Monet the Impressionist
Claude Monet grew up near Le Havre, a port city in Normandy, France, and took up painting as an adolescent before moving to Paris at the age of 19. Monet often painted en plein air (outdoors) and exhibited with a group of artists—including Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir—who became known as the Impressionists, beginning in 1874.
Monet made significant compositional changes as he developed each picture. Short videos on the Monet and Chicago exhibition page show technical images that illuminate the artist’s working methods.
In June 1870, Monet and Camille Doncieux officially married. A few months later they and their young son fled to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War. There Charles-François Daubigny, a friend and fellow painter, introduced Monet to the Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, also in exile, who opened a branch of his gallery in the city that December. By the end of 1871, the Monets returned to Paris and the following year Monet was again painting on the Normandy coast.
Monet tackled a variety of motifs outdoors and, during periods of bad weather, in his studio, where he could control the arrangement, lighting, and atmosphere.
Monet periodically turned to still life throughout his career, contending with and modernizing a genre popularized in the 18th century. Although still experimental, these compositions were more familiar to potential buyers well versed in the tradition of still life painting.
Finding a New Home
Financial difficulties forced Monet to leave Paris in the summer of 1878. He settled with his family in the small village of Vétheuil, where they stayed for several years. At first they lived with Ernest Hoschedé, one of the artist’s most important early patrons, and Hoschedé’s extended family of eight. Soon after Camille’s death in 1879, the artist became involved with Ernest’s wife, Alice, whom he married a year after Ernest died in 1891.
With considerable financial support from dealer Durand-Ruel, Monet and his family moved upriver into what would become the artist’s final home in Giverny, a village of 279 inhabitants, about 50 miles northwest of Paris. Still, Vétheuil remained a place imbued with personal significance and suitable subjects that Monet explored for decades on return trips.
In the last weeks of 1883, Monet accompanied Pierre-Auguste Renoir on an excursion to the Mediterranean coast, where he painted many seaside views from Marseilles to Genoa. The artist relished capturing new and often remote areas, as well as different atmospheric conditions and the changing effects of light. Enchanted by his new surroundings, Monet returned on his own the following January for nearly three months. Although the two artists remained friends, on this latter occasion Monet asked Durand-Ruel not to mention his plans for a second trip to Renoir, because he preferred to work alone.
Monet visited the Normandy coast every year between 1880 and 1886, painting numerous views of its soaring cliffs and sprawling beaches. He worked on canvases in Étretat, Pourville, and Varengeville, among other seaside towns, where he favored secluded spots and thrived on the challenge of painting in hard-to-reach places.
On these excursions, Monet experimented with unusual viewpoints—from both the top and the base of the cliffs—as well as the placement of the horizon line, creating compositions that challenged the conventional spatial construction of 19th-century French landscape painting. Although he would begin painting in series in 1890, he was already making versions of a single motif by this time and working across pairs and groups of related canvases.
His First Exhibition in the United States
Despite Durand-Ruel’s promises of a ready market in the United States, Monet never traveled there. Rather, he grew increasingly frustrated by the prospect of his works leaving for the “land of the Yankees” and hoped that some could be kept in Paris, which he believed remained “the only place where there is still a little taste.”
An exhibition of 20 paintings from Durand-Ruel’s collection opened at Thurber’s Art Gallery in Chicago in May 1888—the earliest documented display of French Impressionist art in the city—in which Monet’s paintings were described as the “most fascinating among them.” Chicago quickly became a strong competitor in the growing American market. A second exhibition of French paintings from Durand-Ruel, including works by Monet, was held there in October, prompting a reviewer for the Chicago Tribune to declare, “Why go to Paris since Paris has come to Chicago?”
The Caricatures Come to Chicago
Monet’s early caricatures are probably the first works for which he was ever paid and form an idiosyncratic chapter of his oeuvre. The Art Institute’s group—one of the most significant in a public collection—is representative of the drawings’ range and complexity. Unlike many of Monet’s other caricatures, which were copied or adapted from published originals, several in this gallery are his own compositions, likely commissioned by local townspeople.
In his series, Monet explored the ephemeral atmospheric conditions that transformed these objects and their immediate surroundings from moment to moment. Each canvas was developed and reworked across multiple sessions, both outdoors and in his studio, to balance individual compositions and the group as a whole. While some changes were dramatic—for example, moving from two stacks to one or from summer to winter—many were minor and are newly visible thanks to recent technical imaging and conservation research.
Stacks of Wheat
The Art Institute owns six of about two dozen canvases that make up Monet’s Stacks of Wheat series—more than any other institution. Together, these canvases represent the collecting efforts of some of the museum’s most significant donors. Monet first exhibited 15 of the Stacks of Wheat at Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery in May 1891, and priced them at 3,000 francs each. Bertha Palmer, who saw the installation, came to own nine, several of which would later land in other Chicago collections, including those of Martin Ryerson and Annie Coburn, before ultimately entering the Art Institute’s collection.
Views of London
Monet made nearly 100 canvasses and more than 25 pastels depicting views of the Thames—a greater output than any of his previous series. Over the course of three trips to London between fall 1899 and spring 1901, Monet concentrated on several iconic sites—Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament—all a short walk from the Savoy hotel, where he stayed on each occasion. Monet had first tackled London’s characteristic mist and fog while waiting out the Franco-Prussian War there from late summer 1870 to spring 1871. His return trips to the city more than 20 years later signaled a renewed effort to contend with his own repertoire.
Unwilling to part with his London paintings, Monet delayed exhibiting them at Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery until 1904, having anxiously written the dealer a year earlier, “I can’t send you a single London painting since for this kind of work I need to be able to see them all, and quite honestly none of them are completely finished.” Monet sought to control the making and public debut of each individual canvas as well as the series as a whole.
Scenes of Norway
Monet went to Norway in late January 1895. He took a train from Paris to Christiania (now Oslo), the Norwegian capital, where his 26-year-old stepson, Jacques Hoschedé, was living. Together, they traversed the region by foot and horse-drawn sleigh, scouting suitable subjects that the artist painted until April 1, when he returned to Giverny. Harsh cold and glaring sunlight made painting quite difficult and often thwarted Monet’s attempts to render the snow-covered landscape. Nevertheless, he produced more than 50 canvases during his stay. He was disappointed, however, when the paintings failed to find eager buyers at Durand-Ruel’s exhibition in Paris that spring.
In August 1908—less than one year before exhibiting nearly 50 water-lily paintings at Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery—Monet was anxious about the series that had “become an obsession,” writing to his friend, the art critic Gustave Geffroy, “It’s quite beyond my powers at my age and yet I want to succeed in expressing what I feel.” Nevertheless, the exhibition of Les nymphéas, séries de paysages d’eau (Water Lilies: Series of Water Landscapes), which opened on May 6, 1909, was a triumph.
Following a significant renovation of the water garden at his Giverny home, Monet began the series in 1903. The project pushed the conventions of French landscape painting, culminating in eight mural-sized panels—what Monet called Les Grandes décoration (The Large Decorations). He offered them to the French state as a symbol of peace on November 11, 1918, after the Armistice that ended World War I. They were eventually installed in a purpose-built gallery at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris in 1927, a few months after his death. The water-lily paintings, perhaps more than any other motif in Monet’s oeuvre, have come to define his career and lasting influence on artists of the 20th century and today.
On June 4, 1920, Martin and Carrie Ryerson, together with Frances Hutchinson, wife of then-president of the Art Institute’s Board of Trustees Charles Hutchinson, visited Monet in Giverny with the hope of buying some 30 paintings on behalf of the museum. Although the artist chose to retain the many works in progress in his studio, photographs from their visit give us a sense of Monet’s personal relationship with American collectors and the eagerness of US museums to acquire work by the artist during his lifetime.