The Unknown Monet: drawing new conclusions
Claude Monet was the master of landscape scenes, rapidly executed in front of the motif, in vibrant oil paint directly onto a canvas. While he consistently dismissed the use of drawing as an integral part of his creative process, a position well recorded in interviews that he gave to critics, material has emerged to challenge this. Over the past 15 years, new research has allowed us seriously to question the role of Monet’s graphic work as an integral part of his creative process. Two sources are of particular importance: the final volume of the Wildenstein catalogue raisionné of Monet’s oeuvre which was published in 1991 and the emergence of an unpublished manuscript, the Grand Journal, which came to light in a private collection.
Claude Monet, The Luncheon on the Grass, c. 1865. Black chalk on blue-grey laid paper, 305 x 468 mm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon.
The Wildenstein catalogue raisionné gathers together as much of Monet’s works on paper as have survived. This covers the intact sketchbooks and sheets from other dismembered ones, individual sketches, finished drawings and pastels. For the first time this enabled us to assess a highly significant body of graphic work numbering some 500 examples, and to evaluate its relationship to Monet’s paintings.
The Grand Journal, compiled by Comte Théophile Beguin Billecocq (1825 – 1906) who first met Monet c.1853, covers the period from 1854 to 1884. While much of it obviously describes his own professional and family life outside the context of Monet, the Grand Journal also traces his and his family’s relationship with Monet. From it we learn important new information about Monet’s formative years in Le Havre and his development as an artist.
As far as his personal life is concerned, the Grand Journal makes it very clear that he was born into a comfortable, cultivated home in Le Havre. This clearly contrasts with Monet’s own assertion, presenting the artist as a rebel and a bohemian, at odds with a family he characterised as uncultured. His parents were well read, and his mother maintained a social salon, engaged in amateur dramatics, had a great love of music and was a recreational artist. His background served as a prelude to the formal drawing lessons which he would have received at school and which fed into his early drawing practice.
The Grand Journal not only gives information about personal aspects of Monet’s family situation but also gives us highly indicative information about his early artistic formation before he moves to Paris in the winter of 1859. For example we learn that he went on sketching expeditions with the Beguin Billecocq family throughout the 1850s not only in Normandy but also in the environs of Paris, visiting the Forest of Fontainebleau, cradle of the Barbizon School of landscape painting. We also learn that he was constantly drawing, armed with paper, pencils, sketchbooks and watercolour, confirmation of a commitment to graphic techniques, and an early interest in subjects drawn from nature to which he was to adopt later as a painter. “Oscar [Claude Monet] executed numerous drawings representing trees, groves, pastoral scenes and delightful manor houses that he signed ‘Oscar Monet’ and presented to us” recalled Théophile Beguin Billecocq in the summer of 1855. Some of the work created during this formative period survives, in the form of fluent and confident records of landscapes, made mostly in and around Le Havre.
Through its interweaving of information about Monet’s personal life and his artistic activity, the Grand Journal also gives us, for the first time, a clear indication of the young artist’s brief period of military service in Algeria, 1861-1862. It has never been entirely clear why he chose to go to Algeria. But from the evidence which had been gathered by Jim Ganz and Richard Kendall, the curators of the exhibition and authors of the catalogue that accompanies it, it would appear that Monet possessed an early admiration for French artists already engaged in creating Orientalist subject matter (that is subject matter drawn from North Africa and the Middle East). Thus firing his determination to request a posting to North Africa where he could study the intense southern light, exotic subject matter and heightened colour. It is through the pages of the Grand Journal that we learn of Monet recording scenes in and around Algiers, covering the full range of accepted Orientalist subject matter –scenes of Kasbahs and camels. ‘We … received from Oscar [Claude Monet] a succession of delicious small drawings, very minutely executed, which represented picturesque little scenes of Algeria [depicting]… fauna and flora, various landscapes, countryside views, inhabitants, riders, camel-drivers, veiled women and young girls, buildings and mosques, scenes of the market and everyday life… The young man gave the impression of being very happy and seemingly in good spirits. In any case, drawing was one of his principal occupations during his periods of freedom. He distracted his companions in the garrison by making caricatures of their seniors and of his friends’. Although Théophile Beguin Billecocq records that he had assembled these Algerian drawings into ‘a little album covered in pale linen’, they have not yet been securely identified. However, this new information does raise the interesting question as to whether Monet might have become an Orientalist painter, rather than one of the group of young artists who were to revolutionise art in the second half of the 19th century.
The Grand Journal’s reference to Monet making caricatures of his companions in his garrison also highlights an equally surprising aspect of his early and very successful engagement with this graphic genre. He had indeed made a mark for himself as a caricaturist in Le Havre in the 1850s, as is recorded in the Wildenstein catalogue, where he was much in demand. In 1860, his first and only published caricature of Louis Fortuné Adolphe Laferrière appeared in the Paris newspaper, Diogène.
Preparation for this exhibition has additionally revealed Monet’s commitment to pastels and his achievement in establishing himself as one of the leading practitioners in the medium during the 1870s. It is interesting to note that his work in pastel fulfilled both public and private roles. In the public domain, he exhibited seven pastels at the first Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. Although listed without titles, it is almost certain that these pastels were of landscape subjects similar in subject and technique to those that he had been producing with immense energy during the latter part of the 1860s. Pastels also appear to have fulfilled a private but essential role in Monet’s development. The medium, sitting between line and colour, presented the possibility of marrying the dominance of line, the basis of an artist’s traditional training, and the freedom of colour, towards which Monet naturally gravitated. Secondly, it permitted him to experiment in a medium whose capacity for rapid execution allowed him to capture, in a wonderful group of pastels made in the closing years of the 1860s, a sequence of different qualities of light before he had mastered the rapid application of paint on canvas that opened the way to Impressionism in the 1870s.
Another revelation of the study of Monet as a draftsman is his engagement with the print. Monet first engaged with the print in the mid 1860s, when he produced an image of the ‘Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur’, one of the two paintings accepted for exhibition at the salon of 1865. Further prints followed in the 1880s and 1890s as Monet increasingly elaborated his mastery of the market for his work. This is eminently demonstrated in the album of lithographs published by William Thornley in 1894. Choosing a wide range of subjects from the paintings made in the previous decade, the lithographs were based upon rich rigorously executed drawings. The intension was clearly to introduce an audience to the artist’s achievement as the leading landscape painter of his day.
Finally this exhibition demonstrates new insights into Monet’s late work. Since so little work on paper was thought to have survived, particularly post 1914, it was assumed that the great Nympheás decorations, finally installed in the Orangerie in Paris in 1927, were the product of innumerable preliminary studies in oil on canvas. Close examination of sketchbook sheets that survive at the Musée Marmottan Monet demonstrate that the artist undertook extensive exploration in black chalk on paper in tandem with these painted explorations. It becomes apparent that, in the closing phase of his career, there is indeed a translation of the deft monotone chalk marks on paper into the gestural, paint-laden brushwork applied to canvas. The great decorative depictions of waterlilies proclaim the fact that, in the work of Claude Monet, the drawing and the painting are integral to his achievement as the master of Impressionism.
MaryAnne Stevens is the Senior Curator and Acting Secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts.