Studying Claude Monet
I must admit that I put up much resistance to writing about Claude Monet. Not because the man didn’t deserve my attention or study, because he does deserve both. It is just that so many know about Claude Monet, and quite frankly, what new insight could I bring to this party? I have no idea, but I had this nagging, annoying little voice in the back of my head that kept saying, “You can’t leave Claude Monet out of your studies!!” So here I sit, thinking, with the Beatles playing in the background.
Claude Monet. The Beatles. It seems rather poetic and appropriate that the two are invading my mind at the same time. These revolutionary artists left their marks in their respected fields for us to explore and enjoy. They are superstars. They were visionaries. I wonder if Claude Monet lived during the times of the Beatles, what influence the two might have had on, well, let’s say, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? When looking at the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s I can’t help but think that Claude would have loved creating the album cover with his caricatures of the famous people in the crowd. It almost seems to be a perfect match.
Almost everyone knows his history and the story of being rejected from the Salon. We know he married Camille, the model for many of his paintings, just as Renoir was.
Claude and Camille had two sons. They lived in poverty; Monet bartered his paintings to secure food or shelter for his wife and family. At times, his parents supported him, but an argument would occur, and Monet found himself without the means to provide for his wife and children. Then, we experienced Camille’s death from tuberculosis. The grief-struck Claude captured Camille on her deathbed.
After several difficult months lamenting the death of Camille, Monet made a vow never to be poverty-stricken again.
We think of Claude Monet as the Father of Impressionism: his fondness of painting en plein air to capture the light and his subject matter in its natural habitat. Yet, we may not realize his greatness for shape, design, and the strength of the abstract foundations of the paintings he created.
Here we have two lily pond paintings, one from 1919 and one created between 1920-1926.
Water Lilies 1919
The group of four paintings above, as with all past masters paintings, shows us few values, contrasts, and color relationships. Notice the blue water reflections playing with the almost orange-green reflection that pulls our attention to the painting’s center path. The shapes that border on this path take us on little journeys to explore the artwork and constantly keep our eyes moving. But it is his strength of abstract design that builds the rest of the painting. Examine the sideways and upside-down photos of this painting. In each of these photos, the power of the abstract design provides interest so vitally needed to grab the attention of your viewer and hold it. Monet also uses sharp contrast between the light and shadow family, which repeats in the designed shapes of the lily pad groupings.
Unlike the first group of paintings, everything in the Water Lilies and Irises paintings is soft. Monet used color relationships instead of value to express this abstract painting. The color relationships in this painting almost make us wonder if the artwork is upside down to start with. There are subtle value shifts, but again, like the other Masters we studied, Monet uses restraint utilizing only a few values but many colors. The strength of his conceptual foundation holds our interest as the colors pull us around and into the canvas regardless of whether the painting is sideways, upside down or right side up.
While we look to Monet as our inspiration for painting en plein air, we need to understand that Claude Monet’s strength in the abstract composition is just as important as standing in the outside air and chasing light. Without the strength of his abstract foundation, both paintings would be a chaotic mess of colors. The lesson learned here is to design your paintings. The next fleeting effect will be just as glorious as the one you just missed. If your painting design is chaos, that moment you tried to capture will be meaningless and lost.
In Monet’s painting below, I’ve placed numbered arrows demonstrating how a viewer would walk through this painting. I refer to this as reading a painting.
We, in the western world, read naturally from left to right. So, starting at the number one on the left, we enter the painting and are immediately captured by the lovely representation of the red lily (in circle number two). Just below number two, a petal subtly calls our eye to continue to the right after we have enjoyed the luscious broken color and texture of the lily. Next, there is a dark circle by the number 3, which continues us on our journey after taking in the complementary greenish color and the dark circle repeating the circular leaf of the water lily pad. We enjoy a few more lilies, and the shape of the lily by the number 4, along with the placement of the greenish-yellow color, moves our eye upward to five and six. Examine the shape of the lily at number six and how that directs our gaze to the abstract complement colors by seven and eight. Then, being the genius Monet was, look at how he draws our eye to the circle numbered nine with a reserved repeat of the lily color. Look at the abstract shapes and strength in the area around the seven through nine areas. We are suddenly back observing the color in the lily just to the left of number nine with the dark green pointing us back down toward the number two lily again. However, with all the complements play, you may not have noticed that gorgeous warm blue reflection and its abstract shape playing within this painting and directing your eye. Suddenly, you see the orange highlights as your eye focuses on the blue sky color reflected in the pond water. Observe the brushstrokes in the circle numbered 11 and how that keeps you in the painting. By the way, if you happen to read right to the left, there is a path for you to follow as well. Can you see it? Once you jump into the circular composition, you are on the path Monet wanted you to follow regardless of where in the world you are. Perfection!