“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”
Claude Monet, famously among the leaders of the French Impressionist movement of the 1870s and 1880s, was one of the movement’s most prolific artists. His 1873 painting Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant) gave the movement its name, and he played a crucial role in bringing its adherents together. Particularly inspired in the 1860s by the Realists’ willingness to pain en plein air, Monet made his painting technique one of his most important traits – painting different places at different times, often directly in front of the subject, rather than from memory, and became distinguished for his remarkable colouring and depiction of light.
What makes Monet stand out for me, other than all of his artistic techniques and the landscapes he chooses, is the way these move across Europe. Hence, following his footsteps beyond just the gardens of well-known Giverny is fascinating – most are there today, making it possible to step into one of his paintings. Let’s step into his artwork and embark on a journey across the continent.
1889 – Fresselines, London
1890s: Years of the “Series” – Haystacks, poplars, Rouen cathedral (sites painted multiple times to examine the difference in lighting)
1910s and 1920s: final series, Giverny – focus on the lily pond
PLACES (Spanning France, England, Italy and Norway)
Argenteuil, linked to Paris by train in 1841, was a popular suburban retreat. Monet lived here between 1871 and 1878 and frequently painted his young family, his garden and landscapes seen from his studio boat. With its railway line and factories, residences and river walks, Argenteuil was in many ways typical of the suburban towns on the outskirts of Paris. Yet the contribution it made to the evolution of modern French painting sets it apart from neighboring villages – which encouraged other artists of the movement to join Monet, amongst these, Renoir and Sisley.
Argenteuil became, because of this, a hub of artistic activity. It was during this time that Monet created some of his most characteristic paintings. It was in order to observe the effects of sunlight on water more closely that Monet often worked from a boat-turned-studio.
Dieppe and Pourville
Dieppe was the first town to be developed as a resort when it was favored by the English as an alternative to Brighton. Nevertheless, Pissaro, Renoir and Monet all painted here, though Monet preferred the rugged cliffs and quieter atmosphere at nearby Pourville, where he took a house, and Varangéville sur Mer.
Not far from Rouen, Dieppe has much to boast about as it was a star-studded destination for 1800s artists. It attracted many painters, such as J. M. W. Turner, Eugene Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Braque. Writers also resided here – Wilde, Proust, Woolf amongst others.
A small, busy fishing port in the 1880s, Monet was attracted to this town because of his reignited interest in the Normandy coast, which he repeatedly visited so to be able to draw by the sea. He lived there in 1868 with Camille Doncieux, who he would then marry a couple of years later, and their son Jean (also painted in his famous poppy scenes). Monet returned to Étretat in 1883, 1885 and 1886. Étretat had already been painted by both Delacroix and Courbet. The region had become a fashionable holiday destination for Parisians by the time he made his later visits, which may also have motivated Monet to create paintings for a growing market.
The natural drama of the landscape provided an excellent setting. The town is set above the beach, and was famous for the residents of its grand villas – as these were taken by Maupassant, Offenbach and Zola, among others, in the past- offering incredible views over the bay and the rock arches, which form a natural frame at either end. In summer the setting sun adds to the drama. The beach, though pebbly, also added an extra reason for it to be a much lusted after setting in the late 19th century.
Fécamp is located along a stretch of Normandy called the Alabaster Coast. It is famous for its imposing 110-metre-high chalk cliffs, similar to the white cliffs of Dover in England. Once a thriving fishing port, it is now a big industrial port, but the seafront is still attractive and the beach, which gives way to a long line of cliffs curving into the distance was the scene of several paintings by Monet.
Fecamp also has an extraordinarily beautiful 11th-century abbey church whose architecture proved an inspiration in the designs of English cathedrals.
In February 1889, the writer and critic Gustave Geffroy took Monet to stay with the poet Maurice Rollinat at Fresselines in the valley of the Creuse, in the Massif Central. In March 1889, Monet returned and spent almost three months staying in the local inn. He worked all day outdoors, spending the evenings with Rollinat, with whom he very good friends.
The town was near the meeting point of the Grande Creuse and Petite Creuse rivers, a sparsely populated region that had long attracted artists, authors and poets. Monet painted this dramatic landscape in the early spring of 1889 undertaking one of his most difficult painting campaigns. The area is wild and rocky, with deep valleys and steep hillsides; the climate is harsh, windy, rainy, and cold.
Monet completed an extraordinary 24 canvases at Fresselines, each one an arduous struggle against the elements and against his own growing sense of physical vulnerability, as he aged. His stay in Fresselines was a turning point of sorts. Realizing that he had to find a place to pursue his aims more efficiently, the artist turned his attention homeward, to the environment of Giverny. Giverny would be his final painting place before his death.
Giverny, a small village on the banks of the Seine River, is where Monet began to rent a house in 1883 and then bought it in 1890, living with his second wife, Alice Hoschedé. The local scenery, such as wheatstacks in the neighbors fields, inspired Monet’s famous series paintings. Monet designed and planted an extensive garden area which became the primary subject of his painting by the late 1890s.
Monet’s garden was probably one key to his success, and potentially a starting point for his fame. He was an almost professional gardener, much admired for skills – especially renowned for his daily instructions to gardening staff about layouts for plantings and giving information regarding botanical arrangements.
Famously, he was quoted as saying “Besides gardening and painting, I don’t know a thing”. The most famous of the paintings worked on while in Giverny are the lily series, currently in Paris’s Orangerie – the Japanese bridge also attracted much attention. The Giverny gardens can be visited today from spring onwards.
This coastal town was a popular destination for marine painters. Monet traveled there with French artist Frederic Bazille in May 1864, and they set up their easels together along the coast, on the sea cliffs, and in the adjacent countryside. Monet remained in Honfleur after Bazille returned to Paris.
Monet grew up in this major port city of France in the Normandy region. This event has biographical significance, for it encompasses Monet’s childhood, spent along the beaches, and the intimate knowledge he gained of the sea and Norman weather. The sea became the constant background of his whole childhood.
Le Havre was almost completely annihilated by Allied bombardment during the Normandy landings and it can be hard to recapture the sense of the old port evoked by the Impressionists. Along the St Andresse beach, there are still plenty of recognisable views – the headland, in particular, was painted several times by Monet, whose aunt lived in a villa on the seafront. It was in Le Havre that Monet painted Impression, Soleil Levant in 1874.
Monet first visited London when he met his wife Camille fled France in 1870-1871 during the France-Prussian War. He returned many years later (1899, 1900 and 1901) to paint bridges and House of Parliament seen through the fog of the Thames River.
Monet was born in Paris. After his childhood in Le Havre, he returned to Paris in 1859 to study painting. He primarily lived in the city, after a brief stint in the military in Algeria, and he alternated between the city and the suburbs until the early 1880s.
During this time, he kept a studio in Paris for periodic work on cityscapes such as the Saint-Lazare Station and also to store paintings for exhibitions. It was in Paris that Monet met other important artists of his time, including Renoir, Pissaro and Courbet. Although permanently settled outside the city after 1883, Paris always remained essential to Monet for the sales of his work. He mainly painted urban scenes, focusing on crowded streets and landmarks seen from above.
Rouen, a walled city until the 18th century, was named the “the city of 100 spires,” by author Victor Hugo. It’s perched elegantly along the Seine, France’s longest river. Its narrow, winding cobblestone streets are one of its defining features, but its real centrepiece is the Notre Dame Cathedral, with its Tour de Beurre . Here, heroine Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the village marketplace for heresy in 1431.
The cathedral was the subject of a series of paintings by Monet, some of which are exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
He focused on several groups of paintings exploring the color, light, and form of a single subject at various times of day, but his Rouen Cathedral series was his most intense effort on a single site. He painted there in late winter in both 1892 and 1893, then reworked his thirty canvases from memory in the studio through 1894. He began this example in 1893, working in an improvised studio in the front room of a dressmaker’s shop across from the cathedral. After creating a coherent ensemble, Monet selected twenty paintings that he considered “complete” and “perfect,” for an exhibition at his Paris dealer’s gallery in May 1895.
It’s not a particularly well documented fact that Monet visited his stepson Jacques Hoschedé in Norway in the winter of 1895. His winter scenes are gorgeous, and for some reason, not as well-known.
Monet’s aunt Marie-Jeanne Lecadre owned a summer house in this fishing village: in his early career, Monet frequently painted the beach and the view from her house, including perhaps one of the key works of Impressionism, Garden at Sainte-Adresse, when he was 26.
Sainte-Adresse is a small town located between the big port city of Le Havre and the edge of the pays de Caux. As it was the case for several other small cities of the Norman coast, Sainte-Adresse became one of the preferred vacation places of the bourgeoisie. Upper class workers from Le Havre enjoyed spending holidays here.
Sainte-Adresse was renowned for the regattas organized by the Sociéte des Régates du Havre. The promenade and its landing stage (estacade) were immortalized by the painters Claude Monet, and Albert Maquet.
The garden in the painting belonged to Monet’s aunt, whose seaside villa was near the great port of Le Havre. One can imagine that the seated figures – probably Monet’s father and aunt – are watching the steam ships bringing goods to their home town. Monet is painting not only modern commerce, but the familiar pleasures of modern middle-class life, in depicting scenes such as regattas and commercial ships coming into the port.
Trouville is about as near as you get to an old-fashioned British seaside resort these days. The grand hotels have been converted to elegant apartments, including the Hôtel des Roches Noires Trouville depicted by Monet in 1870 with its flags stretched taut by the sea breeze.
Monet stayed in a more modest establishment and left for England in a panic without paying his bill when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Many of Boudin’s scenes of the beautiful people gathering on the sands were painted here, while Courbet typically ignored high society and focused on the empty beach or the fishing boats.
Monet travelled with his second wife to Venice in the autumn of 1908.
He completed about 36 views of Venice’s legendary canals, piazzas and palaces. “One cannot come to Venice,” Monet stated, “without wanting to return.” He painted feverishly every day from early morning until late afternoon, and he worked on exploring water reflections as well as attempting to emphasize the magical atmosphere of the city. Most of these paintings were actually only begun when Monet left Venice. He finished them three years later in his studio at Giverny and exhibited them in Paris, to much acclaim.
Vétheuil was a 600-inhabitant town, Monet’s refuge from crowded Argenteuil. His years in Vétheuil were to prove difficult but productive: it was at this time that Monet suffered the death of his wife, financial difficulties, and unfavorable critical reception.
The bleakness of Monet’s life seemed to be reflected in one of the harshest winters on record; the thermometer fell so low that the Seine froze over.
Monet worked throughout the winter to capture this beautiful and eerie spectacle in a group of about a dozen stark and semi-abstract canvases, some of which appear to prefigure his later waterlily paintings.
DID YOU KNOW….
Thanks to the obsession of French Impressionists and their contemporaries with the seascapes of the Normandy coast, the rock arch at Étretat is the single most frequently painted geological feature in the world. Monet, returned again and again to attempt to capture the effects of light and weather on the sea-battered cliffs, while Courbet and Eugène-Louis Boudin also painted from this beach. And Pissarro, Manet, Renoir and many others worked nearby.