Your Mom's Favorite Painter Was a Badass: Claude Monet and the Subversive Impressionists
Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat. . . . I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found-the beauty of the air around them, and that is nothing less than the impossible.
Claude Monet, artist
The Impressionists are only . . . makers of spots [of paint].
Edmond de Goncourt, critic
Growing up, even though my mother exposed me to culture in its various iterations-the symphony, ballet, theater-I remember very little emphasis on visual art, other than the framed exhibition poster featuring one of Claude Monet's myriad water lily scenes that hung on my parents' bedroom wall. It held interest for me only in that it was chock-full of purples and pinks (the best colors in the world to six-year-old me).
I do recall, though, the day that my (lack of) knowledge of Claude Monet moved from a bedroom wall to the greater world. My mother had scored my family tickets to a Monet show at San Francisco's de Young Museum, and we were all going to make a day of it-art! Lunch! Family bonding! She was thrilled.
My dad and I, though, were not. My father, to this day, isn't hugely interested in what he (affectionately) deems "art crap," and I couldn't think of anything worse to do on a sunny Saturday in the city than stare at a bunch of moldy old paintings by some moldy old dead dude.
He and I grudgingly trudged through the museum's packed galleries alongside my mom, who marveled at Monet's pastel-tinged paintings of delicate willow trees, rose trellises, footbridges, and those damned water lilies. At one point toward the end of the exhibition, long after Impressionism fatigue had set in, we came across a large horizontal canvas about ten or twelve feet in length hanging alone on a wall. It was a riot of color and brushstrokes, but had no discernible scene or subject matter. What the heck is this supposed to be? I grumbled internally (obviously, I wasn't aware of this little thing we call abstraction). My dad seemed to be thinking the same thing and quipped aloud, "This must be where he cleaned off his paintbrushes at the end of the day."
Together we laughed: it's not a painting! Just the framed remnants of a total mess! We had finally experienced that sought-after family bonding-only with Monet's paintings as the butt of the joke. And for a long time, the memory of that exhibition stayed with me, confirming my impressions of Monet: sloppy, light, pretty, and trivial. Claude Monet, the most boring painter of my childhood.
As I grew older, this concept of Monet-as-dull-painter didn't leave my mind; if anything, I grew more fervent in my convictions. Part of the reasoning for this was that I began to see him everywhere: flowers festooning umbrellas, haystacks reproduced on scarves. He was museum-store gold, adorning items that would make the perfect gifts for your mom (or my mom), and it further solidified my impression that Monet was nothing but decorative, along the same lines as popular artists like the saccharine Thomas Kinkade (19582012), 'the Painter of Light,' whose tableaux of insipidly aglow cottages could be found in malls throughout America during the same period (sorry, Thomas Kinkade fans).
When it came time for me to take the final course in my university's Introduction to Art History series, which covered artmaking from the nineteenth century onward, I scanned the syllabus and spotted a week dedicated solely to the merits of Impressionism. I rolled my eyes, returning to my time-honored complaint: Oh great. This will be a waste of time.
I have had to eat my words ever since.
Because what I quickly learned was that the Impressionists-old Claude Monet included-were rebels, rule breakers, troublemakers all. Think that Monet, Renoir, Degas, and others were trite and uninteresting? Wrong: they were actually subversive badasses who transformed visual art forever.
To understand how the Impressionists changed the course of art with such moxie and radical dissidence, we need to understand what art was like before they disrupted it all. The nineteenth century proved to be a tumultuous time in visual culture, wherein every art movement butted against the previous one with disdain. The first half of the century featured the rise of Romanticism, all swoony and obsessed with portraying the extremes of human emotion and natural grandeur, and distinctly at odds with the staid and stoic Neoclassical style that came before. German painter Caspar David Friedrich, one of my favorite artists, best represented the Romantic viewpoint and proudly declared, "A painter should not paint merely what he sees in front of him, but also what he sees within himself. If he sees nothing within, he should not paint what he sees before him." Feelings-and making the viewer feel things too-became a big freaking deal. Use your good friend Google to compare the eerily quiet The Death of Marat (1793, Muse Oldmasters, Brussels) by Jacques-Louis David with the charged drama and energy of the shocking The Third of May 1808 (1814, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) by Francisco de Goya, and you'll see what I mean: David's Neoclassical portrait is a tone poem of virtue and mourning, but Goya's Romantic scene is bleak, harsh, and just plain horrific. Both paintings portray murder, but Goya's is more terrible and stirring.
Naturally, the latter half of the nineteenth century kicked off with a rebellion against such overt emotions and turned instead toward representation of the real. And thus the aptly named Realism was born. No more of this overblown, imaginative stuff! Show the world like it is! The enfant terrible of midcentury French painting, a gruff lout named Gustave Courbet , was the exact opposite of Friedrich, and proclaimed, "Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things." Take Courbet's 1869 work, The Wave (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon), one of many seascapes that the artist would complete. Courbet only painted a crashing wave if he stood in front of it and watched it break-and did so not to evoke a strong emotion in a viewer, but simply because that's what the waves in the ocean looked like at that exact moment in time and in a specific place. No symbolism or feelings necessary.
Complicating matters a bit were the tried-and-true methods of artistic study, exhibition, and appreciation, all spearheaded in France by the state-sponsored AcadŽmie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) in Paris, previously known as the Academie de peinture et de sculpture (Academy of Painting and Sculpture). At this juncture in history, if you were an artist, you had to either train at the Academy, be represented in its annual Salon exhibition, or both. There was really no other way to get your art seen or to make a viable living as a creative type. Even though private art galleries slowly began to pop up toward the end of the century, if you weren't part of the Academy and the Salon, you were nothing, artistically speaking. And that's not even taking into consideration the preferred artistic style promoted by the Academy, which was deemed . . . wait for it! . . . Academic.
Many of the professors teaching at the Academy expounded time-honored methods of Academic art production that balked against the opposing forces of both Romanticism and Realism: art, they said, should be based on the intense study of Classical Greco-Roman sculpture and inspired by the idealization of the human form. Not all crazy and emotive, but not exactly like the real world either. And artists were encouraged to think grandly in their subject matter: religion, mythology, and ancient history were deemed best, while scenes of daily life (often called genre scenes) or images of flowers or animals were seen as trite in comparison. Painting a sunset or a bouquet of roses for the sake of it wasn't good enough-you needed to have meaning, story, and idealism behind it all.
This confusing and contradicting art world soup is the realm into which Claude Monet, the future Impressionist god, stepped when he arrived in Paris in 1859. Though the artist was born in the Parisian capital in 1840, he spent most of his childhood in the Normandy port town of Le Havre, about two hundred kilometers northwest of Paris. Like many artists, Monet expressed his talents early, frequently doodling in his textbooks and creating caricatures of his classmates, much to the dismay of his teachers. But chastising him did not work. As Monet noted later, Even in my childhood, I could never be got to obey rules.He fared similarly at home. Old Papa Monet, Adolphe, wasn't thrilled with the arts-he was a businessman who owned his own company (the nature of which is still a bit unclear)-and he was vocal in his hopes that young Claude (also known as Oscar, or Oscar Claude) would carry on the family business. This thought brought Monet about as much joy as seeing Monet's paintings would, for little me, 130 years later. Thankfully, though, Mama Monet, Louise, was on her son's side. She was an admirer of the arts herself, and so she supported his artistic training until her death in 1857.
That same year, Claude met Eugene Boudin, an established artist whose way of doing things was different-he painted outside! In the fresh air! With bugs and birds and stuff! This was radical and possibly even a little weird because most artists merely sketched a preparatory drawing outside, and then worked in designated studios or other art spaces to complete their works and with their myriad tools at the ready. But not Boudin. He introduced young Monet to his method of working en plein air, or making entire paintings outdoors, soup to nuts. Even more important, Boudin confirmed what Monet was beginning to realize about himself: he wanted to do this for a living. He wanted to be a great artist.
Naturally, being a great artist in the mid-nineteenth century meant moving to Paris, which Monet finally did, two years later, with only the most grudging blessing from his father (going against his father's wishes and hopes is yet another sign of Monet's rebellious nature, one that would grow more frequent as his father's distrust of art as a career grew). He applied and was accepted to study at the Academie Suisse, which had a reputation of being more advanced and far cooler than the Academie des Beaux-Arts. But after a period of stringent training, it appears that Monet became disillusioned with the traditional art school setting and preferred, instead, to learn at the feet of a more forgiving master: Swiss painter Charles Gleyre, whom he joined after a year spent in North Africa for national service.
Gleyre, to most, is a footnote in art history, but the sheer number of famous men who passed through his studio is insane: Jean-Leon Gerome, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille, and many others. Gleyre himself painted in the Academic style, but his methods of instruction were relaxed, and he fostered an environment conducive to camaraderie and experimentation.
And what a camaraderie it became! Monet quickly grew attached to his fellow students, particularly Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille, and they gathered alongside other like-minded artists in their social circles: Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot. Immersed fully in modern Parisian life, they frequented cafes to discuss the latest techniques in painting, argued over the best way to depict urban development while lounging in newly built public parks, and gaped at the innovations of Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet, who dominated and shocked Salon audiences in previous years with works like Courbet's A Burial at Ornans (Muse d'Orsay, Paris) and Manet's Olympia (1863, also at the Muse d'Orsay). All these artists agreed that painting en plein air was the way to go and would often take trips beyond Paris to set up their easels, side by side, and work joyously in a quiet country lane or a breezy seaside village.
The Great Renoir Protest of 2015
On October 5, 2015, a small group of art lovers convened in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, railing against none other than Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Impressionist painter most known for his pretty, blithe scenes of the Parisian bourgeoisie in the late nineteenth century. The protest seemed to come out of nowhere, inspired neither by a current exhibition nor a new discovery of something scandalous in the artist's past. So why were they protesting?
One reason: those lovely, insipid paintings. Renoir paintings are so pleasant and inoffensive as to be offensive, according to the protesters, led by Max Geller, founder of the Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting. In mock anger, Geller and his cohort held signs exclaiming "God Hates Renoir" and chanted insults (my favorite burn: "Other art is worth your while! / Renoir paints a steaming pile!").
And they do have a point. When compared to his compatriots, Renoir certainly isn't as groundbreaking or experimental, nor as pointed in his social commentary or as politically engaged. But in his own small way, he was rather revolutionary: at a time when art was all about the gritty reality of modern life, Renoir was committed to beauty. For Renoir to stick to portraying lovely things was his own gentle act of rebellion. As he once famously proclaimed, "Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world."
Portraying their modern surroundings and painting them outdoors made up just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg that differentiated these artists from those who came before. Of utmost importance was the way they painted these surroundings: quickly, with pure, bright pigments often highlighted with a strong white base tone that brought a sparkly illumination to the surface. Such pigments, rapidly built up with thick and loose brushstrokes, were meant to convey the shifting and changing effects of light and atmosphere, as well as the fleeting, personal understanding of color (what looks blue to one person might read as teal to another-and that can make a big difference when you're painting the ocean, for example). It was a fresh and new way of creating, and it most certainly did not jibe well with traditional Academic painting, which Monet and pals snubbed as too dull, not lively, and certainly outmoded. These scrappy artists were out to find ways to become, as writer Charles Baudelaire would famously say, "the painter[s] of modern life."
It must have been an exciting time, but not an altogether comfortable one. As had happened with Manet and Courbet and many others before them, Monet and his cohort struggled mightily at the hands of the Salon. Salon exhibitions, though juried by a range of artists and instructors, were nevertheless tied to the Academy and its preferred methodologies and subject matters. If a painting was too different and broke from too many art-historical traditions, it would not be accepted for the official exhibition. "Too weird," you can imagine a judge muttering. "Not traditional enough," another might say. As subjective and snooty as the Salon members could be, they were still the be-all and end-all of artistic taste, as well as being the most public demonstration of artmaking, and Monet knew all this. He had to get into the Salon to become well known and successful. There was no other way around it.