- A comprehensive explanation of Claude Monet’s work in 10 important paintings that shaped not only his career but also the course of Western modern art.
1. View at Rouelles, 1858
Claude Monet had some success as a caricaturist in his youth. A color dealer purchased his drawings and displayed them alongside the paintings of his mentor and friend, Eugène Boudin. The Barbizon school‘s Camille Corot referred to this painter as the “king of skies.” Monet approached him and agreed to collaborate with him outside. Boudin arrived, set up his easel, and got to work. It was a revelation for Claude Monet. He realized that he wanted to be a painter.
Boudin educated Monet’s eyes, taught him his knowledge, and introduced him to nature and its beauty. One of the outcomes of these sessions is this View at Rouelles, maybe the first painting Monet ever finished. Following that, he continued his training with Boudin’s student, painter Johan Jongkind. Later, he attended workshops in Paris, but he quickly developed a desire to be independent.
Eugène Boudin, Beach Scene, 1858, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Johan Jongkind, Rocky Coast at Sainte-Adresse, 1862, Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, Netherlands.
Claude Monet, Seashore at Sainte-Adress, 1864, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN, USA.
2. The Magpie, 1868–1869
Claude Monet struggled for years, amassing debts and borrowing money from family and friends. Despite a few successful exhibitions and peer recognition, his career took its time to take off. He had depressive episodes, but the light returned at times, and his enthusiasm for work would return. The French master enjoyed simple pleasures such as spending time with his family, a good meal, and the peace and quiet of the countryside.
These moments of relaxation resulted in some magnificent paintings, such as The Magpie (see above), which was rejected at the Salon of 1869, and A Cart on the snowy road at Honfleur (see below). Monet stated that the countryside was even more beautiful in winter than in the summer, for winter provided him with an excuse to investigate the interactions of light with the snow and sun, allowing him to experiment with a wide range of incredibly rich white tones.
3. La Grenouillère, 1869
In the same year as The Magpie, he went to paint outdoors with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, another future Impressionist master. Monet was friends with many famous painters, including Sisley, Morisot, Caillebotte, Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne, Manet, and others. He also possessed a magnificent private collection of paintings, the majority of which were the works of his relatives.
Monet and Renoir wished to depict a modern subject related to leisure activities in their time and chose the Grenouillère, a bathing establishment and floating café. When we compare the two versions, we can see that Monet takes more distance, the figures are more blurred, and he emphasizes the surface of the water, its brightness, and movement: this is the emergence of the Impressionist style.
4. Impression, Sunrise, 1872-1873
This is the painting that gave rise to the term “Impressionism.” Monet is also a witness to his time in this painting, as he incorporates industrial machines into the background. As with La Grenouillère, but in a more radical way, he captures the atmosphere of the landscape while avoiding descriptive details. He recreates the movement of light and water, in fact, the movement of life, with small touches of paint.
This innovative style excluded Monet and others from the official Salon. In response, they decided to organize an independent exhibition in 1874. It took place in the photographer Nadar’s building. This was somewhat perplexing given that the works of these painters were also part of a movement of resistance to the realism that photography allows. The critics went crazy, and one of them mocked the painters by calling them Impressionists. He had bad luck. The painters in question have reclaimed this name and turned it into their own brand.
5. The Studio Boat, 1876
Claude Monet built a studio boat in 1873 so he could paint on the water in complete freedom, closing the gap between himself and the subject. The introduction of color tubes facilitated this type of outdoor work; previously, the material was restrictive, and painters were forced to work in the studio.
This boat was an obvious choice for him: he is known as a light painter, but he was also a water painter. It appears in his work throughout his life: sea, river, canal, pond, and so on. This water lover spent a significant amount of time on this boat. These were happy times, according to him (and we have no doubt about it). Monet was often accompanied by his friend Edouard Manet, who painted the former in his boat. Monet also painted the boat several times and produced many paintings of the banks of the French river Seine while inside it.
Edouard Manet, Monet painting on his studio boat, 1876, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Claude Monet, The boat studio, 1876, Musée d’art et d’histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
Claude Monet, Regatta at Argentueil, 1872, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Claude Monet, The bridge at Argenteuil, 1874. Claude-monet.com.
6. The Saint-Lazare Station, 1877
Claude Monet produced a significant body of work both within and outside of Paris’ Saint-Lazare station in 1877. Once more, he presented the witness’ perspective on modernity as he describes the distinctive architecture of the era, the metal framework that frames the scene, the movement of the train’s smoke clouds, etc. But this is the last instance of it in his writing. The facades in the background that catch the light hint at some of his next works. The third Impressionist Exhibition featured 8 planned views of this station. As we’ll see, his repetitive treatment of the same subject evolved into a fundamental method of working.
7. Poppies, 1873
Claude Monet also featured Poppies at the first Impressionist exhibition. It portrays his first wife Camille and their son Jean strolling through a field. Monet’s family members frequently modeled for him. He loved spending time with his close ones, and it shows in his work. This approach led to the creation of more masterpieces, such as this Walk, Woman with a Parasol that also includes Camille and Jean (see below). He depicted his own life in such paintings, but as time passed, his paintings progressively included fewer human beings and more natural elements.
The surroundings and landscapes he selects to paint also convey something about his inner existence, and how he was able to make it resonate with the magnificence of the outside world to the point where he decided to personalize the landscape to his tastes, such as the garden of his Giverny home.
In order to have dominating colors, that correspond to the seasons, he took into account the blooming period, and the placement of the flowers was determined by the path of the sun, leaving no room for chance. His garden, like his paintings, was a work of art; Monet often asserted that he was a better gardener than an artist. In his final days, he continued to chat about his garden and stopped speaking of painting. His daily environment served as his ideal template- he found inspiration in a setting that he imagined as a place of constant contemplation.
Claude Monet, The Walk, Woman with a Parasol, 1875, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Claude Monet, The bridge in Monet’s garden, 1895-1896, Philadephia Museum of Art, Philadephia, PA, USA.
Claude Monet, The artist’s garden in Giverny, 1900, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Claude Monet, Pathway in Monet’s garden at Giverny, 1901-1902, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.
8. The Series: Grainstacks, Poplars and the Cathedral of Rouen
Claude Monet started creating his paintings in series in 1890. The most well-known ones are those that focus on Rouen’s Cathedral, grain stacks, and poplars (these two series are created near Giverny). Each composition in the series displays a similar, if not identical composition, with the only difference coming from the effect of light, justifying his intense research of light. Monet worked on multiple canvases at the same time to catch its evolution during the day. He also considered how the weather and the seasons might affect his work.
It is a demanding job that requires complete involvement in the creative process. So much so that, while developing the Rouen Cathedral series, he occasionally had dreams in which it was falling on him. Was he attempting a thorough examination of all light’s manifestations? Was he on a demiurgic quest, as this accuracy outside the range of the ordinary sight suggests? This serial investigation of light opens a significant gap in 20th-century art, that much is certain.
Claude Monet, Grainstack in the morning, snow effect, 1890-1891, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States of America.
Claude Monet, Grainstack, thaw, sunset, 1890-1891, Art Institute of Chicago, United States of America.
Claude Monet, Grainstack at sunset, winter, 1890-1891, private collection. Fine Art America.
Claude Monet, Poplars on the banks of the river Epte, evening effect, 1891, private collection. Fine Art America.
Claude Monet, Row of poplars in autumn, 1891, private collection. Arts Viewer.
Claude Monet, Poplars on the banks of the river Epte, effect of sunset, 1891, private collection.
Claude Monet, The portal in the sun, 1892, private collection.
Claude Monet, Rouen cathedral, symphony in grey and rose, 1892, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff, UK.
Claude Monet, Rouen cathedral, portal, Pola Museum of Art, Hakone, Japan.
9. The Grand Canal, 1908
Claude Monet has always traveled, and travel has always provided him with new opportunities to paint. He was already sensitive to the unique light of the former French colony during his military service in Algeria. When he moved to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War, he took advantage of the opportunity to paint the city, including its public parks and the Thames. There he discovered Turner‘s paintings. It was also where he met Paul Durand-Ruel, one of his main gallerists and, more importantly, a staunch supporter of Impressionist artists. Monet returned to London later, with a more distinct style, and gave us magnificent views of a fading parliament.
After his first visit to London, he took a detour to the Netherlands, where the tulip fields, windmills, and canals did not disappoint him. Monet also spent time in Norway, where he created a series on Mount Kolsaas, which was shown alongside the one on Rouen Cathedral. He also continued to travel throughout France (Antibes, Belle-Ile-en-Mer, and so on).
He made extensive travels in Italy as well, including Genoa, Bordighera, and Venice. La Serenissima, the city of water and light par excellence, magnified by its architecture, intimidated him: he couldn’t paint for the first ten days. Then, the city’s magic took over and Monet set to work, excited about the idea of representing this magical atmosphere and seduced by so many graceful motifs. It was his last trip.
Claude Monet, The Thames below Westminster, 1871, National Gallery, London, UK.
Claude Monet, The Zaan at Zaandam, 1871, private collection. WikiArt.
Claude Monet, Mount Kolsaas, Marmottan Monet Museum, 1895, Paris, France.
Claude Monet, Palm trees at Bordighera, 1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
10. Water Lilies Series
From the late 1890s until his death in 1926, Monet’s main source of inspiration was his Giverny water garden, particularly the water lilies that covered it. It was an obsession that led him to the creation of nearly 300 paintings (including 40 large formats) and three tapestries. Among his vast production are his Water Landscapes, close-ups with tight framing, which are also organized by series. They mostly concentrate on the water lilies, the water’s surface, and its reflections. After removing modernity from his canvases, then human figures, the master freed himself from the horizon and perspective, causing a seismic shift in Western art history.
This idea pushed to its paroxysm, resulting in the creation of what he referred to as his “great decorations.” He built a large studio with a zenithal light to realize them. It was a laborious task that took place over several years, primarily during World War I. These works can be seen as a reaction to the chaos of the time: a peaceful and harmonious act of resistance. The world’s beauty had been ravaged, and Monet attempted to restore it in his own unique way. Monet donated to the French state what would become the first art installation the day after the armistice.
It is an immersive panoramic frieze housed in two ovoid rooms at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, similar to how he lived immersed in his garden. Did he want to create a work in which the public can also immerse itself? Did he want us to feel the same way he did in his garden, surrounded by calm and magnificence? Monet designed the entire exhibit in collaboration with the project’s architect: the shape, the layout of the paintings, the visitor’s path, the natural light wells, and so on. The painting covers approximately 100 meters of surface area. It is a temple dedicated to its water garden. A deep visual representation of the relationship between nature and infinity. An ode to contemplation.
Initially shunned by the public, this “Sixtin of Impressionism” (to use André Masson‘s words) is a watershed moment in the history of modern art. It significantly opens the door to Abstract Expressionism as well as all artists who propose immersive environments. Mark Rothko‘s chapel in Houston is a direct descendant of this work, and it inspired the reflections of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1897-1898, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Detail.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies Room, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France. Museum’s website.