Childhood in Normandy
Oscar-Claude Monet was born in the ninth arrondissement of Paris in November of 1840. He was a third-generation Parisian but spent the majority of his childhood in Le Havre, after moving to Normandy at the age of five with his parents. His father Adolphe expected his son to join the family shipping supply business one day. In later life, Monet would describe his childhood home as a place ‘where all professed a contemptuous disdain for the arts’, but in reality, Oscar’s mother Louise-Justine was an elegant woman and trained soprano who loved to paint and write poetry. Mme Monet was a consummate hostess who filled their ornately decorated home with music and cultured guests.
Oscar allegedly did not like school, although he was described in a school report as ‘a very good-natured boy, who gets on well with his fellow pupils’. He adored nature and the sea and took every available opportunity to escape outdoors. He had a passion for drawing and covered his books with doodles and caricatures of his teachers. Draftsmanship was a core curriculum subject taught at both the primary and secondary levels of nineteenth-century French education as a means of fostering future French artists. Oscar studied with the local artist Jacques-François Ochard (1800–1870), a former student of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). Ochard would have taught figure drawing in the traditional method, by having his students copy from plaster models. Monet’s dual love of the open air and of drawing fuelled his ambition to become an artist; as well as caricatures, he devoted his time to sketching the boats and cliffs of his local surroundings.
Louise Monet died in 1857, when Oscar was sixteen. He left school and went to live with his aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre. She was an amateur painter in her own right and was a staunch advocate of Oscar-Claude’s artistic development, ensuring that his drawing lessons continued.
Monet first earned a living as a professional artist doing caricatures of Le Havre locals. He was accomplished at drawing people and managed to turn over brisk sales of his work. Caricature relies on an ability to exaggerate and abbreviate simultaneously, while at the same time capturing a good likeness. Monet’s caricatures were drawn with an economy of line that vividly suggested his subjects’ personalities. These processes of exaggeration and abbreviation later resurfaced in his Impressionist paintings as a sort of shorthand, witnessed, for example, in his treatment of the figure and eventually in his rendering of almost abstracted water lilies. Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), the Romantic poet and essayist, thought caricature an important modern art form. Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas (1834–1917) and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) all drew caricatures as young artists, but none to the extent that Monet did. Drawing and selling his cartoon portraits – which he signed O. Monet – first enabled Monet to become a professional artist, rather than just a talented young amateur.
Although few documents remain to give information about Monet’s youth, his sketchbook from the months of February to October of 1857 survives. Michel Monet, Claude Monet’s younger son, eventually inherited it and first showed the early drawings to academics in the mid-1960s. The sketchbook is an important record of Monet’s artistic development.
Claude Monet, Tree Trunks at La Mare au Clerc, 1857. Pencil, 310 x 220 mm. Musée Eugène Boudin, Honfleur, 56.7.1.
Monet’s sketchbook consisted of 55 pages, each approximately 20 by 30 centimetres. It was probably too big to carry with him daily, but his mother used to carry a pocket-sized book for drawing, and at this stage in his life it is likely that he did the same. Unfortunately none of these smaller sketchbooks from his teenage years have survived. The pages of this larger album were of different colours, which was not uncommon in the commercially sold sketchbooks of the time. The paper colours were primarily ivory, grey, warm grey and buff. At this age, Monet seems to have preferred different colours for different types of drawings, generally using the coloured paper for landscapes, which comprised about half of the book, and using the ivory paper for boats and caricatures. However, the strong study of two tree trunks (above) was drawn boldly in pencil on ivory paper.
Buy tickets online or call +44(0)870 8488484
Sign up for our monthly newsletter RA News and keep up-to-date with our current and forthcoming exhibitions
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department
Introduction To The Unknown Monet (816 KB)