Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden Sainte-Adresse, 1867
Claude Monet was born on November 14, 1840 in Paris. Father of Impressionism and pioneer of en plein air, it is difficult to imagine a world without his loose brushstrokes, but Monet was a rebel in his day to the establishment. While painters of the era were copying Old Masters in the Louvre Monet could be found sitting near a window or outside in the open air painting nature. It was this profound love of the natural world around him and the artists who inspired him, such as Constable and Turner, who took their Romantic ideals of emotion to new levels in their later years that lit the fire within for Monet. The difference for Monet was a lack of drama altogether, finding everything to express himself in nature itself without polish or attention to details. This was revolutionary thinking, and to our modern eyes we associate Monet with flowers and sunsets but it is his understanding of color and value that make him a poet of painting.
Looking at Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden Sainte-Adresse above, we see a painting that for a moment looks like a photograph. Monet's color temperatures and hues are spot on. Consider that he painted this with the sun coming over his left side, he would have worn a hat to block out the sun in his eyes, not to mention tolerating the heat of what looks like a warm summer afternoon. What is interesting about this painting is how Monet chooses a triangular composition for the two trees and flowerbed with the woman off-center, back to the viewer as she looks down, holding her parasol. She seems like an inanimate object carefully placed beside the wondrous colors of nature, a very modern way of looking at this kind of subject. Painters of the past would have focused on her ethereal beauty, basking in the sun's rays and smiling at the flowers around her...a flower herself of sorts. But here she is a faceless, elegant figure in a cool white dress to relieve the eye of ever-present green...and it works. It makes me wonder about Monet's opinion of the upper-class in France at that time.
Waterloo Bridge, 1903
This piece here is the essence of Impressionism: squint and it comes alive. And seeing a painting such as this in person greatly enhances the experience as it was meant to be. Monet uses cool violet tones for the bridge against a murky sky filled with pinks, greys...even yellows. Color is the language of Impressionism, and it is highly expressive while being true to life. Note the use of yellow highlights in the water next to the bridge. Monet could see, and here he makes us see light and mood as a subject, not mere elements.
This is such a beautiful painting, so simple yet profound...he gives reflection and color a natural sensuality that is breathtaking. The last rays of sunset infuse rich purples and magentas into this lake with water lilies. There is something striking and moving about reflections in water, and here Monet's color temperatures are so accurate we forget we are looking at something painted in oils. His dry brush here is actually quite minimal and in places you can see the white of the canvas...note the greens and purples in the shadows. Monet is telling us that the simple moments in life are free and require only the right time and place to experience them.
The Railroad bridge in Argenteuil, 1874
This overcast day with a view of a bridge once again has flawless color temperatures. Look carefully at the wide columns supporting the bridge and you can see tints of cool blue highlights on the side facing the light, and where the columns meet the water Monet has used the same greenish hues of the grass, and it works perfectly. Monet was a slow and methodical painter, contrary to the quick brushstrokes which suggest movement and impatience for details. Again, squint and it all makes sense.
Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875
Another mysterious painting, Monet captures his wife and son with a casual, modern aesthetic, yet this time the grass appears to have been inspired by Van Gogh. Examine the brushwork up close here and you really begin to understand Monet. Those swirls of paint that make up clouds behind them add a dimension to the painting that would be dull and boring without them...if you notice Monet has left part of the sky unfinished with the canvas showing again. Look at the combination of thick and thin with dry and wet brushstrokes on her dress, and the thick yellow highlights on the boy's shoulders. This painting is an incredible study in light and shadow, and how figures can occupy space as main subjects and yet still be only an element in the composition.
Train in the Countryside, 1870
An unusually serene and dream-like painting, Monet's warm greens and yellowish green sky has a quality that is difficult to put into words. He creates a sense of depth by the dark green shadows underneath the trees, and below this he sparsely populates this area with figures enjoying a day at the park that, up close, are merely faceless squiggles of paint. The gentle roll of the hill to the left with the shadow of the tree helps to create even more depth, yet it also contrasts with the plume of smoke from the train up above, going in the opposite direction. Monet is a painter of moments.
Rue de la Bavole, Honfleur, 1864
Here we see Monet's great values and color temperatures in this quaint study. This time, however, he uses thick outlines to heighten the sun's low angle and it's effect on the buildings. The long shadow on the street, painted in thick warm greys up close, is nearly perfect in value. Note the figures looking away from us once again. Monet seems to have been fascinated by how color temperature changes with light, and how it strikes an object, changing its appearance entirely depending on the time of day. Note the yellow greens in the road itself. There is a wealth of information about painting to be learned in this study alone.
Water Lilies, 1916
This painting neatly sums up Impressionism's delight in color as a pure means of expression. The hues Monet uses here range from the garish pastel all the way to dark dry-brush strokes, and it all blends together seamlessly. Even Monet's suggestion of water and reflection is nothing more than vertical strokes of blues and purples, yet Monet knew that from a distance the eye blends all these together. And squinting. Monet was a painter of nature and life, reminding us continually that we are more narcissistic than we think we are, and that nature is not a backdrop to our lives, but life itself.