement, Monet remains one of the world’s most famous artists. Visitors from around the world flocking every year to Parisian institutions like the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée Marmottan Monet to lay their eyes on his artworks. In recent years the artist’s market has been exploding, too. In 2019, Sotheby’s set a new auction record for Monet with the sale of one his haystack paintings, Meules (1890), for $110.7 million. Demand for institutional showings of Monet’s work also continues apace nearly 100 years after the artist’s death. His work was the subject of a lauded 2019 exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, and Impression, Sunrise, which is held in the collection of the Musée Marmottan Monet, traveled to Shanghai for a presentation in 2020.