Throughout his career, Monet's artistic style and choice of subject matter shifted in great leaps and bounds. While his evolution flows coherently, his art can easily be divided into several periods of work. The majority of Monet's work in the Metropolitan's collection is split into two rooms, one containing his earlier work and one containing his later work. Monet's earlier work, before the 1880s, contains many famous paradigms of Impressionism. In the Museum's collection, six of these works are among the especially insightful; they clearly reveal Monet's changes in both painting style and interest in subject matter. They also allow us to examine Monet's influence on other artists of the time and their influence on his work.
The six pieces were done in three different locations, over a period of thirteen years. The two earliest of the six works, Garden at Sainte-Adresse and Regatta at Sainte-Adresse, were done in 1867. It was during that summer that Monet stayed at Sainte-Adresse, a small town near Le Havre on the Normandy coast.(1) During this time Monet was delving into what would later be known as Impressionism, but had not yet developed the style that he would become famous for.
These two paintings contain many elements that relate to Monet's earliest work and the influences of other painters, especially Manet. In fact, hints of Manet's influence can be found in both the subject matter and painting style of the two works. While Monet would soon become famous for his landscapes, and eventually nearly eliminate figures from his work altogether, his earliest work often concentrated on figures.
The style and notable fashion of Monet's figures bring to mind similarities with much of Manet's work, especially his famous Luncheon on the Grass of four years prior. The obvious association is merely one of fashion and a mood of relaxation - the figures in Monet's two works certainly do not contain the biting critiques or satire associated with Manet's painting. In Regatta, the figures are used as decorative, framing elements. In Garden, however, they play a very important role and tend to be perceived as the main subject of the painting instead of the surrounding landscape. "The sea becomes a mere backdrop to the fashionable figures relaxing in [the painting]."(2)
Two of the figures in Garden have been identified as Monet's father, Adolphe, and his aunt, Sophie Lecadre, both seated in the foreground, while the standing figures are thought to be his cousin, Jeanne-Marguerite, and uncle, Adolphe Lecadre.(3) The similarities of the costumes of the people in Regatta suggest that some of them might have been Monet's relatives as well, especially his father, who seems to be the standing man on the shore.(4) Monet had in fact moved in with his family that summer after suffering financial difficulties, and started work on many canvases which marked a definite turning point in his style and outlook.(5) Actually, his financial difficulties also allude to a connection with Manet. Monet had tried to emulate some of Manet's works from previous salons, most notably Luncheon on the Grass, but did not succeed. Monet started work on his ambitious Luncheon immediately after seeing Manet's in 1863. In fact, Monet took particular notice of Manet at that year's Salon, when he was accidentally complimented for Manet's work due to their similar name.(6) Unfortunately, the overly ambitious Monet was unable to complete Luncheon in time for the 1866 Salon.(7) Along with that year's Women in the Garden, it is one of the few large figural paintings that Monet attempted, which adds to the uniqueness of the import placed on the figures in Garden at Sainte-Adresse.
In regards to subject matter, Garden and Regatta both reflect on Monet's growing interest in water. Water was an important subject in the work of both Monet and Manet, and the two artists influenced each other in this regard. Monet made an attempt to emulate Manet's painting style, which can be seen in the plastic-like quality of the water in Regatta and the lack of deep modeling in the water in Garden. In return, Manet was later influenced by Monet - the water in Manet's Couple Boating of 1874, one of his most famous water paintings, is so similar to the two works by Monet examined here that it is hung in the same room at the Metropolitan. The water is reminiscent of Monet's work in its breakdown into few colors and the shimmering, tactile shapes of the light falling on it, and is almost eerie in the similarity of its turquoise and greenish colors. Another correlation can be found in the fact that both Couple Boating and Garden at Sainte-Adresse were exhibited in 1879, many years after they were painted.(8)
Stylistically, Monet's two works have much in common with Manet. The surface of the paintings is a flat, plastic like paint application that is reminiscent of Manet's elimination of complex modeling and emphasis on shape and solid planes of color. The bottom left corner of Regatta is one of the only spots in the two works where Monet's trademark brush stipples are evident. The dabs of green in the water of the two works are too organized and flat to hold much connection to his later style.
Monet has not really pushed his own style in these two works with regards to color, as well. The skies, for example, while daringly bright for the art world of the time, are really made up of very few colors compared to Monet's later canvases. The water in Garden even gives the impression of only two colors. Monet's later work is quite a shift from this, in which even the simplest of forms is made up of many different colors vibrating in their atmospheric effect. Monet also does not spread out his colors as much - in his later works, colors are repeated in many different places. In Garden, this is beginning in his repetition of red in the flowers and flags, and green in the plants and water, but has not reached the diffusion and spread of color that can be found in his later works.
The two paintings also contain several subject elements that firmly place them in the beginning of the flowing evolution of Monet's work. Their subject matter deals with modernity, which Monet was very interested in at the beginning of his career, and nature, which eventually became the focus for all of his later work. The modernity in Garden can be seen in the fashion and manners of the figures, and in the ships in the background. "At Sainte-Adresse the old and the new are juxtaposed - fishing boats meet steamboats out at sea."(9) In this way, Monet also juxtaposes the new (man overpowering nature through industry) with the old (man's dependence on nature). The terrace in Garden also seems modern in that it acts as a sort of precursor to the modern boardwalks, which supplant old, natural shorelines.(10) It is challenging to find early works of Monet that do not include any sign of civilization - boats, tourists, or houses in the background.
Even the natural aspects of these works reflect modernity. These two works certainly show much of nature, but it is a modern, organized, controlled nature. The flowers in Garden are cultivated by man, and the sea in both works is dotted with boats on the horizon. The seeming flatness of Monet's water adds to the effect of boats floating on the top of the mass of water, making them more important than the water even though they are small in the distance. Even the sky in the two works, while it is an accurate, natural, and atmospheric description that alludes to Monet's later interest in atmospheric effects, seems too good to be true. While the weather on these beaches is probably very comfortable, in the works it is almost as if these relaxing figures are controlling the weather to their own vacationing needs. The sky seems to be almost a decoration, perfectly dotted with clouds as if found in a tourist's brochure for the French coast. It was only later in Monet's career that this view of nature let in more of the chaotic, wild, and perhaps more natural side of nature, leading to more abstract canvases and coming to a climax in his Waterlilies series.
The Parc Monceau, 1876-8
In the late 1870s, Monet did several works of the beautiful Parc Monceau. In 1876, Landscape: the Parc Monceau was one of three views of the park Monet did in the spring. Two years later, Parisians Enjoying the Parc Monceau was one of two more similar views. By this time, the term Impressionism had been coined from Monet's Impression: Sunrise, and the movement was in full swing.
Now a decade after Regatta and Garden at Sainte-Adresse, Monet's artistic style had evolved dramatically. Like the previously examined pair of paintings, these two are very similar and clearly fit into the progression of Monet's evolutionary style. At this point, most semblances of imitation have vanished and Monet had forged a new language of painting, using dabs of bright colors and beginning his quest to accurately describe atmosphere and lighting effects. There is even a noticeable change in the two year period between Landscape and Parisians, mainly in the boldness and contrast found in the later work.
Like each pair of paintings examined here, these two share a definite color scheme of strong, bright greens. During this time, Monet had not yet completely abandoned earth tones in favor of the new chemical paints, but many bright chemical colors abound in these two works. Both have hints of the strong pinks that would become more evident in Monet's later canvases, and both have strong contrasts. Parisians, in fact, is based on distinct light and dark shapes which are found in the contrast between the trees and the background and which are reflected in the ground as well.
Perhaps the most striking change in the two works is Monet's brushwork, which has become much faster and lighter. The manner of painting found in the corner of Regatta now encompasses the entire works. According to House:
In the mid-1870's we find the beginnings of a more general change in Monet's handling. In place of the distinct, diverse accents of previous paintings, he began to seek ways of coordinating the whole paint surface more closely, both by variegating and breaking up every surface within the picture, and by introducing echoes and rhymes of touch and texture across the surface between different areas of the picture.(11)
This led to Monet's work reaching a new state of balance, harmony and unity in regards to light and color. With this new painting style, Monet shared many traits and qualities with Renoir and Pissarro, who were frequent visitors to Monet in the 1870s.(12) Monet's painting style now reflected theirs, and theirs his, and it was distinct and powerful enough to decisively shift Manet towards a more impressionistic manner of painting after he visited Monet in Argenteuil.(13)
Monet's subject matter had shifted considerably by this time as well. Monet had begun to find some success from his works, including, in 1876, patronage from the independently wealthy painter, Gustave Caillebotte.(14) This allowed him to devote more time to subjects he enjoyed without worrying as much about acceptance, a trend that continued through the rest of his career. This freedom was a driving force behind his newfound experimentation. His subject matter began to change form completely modern, populated scenes to more natural and atmospheric ones, as in Landscape.
Light itself became increasingly common as a subject in Monet's work now. In Parisians especially, the light in the foreground seems to take on a life of its own, with huge, broad strokes of green and yellow that shimmer in their contrast. Monet has not eliminated the human presence from his work completely, though. Parisians includes many figures, and even the title stresses Monet's placing importance on the people in the work. But the intense light and contrast makes the figures secondary in the work; perhaps a more suitable title would be The Parc Monceau Enjoying a Few Parisians.
Both Landscape and Parisians also include faint background images of the same pinkish buildings, similarly cropped by trees. Instead of the people controlling the natural world as seen in the two works from 1867, the natural world is infringing and literally covering the people (with light and shade). In fact, all of the figures in Parisians are completely enfolded in the shadows of the huge, strikingly dark trees. The light that breaks through the trees, so prominent in the foreground of the work, does not actually fall upon any of the Parisians. This is quite a shift from Monet's earlier emphasis on the figures and their lifestyles, and a trend that would continue through the rest of his work.
The final pair of works that will be examined here were painted two years after Parisians, in the area around the village of Vetheuil. In 1878, in an attempt to find a new, practical, and inexpensive home, Monet moved to the village, a quaint archetype of rural France that remains little changed to this day.(15) This move allowed a significant shift in his painting:
...now he could focus on effects of light, weather and the seasons, as they played across the village and the surrounding countryside, using sky and water as the keynotes of paintings where little trace of modernity intruded into these timeless interrelationships.(16)
It was here in Vetheuil that Monet's subject finally became nature itself: the weather, seasons, and especially the light.
The two works, Vetheuil in Summer and Path in the Ile Saint-Martin, Vetheuil, both show many evidences of Monet's changing focus. His brush stroke has become completely light and fluttering, and his dabs are quick and myriad. He has completed finished works that are exciting, vivid, and harmonious; works that would have been condemned as sketches by the standards of a few decades before.
Monet managed to bring more unity into these two paintings by repeating both brush strokes and colors throughout the works. If he places a certain dab of paint, he then repeats that elsewhere in the work, carefully balancing it out. Not that his work could be considered deliberate; if anything, he was working faster than ever before and probably more quickly than anyone else at the time. But he had mastered his new techniques well enough to create works that thrive as natural, true impressions of light and color. This repetition of color can be seen in the blue that is sprinkled into the ground in Path, reflecting the sky. Monet also uses the reflection of the water in Summer as a clever device to give that painting an incredible sense of balance.
While both of these works contain traces of humans in the distant villages and the boaters in Summer, these subjects have simply become dabs of paint like the rest of the landscape, and have no importance over any of the other elements. This marks a noteworthy shift from the two works examined from 1867, where close-up the figures show intricate lines and small detail. The two figures on the boat in Summer, on the contrary, are simply eight or nine little dabs of color close-up. So, Monet went from dozens of brush strokes per person in the work at Sainte-Adresse to fewer strokes in the Parc Monceau paintings, to less than ten dabs of pure color in Vetheuil in Summer. He was soon to take this evolution further, completely excluding figures from his later works. Actually, all evidences of human life follow this path, giving way to pure nature. In Summer, even the village of Vetheuil appears to be nothing more than strokes of pure color, a true impression of the city as a form of light and color rather than an accurate description of its details or its significance to people.
Here, Monet has forged a new style of naturalistic painting, and has shed off the clear influences of other artists, with the possible exception of CÚzanne. Actually, these two works share many traits with much of CÚzanne's work, most notably the colors. The light blue, medium green, white, fleshy pink, and the tan that shows through from the underpainting, are all commonly found in the work of CÚzanne. Because of these amazing similarities and their continuation in the mid-1880s, both artists were certainly influenced by each other, and when the two artists met in 1883, "the brief meeting may have marked a turning point for either or both artists."(17) The similarity also extends into Monet's partial break down of shapes into planes, a characteristic taken even further by CÚzanne. These simple, diagonal planes can be found in the skies of both Path and Summer.(18)
At this point, Monet's evolution has gone from hierarchical and ordered to completely non-hierarchical, though still organized. He has changed from works with a definite hierarchical structure (people stand out the most, then flowers, then trees, then the background, etc.) to ones where the overall effect of light and atmosphere are the most important traits. This trend continued as Monet grew older, until his Waterlilies series of pure, covered canvases completely filled with color in an almost abstract, expressive and non-hierarchical pattern of light. As the Metropolitan put it, "the imagery nearly dissolves in the myriad touches of paint."
Monet's touch had become so light at this point that his underpainting clearly shows through in both of these paintings. He devised a way to model forms without any true chiaroscuro, or modeling, by simply placing dabbed shadows that were made up of varied colors instead of pure shapes of blacks or browns. He is also using more chemical, bright colors that appear even lighter due to his quick hand.
Monet's work continued to evolve throughout his life, spanning a career of greater length and more significant stylistic changes than perhaps any other artist. His work built upon itself, creating a natural progression that changed with Monet's location, interests, and the influences of other artists. The decade from the late 1860s to the late 1870s was one of the most striking times in Monet's career, creating drastic changes that helped create and greatly influenced the Impressionist movement and modern art in general, and which had infinite repercussions in the artworld even up to today. His changes were so clear that they are evident even in as few as six works in one room at the Metropolitan. By comparing three different times and places in that decade, it is easy to see the drastic changes in Monet's painting style, brushwork, choice of subject matter, and treatment of light, as well as the impact he had on his contemporaries. Monet evolved smoothly from daring landscapes of modern French life to nearly abstract canvases in which light and color become the only true subjects, placing true nature at the heart of his works.
1 Metropolitan Public Information.
2 House, 15. House refers to the painting as Terrace at Saint-Adresse; however, it is referred to as Garden at Saint-Adresse by the Metropolitan, so that title is used here.
3 Metropolitan Public Information.
4 Herbert, 13.
5 Stuckey, 193.
6 Stuckey, 190.
7 A study related to Luncheon, entitled The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest, from 1865, is found in the same room in the Metropolitan as the works examined here (Metropolitan Public Information).
8 Katz and Dars, 163. Manet's work was exhibited in the official Salon, while Monet's was in the fourth independents group exhibit. There is speculation, however, that since Garden at Sainte-Adresse was not included in the newspaper account of the event, it may not have been shipped in time to be included in the exhibit, or was included late (Stuckey, 204).
9 House, 15-16.
10 Herbert, 12-13.
11 House, 79. A good example of this that House gives is The Sheltered Path of 1873.
12 Katz and Dars, 210.
13 Katz and Dars, 209-210.
14 Stuckey, 200-201. Caillebotte became introduced to the group of independents when Renoir and Rouart wrote to him with an invitation to their 1876 show, the second exhibit of independents. Monet had eighteen works here, including Beach at Sainte-Adresse, a cloudier version of Regatta.
15 House, 18-19.
16 House, 19.
17 Stuckey, 210.
18 A good example of these later similarities can be found in the use of planes, composition, and colors in CÚzanne's The Sea at L'Estaque and Monet's Villas at Bordighera. Metropolitan Public Information.
Herbert, Robert L. Monet on the Normandy Coast. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
House, John. Nature Into Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.
Katz, Robert and Celestine Dars. The Impressionists. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Public Information, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Stuckey, Charles F. Claude Monet: 1840-1926. Chicago: Thames and Hudson, 1995.