Two Paintings that Capture Claude Monet’s Relentless Development as an Artist.

How did Monet go from one to the other?


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On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 81.5 × 100.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection. Image source The Art Institute of Chicago.


Branch of the Seine near Giverny (Mist) (1897) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 89.9 × 92.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. Image source The Art Institute of Chicago


These two paintings by Claude Monet were painted nearly two decades apart. Both images are high points of Monet’s artistic output, yet their differences are striking.

Between them they encapsulate the development of his painting style over a twenty-year period. So how did Monet go from one to the other?

Monet in 1868

The earlier work is a wonderfully vivid outdoor sketch of the river Seine, realised in such a way that light seems to emanate from the surface of the canvas.

The painting shows Monet’s future wife, Camille Doncieux, sitting on an island on the River Seine. She is positioned beneath two trees, looking out across the water towards the hamlet of Gloton. They are in the French countryside, some fifteen miles northwest of Paris, near to the town of Bennecourt.




On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 81.5 × 100.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection. Image source


There is a hint of narrative in the painting: in front of Camille is the rowing boat they used to row across to the island. And over the water there is a track leading down to the jetty where they would have launched from, and behind the track, the clutch of houses of Gloton.

The couple stayed in the Gloton in 1868 after the novelist Émile Zola recommended the rural village as an affordable and accessible retreat from the French capital. Claude and Camille were not yet married and their economic situation was precarious. Their newborn son, Jean, was only one or two years old.



In making the painting, Monet followed the advice of one of his key mentors, Jean-Baptist Camille Corot, and executed the work by identifying sections of similar tonal value. Notice the water, for instance, and see how the reflections of land and sky have been painted using simple blocks of colour.


Look even more closely at the surface of the painting and you can see the way Monet has applied the paint in thick, unblended daubs, most especially when painting lighter areas such as the whites of Camille’s dress. Here we can sense Monet’s interest in the ability of paint to translate directly into patches of light, to explicitly stand-in for the glare or luminescence of a sunlit object.


Photo 3

Detail of ‘On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt’ (1868) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 81.5 × 100.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection. Image source


Monet’s talent is that he gets the colour values just right. It really looks and feels like water. The other strength of the painting is that the darker shades are in the foreground, most especially the leaves and trunks of the trees, giving us a sense that the landscape beyond — that which the woman is gazing at — is bathed in warm light.


It is an inviting scene. We are there with the woman beneath the shade of the tree, settling our eyes on the warbling reflections in the water and the small array of sunlit figures messing around in boats on the far shore.


Despite the appealing feel of the painting, the image was actually painted at a low point in Monet’s life. He had personal debts and had left Paris in order to evade his creditors. Yet his money troubles followed him: the family failed to pay their rent at the inn they were staying at and were thrown out. It is thought that Monet became so despairing over his economic circumstances and his faltering painting career that he threw himself into the river at Gloton — though he came to no serious harm.


Monet in 1897

In the two decades following, Monet’s life would take various turns that would shape his artistic career. Whilst he and his new wife Camille continued to struggle to pay their living costs, Monet never gave up work as a painter and the tenacious development of his practice.

When, a decade later, France went to war with Prussia, Monet avoided conscription by moving his family to London. It was during his time in London that he had time to evolve his painting style and to encounter new artists. Already influenced by Corot, Monet now saw the works of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner.



Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) by J. M. W. Turner. Tate Britain, London. Image source Wikimedia Commons


Monet was especially impressed by Turner’s original treatment of light. He saw in Turner’s work the same willingness to let painted brush marks do the work of capturing the fleeting and translucent effects of light.


And with Turner, he also saw the impact of allowing the overall painting to be consumed by lighting effects, so that details, even the subject matter itself, would be secondary to the wider atmospheric feel.

Monet’s crucial innovation at this time was his adoption of painting in “series”: that is, taking the same subject and painting it repeatedly under different lighting conditions. After famously tackling various subjects such as haystacks, train stations, and Rouen Cathedral, Monet returned to the River Seine.

Branch of the Seine near Giverny (Mist) (1897) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 89.9 × 92.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. Image source The Art Institute of Chicago





Beginning in 1896, his “Mornings on the Seine” series was made from a flat-bottomed boat anchored to the riverbank. Now living in his new home at Giverny, Monet would wake each morning at 3:30 to reach the river by dawn. He made seventeen “morning” paintings in all, working on various canvases during the course of a single day as the light changed. To keep the canvases in order he utilised grooves built into the boat and enlisted his gardener to hand the correct painting to him.

Monet’s series paintings were fundamental to his artistic development because of the liberating nature of the method: having multiple paintings to work on at the same time undoubtedly freed him from placing too much emphasis on one individual work. He was free to experiment, knowing that if one painting failed then he had several others that might yet succeed.



Left: On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 81.5 × 100.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection. Image source The Art Institute of Chicago. Right: Branch of the Seine near Giverny (Mist) (1897) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 89.9 × 92.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. Image source The Art Institute of Chicago

Compared

to the earlier work, the second painting takes a more deliberately obscure point of view. Monet has dipped his gaze below the line of the horizon. We cannot see the level of the water nor any landscape beyond. All we are party to are the reflections in the water.

What is left is a painting that asks a completely different question of the viewer: no longer a depiction of a landscape with narrative elements, the later work asks the viewer to let go of all extraneous expectations of setting and instead focused their eye on the purely visual excitement of the water’s surface.

In short, we have to let go. It is remarkable artistic development.




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