- Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926
- Born: Paris, France
About the Artist
The most widely known French Impressionist and leader of that movement, Claude Monet [moe-NAY] was born in Paris and grew up on the Normandy coast. His father was a wholesale grocer, and after his mother died when he was 17, an aunt encouraged him in his efforts to become an artist. With a local reputation as a caricaturist, he attracted the interest of landscape painter Eugene Boudin [boh-DAN], who introduced the young artist to plein-air painting. Plein-air is French for “open air” and refers to paintings created outdoors.
In the 1860s, Monet joined a group of young artists who began to challenge the rules for making good paintings. They had so much trouble getting their work exhibited that they created their own independent exhibition, which yielded only ridicule and a sarcastic label for the group of artists. That label—derived from Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise of 1874—stuck, and produced the moniker of “Impressionists” for the group. Impressionists were initially criticized for their unworthy subjects, unrealistic colors, garish color combinations, and loose, seemingly unfinished brushwork.
Like many other Impressionists, Monet had little success in his early years. He most often chose to paint landscapes and leisure activities—everyday activities of modern Paris that were considered to be unworthy subjects for art, compared to the highly respected religious and mythological subjects. With his paintings, Monet strove to capture a fleeting moment by rendering the nuances of light and color. He wanted to depict the feeling or sensation of a scene, rather than the objects within the composition. As public opinion of Impressionism began to turn in the mid-1880s, Monet’s paintings began to sell well, and by the turn of the century, he was one of the world’s wealthiest artists.
What Inspired It
"I so love London! But I love it only in winter. It’s nice in summer with its parks, but nothing like it is in winter with the fog, for without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak." -Monet
The constantly changing light and atmospheric effects of the fog in London inspired Monet to proclaim, “No country could be more extraordinary for a painter.” Painting from the balcony of his suite at the Savoy Hotel on the Thames [tehms] River, Monet could hardly keep up with the shifting conditions. As he worked, he kept all the paintings he’d begun (sometimes dozens) close at hand. As the light changed, he’d switch out the canvas he was working on for another, frantically trying to find the one that best matched what he was currently seeing. He wrote his Paris dealer, “I can’t send you a single canvas, because, for the work I am doing, it is indispensable to have all of them before my eyes.” Monet brought the unfinished canvases back home and spent years reworking them in his studio. He made a total of 41 paintings of Waterloo Bridge.
Like many Impressionists, Monet was drawn to scenes and elements of everyday life, so it’s not surprising that he was interested in the modern parts of London. On the river we see commercial shipping boats. Across the bridge we see the smokestacks of smog-producing factories.
In winter, industrial smokestacks, commercial boats, and chimneys everywhere made great clouds of coal smoke that mixed with mist from the river. The resulting smog was like a veil over the city that changed colors with the light. Most people thought it quite dirty, smelly, and disgusting, but Monet found it wonderful.
While other painters would depict London as a drab, gray, urban space, Monet observed how the fog changed colors depending on the light. Notice the lilac, pink, and pale olive colors in the mists. As Monet explained, “The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through these fogs.”
Monet’s first layers of paint were very thin, with thicker areas developing as he continued to add many layers and rework the surface.
Although the scene may initially appear very still, notice all the elements suggesting movement: smoke pouring from the smokestacks, clouds, boats, traffic on the bridge, the river.
Monet felt that black had a dulling effect, so instead of black, he used a color’s complement to darken an area. For example, to darken something blue, he would add some orange or red.
Repeated shapes—the circular puffs of smoke from the factories and boats, and the round arches of the Waterloo Bridge—are evidence that Monet was selective in what he included and where he placed it.
When Waterloo Bridge opened in 1817 it acted as a social division. The elegant north side of the Thames River, where the Savoy Hotel was located, was populated with large buildings and public gardens. The south side, in contrast, was the home of industry. The bridge that Monet painted was torn down in 1934 because of unstable foundations and traffic bottlenecks. The new bridge opened in 1945 and remains in use today.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Monet was famous for his series paintings; he would work on several paintings simultaneously, capturing the same scene under varying conditions. Ask the students to create 4 depictions of the same subject. Similarly, a still life could be set up and the lighting changed 4 times. This will show how different the same scene can look depending on the surrounding environment.
- The London fog was Monet’s real inspiration for the paintings of the Waterloo Bridge. Is there a type of weather that has a particular effect on you? Find an artwork, by any artist, inspired by that form of weather, which evokes a similar feeling in you. Examine the work and pin point what about that piece of art establishes that feeling.