Gusts whip the water, the sea reflects a pale grey sky, freight vessels and cruise ships loom into sight, arrive, leave: an unceasing spectacle of movement and energy against the ocean’s broad horizon.
Although the port of Le Havre, in northern France, is a modern concrete grid, at the harbour it is easy to imagine the schoolboy Oscar-Claude Monet, a short, wiry, restless child who went completely off the rails when his mother died: playing truant, wandering the quays sketching cruel caricatures of disembarking travellers and, on winter mornings, watching the sun emerge through the mist — an image imprinted on his mind, and on ours.
Monet returned often to the city and sea where he grew up. I am standing on the spot where, at 7.35am on November 13 1872, he gazed out from the Hôtel de l’Amirauté and painted “Impression, Sunrise”: an orange orb dashed on a harbour view, its reflections scintillating on the water.
With its sketchy immediacy and loose, free brushstrokes, the painting launched modern art, gave Impressionism its name, and changed how we look at the world. Thanks to Monet, the British art historian Kenneth Clark said, “every day we pause with joy before some effect of light which we should otherwise have passed without notice”.
As Monet’s biographer, I am at the start of a trail following the River Seine from the estuary at Le Havre as it loops downstream, through Giverny, Vétheuil, Argenteuil, to Paris. Along this journey were all of Monet’s homes and most of his subjects, from the Metropolitan Museum’s glittery “Terrace at Sainte-Adresse” of 1867 to the immersive Water Lilies series (1914-26) at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
Why is the appeal of these pictures so enduring?
“Nothing else would warrant standing in line for hours,” wrote Shanghai critic Wang Jie when “Impression Sunrise” visited China for the first time in 2020. A star of the inaugural Impressionist exhibition in 1874, the painting stars again in Paris 1874, next year’s blockbuster restaging of that show at the Musée d’Orsay and Washington’s National Gallery of Art. We are still seeking to “grasp its radicality”, says Orsay president Christophe Léribault.
I wrote Monet’s biography — the first in English — to discover how such a seismic cultural change was orchestrated by one man. I wanted to know what he was like, how he experienced life, and with whom. He feels like a living presence: as a critic on contemporary art, I am struck by how many conversations with painters — Peter Doig, David Hockney, Bridget Riley — turn to Monet.
“‘Impression, Sunrise’ is not a sweet sea landscape but a bomb so powerful” that it smashed classical tradition, says painter Adrian Ghenie, “putting the Greco-Roman canon to rest for good”.
Art divides into before and after Monet: against his bright scenes of everyday life, ports and cities, gardens and picnics, the religious and mythological narratives of pre-Impressionist painting appear dark, remote, closed in the past. He conditions how we see, and is one of the most popular artists of all time. With nearly a million visitors, the 2010 Monet exhibition at the Grand Palais was the most frequented in Paris since “Tutankhamun” in 1967. In 2018-22 rankings from Sotheby’s, Monet’s sales of $1.48bn comes second only to Picasso.
So it is astonishing that his personal life has not been studied. One reason is sources: biography is a mostly Anglo-American genre, and very few of his letters — some 3,000 survive, including anguished love letters — have been published in English.
Another reason is Cézanne: his famous, damning praise “Monet is only an eye, but what an eye” had such impact that it killed interest in Monet’s heart or mind. I think this is why — although there have been some French biographies (none have been translated) — they do not delve into the inner life. It is as if the man has vanished into the rapturous paintings.
Yet not only has there never been a more emotional artist — Monet’s intensity of feeling is key to why he was so radical — he was the first to decide consciously, at the outset, to paint “the expression of what I myself have experienced, I alone”. The consequences were tremendous, for his own painting and, in his conviction that subjective viewpoint mattered more than subject, for the future of art.
It meant that he depicted the everyday world, not history or Christian or classical mythology. And he painted it as he saw and felt it — rapid sketches of the fleeting moment. This had far-reaching implications: Impressionism’s breezy brilliance at fixing the artist’s sensation led towards interiority and freer mark-making, opening the path to Expressionism and abstraction, to Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and beyond.
From Monet’s letters I gained a sense of how and why he took these leaps into the unknown: his daring, energy and confidence in his virtuosity, a turbulent temperament that craved an expressive outlet. And the counterbalance to all that: the three women, barely known today, who in turn shared and shaped his life.
In his excitable youth, the period of Impressionism’s extrovert engagement with quotidian existence — “Impression, Sunrise”; figures enjoying leisure in nature such as the summer idylls “Woman with a Parasol” and “Luncheon” — Camille Doncieux with her flair for dramatic poses, fashions, homes and gardens, was the model and co-creator of Monet’s painted milieu.
A teenager when she left Paris to live with Monet in Fontainebleau and model for all five female figures in his “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, she mesmerised him with her insouciant gazes and striking attitudes. Soon she got pregnant, but neither of their families allowed them to marry. As he awaited the secret birth of his son, a terrified Monet went temporarily blind from stress.
He recovered to paint the high-glare “Terrace at Sainte-Adresse” with its optimistic fluttering flags and, to please Camille, he persuaded two friends to perjure themselves on the baby’s birth certificate asserting that he was Camille’s husband. He settled down with her in utter poverty, then, overwhelmed again by anxiety, ran away and threw himself in the Seine. “Fortunately nothing bad happened,” he explained.
But on canvas Camille is always the muse of Impressionist happiness — until in 1879 Monet depicted her body swept away by a torrent of slashing strokes: the blizzard of grief “Camille Monet on her Deathbed”.
Monet was 38; now he abandoned figure painting and sociable scenes to push Impressionism into something meditative, concerned with time and the melancholy of its passing — culminating in the series “Haystacks”, “Poplars”, “Mornings on the Seine”. These are rich, mature paintings influenced by his experiences of loss and renewal, and by the quixotic, fiery personality of Alice Raingo — the love of Monet’s life.
For years he fought to stabilise his relationship with this complicated, wealthy Catholic, the wife of Ernest Hoschedé — his chief collector — a spendthrift bankrupted because he had bought too many Monets. When her husband died in debt in a grim boarding house, like a Balzac character, Monet paid for his funeral and married Alice.
Widowed again in 1911, Monet in his grief was unable to paint for three years. He no longer sought romantic love, but he was rescued by Alice’s daughter Blanche Hoschedé, who in 1914 moved in to care for him. Blanche, herself a painter, had adored Monet ever since, aged 10, she had pushed his canvases in a wheelbarrow. Her affection and practical help stirred him to embark, at the age of 73, on his most monumental project: the “Water Lilies”, begun on the eve of the first world war, in mourning for Alice and for his older son, who had just died, and in terror for his remaining son fighting in the trenches.
To excavate the contribution of these women is not to diminish the force of Monet’s originality, but to rethink how he worked and how his paintings work on us. This is what I hope biography adds to appreciation of his art.
The genre is a key route into art history in the 21st century. In the past two decades, biographies of Impressionist and modern artists have surged: Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, Munch, Mondrian, Bacon, Freud, Braque, several magisterial volumes on Picasso, and a single book on just 10 weeks of Van Gogh’s life.
The trend is pronounced, largely because life-writing has become a bulwark against intellectual currents undermining the humanities, and affecting the art world strongly. While academic history, museum exhibitions and art-making itself are increasingly overrun by theory, the discourse of the culture wars, and the games of conceptualism, biography rescues the personal and individual. As the roll call tells, it’s one of the few safe places left to be a dead white male genius.
Monet, voracious, volatile, reckless, is a paradigm of the species, in his huge ego and the heroic self-belief necessary to challenge tradition. Alice called him “the Marquis” because he was so demanding, for Blanche he was “a violent character, with a good heart”.
Like Picasso, his art altered each time the woman in his life changed. Unlike Picasso, he strove for equality in his relationships, chose strong partners and apologised for “the outbursts and the bad side of my character”.
Rejecting the conventional model-artist subservience, Monet never painted a nude — the only significant artist of his time not to do so. Instead, his sensuality in pictures flowed into nature. Monet “makes us adore a field, a sky, a beach, a river”, wrote Proust. “To draw out the truth and beauty of a place, we must know that they are there to be drawn out. There has to be someone who will say to us, here is what you may love; love it.”
That he enlarged the joy of vision is Monet’s greatest legacy. That he did so by inflecting every scene with his own emotion is why we still engage viscerally with the pictures.
After Camille’s death, Monet painted Vétheuil’s frozen Seine, its ice blocks, fringe of snow-covered fields: nature a gigantic shroud of mourning. Aggressive seascapes such as “Storm off the Belle Île Coast”, waves frothing against rocks, date from the nomadic 1880s, when he toured the Channel and Atlantic coasts alone, seeking consolation from the ocean, unsure of his future: “it was a joy for me to see this furious sea, it was like a nervousness”, he wrote. Van Gogh was influenced by the curling sinuosities of these seascapes; Matisse travelled to paint Belle Île in homage to Monet.
And “to render what I feel, I totally forget the most basic rules of painting”, Monet explained of the wartime “Water Lilies”: tangled skeins and coils of impasto in fierce colours, precursors to abstraction — yet embodying the bourgeois dream of the enclosed secret garden, nature tamed, the world’s horrors kept at bay.
Now as then, Monet’s paintings offer respite from what, within his lifetime, became an increasingly technological society, while his faith in a cohesion between the human and natural is enticing as our own harmony with the environment disintegrates.
This is not mere nostalgia. Pioneering African-American painter Kerry James Marshall, seeking to create a “counter archive” of pictures featuring black figures who were historically left out of museum pictures, employed Impressionism’s vocabulary of leisure for his dream of equality. In 2018 Marshall’s “Past Times”, black figures picnicking and boating in reference to Monet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and river idylls, sold to rapper P Diddy for $21mn.
Monet was radical in every aspect. When friends dragged him to the Louvre to learn by copying Old Masters, he climbed out of a window and from a balcony painted views of modern Paris. Literally turning his back on the past, he was the man for the moment. Impressionism was launched after the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) when the fledgling Third Republic forged its identity as a secular democratic state.
A republican atheist, Monet in 1891-95 depicted “Rouen Cathedral” 30 times, not as a religious monument but as a surface for light and dripping paint — golden, pink, violet. Rightwing reviewers complained that “the pious cathedral crumbles under an atheist sun”. Leftwing critics, exemplified by Georges Clemenceau’s front page in the newspaper “La Justice”, claimed victory for secular materialism.
With Clemenceau, his close friend, Monet was subsequently actively involved in the Dreyfus affair, which divided French society — justice and equality versus conservative patriotism for the army. Monet supported the disgraced Jewish captain against the rage of his antisemitic friends Renoir and Degas. Then in 1899 he withdrew from the moral horror and social disorder, to the refuge of his water garden, and began the symmetrical, orderly “Japanese Footbridge” series. Later, he took a photograph staring at himself in his pond: Narcissus in a straw hat.
When I started exploring Monet’s life, the first thing I researched was his response to the Dreyfus affair — I couldn’t commit to writing his biography if he had been on the “wrong” side. Why would politics matter? It was not that Monet’s position on Dreyfus is overtly detectable in his paintings, any more than Degas’s virulent antisemitism is evident in his nudes or ballerinas; it is that writing a biography seems impossible without broad sympathy for the subject.
Lives of painters and writers enrich understanding by giving social as well as personal context — Monet (1840-1926) spans a period of tremendous change in post-revolutionary France. But the real impetus behind biography is deeper and has affinities with fiction: it is storytelling, unfolding how a character gets through life; strengths and flaws of personality versus the power of fate in that journey.
For a biographer, the trip is a rollercoaster of discoveries, disappointments, doubts. Maddeningly, Monet burned all Alice’s letters to him, though kept his to her. And as for many famous figures, some crown jewels of letters and diaries remain in the family, and access isn’t easy. Tantalisingly, in Paris one step-great-grandson allowed me to glance at Alice’s journal but not make notes; then in Giverny the widow of another step-great-grandson, the diary’s previous owner, amplified details recalled by heart.
I spent dusty days in archives, and scoured auction catalogues for unpublished letters — one, from a childhood friend, gives the earliest known eyewitness description of Monet: in the 1850s, roaming the cliffs overlooking Le Havre, his skin torn by brambles as he clambered to find the right motif for his already “divine” drawing.
The circle of Channel coast sightings closed in the 1920s when the portrait painter Jacques-Émile Blanche encountered Monet, “old but still very handsome” wrapped in furs, sitting on a dike “in a bitter west wind which ruffled his long white beard, mingling it with the foam of the waves”.
Jackie Wullschläger is the FT’s chief visual arts critic. Her book ‘Monet: The Restless Vision’ will be published by Penguin on October 12
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