Monet's blue period

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CLAUDE Monet is best known as the painter of waterlilies and poppy fields, but the most prolific period of his career, from the autumn of 1878 to the spring of 1883, was spent painting on the River Seine at Vétheuil and working on the Normandy coast. During this short time, Monet produced no fewer than 300 pictures, motivated largely by his rising debts and, initially, by anxiety concerning his wife’s health.

This was also one of the most significant periods in Monet’s development as an artist, and the strikingly novel images move beyond impressionism, foreshadowing the early "series" paintings that he was to execute during his years at Giverny.

In 1874 Monet’s Impression, Sunrise was shown at the first exhibition of a group of independent artists in the studio of the photographer Nadar. The sketchy handling of the painting outraged the public. One critic wrote that the work had been "executed by the infantile hand of a schoolchild who is spreading out colours on any sort of surface for the first time".

Nevertheless, Monet’s picture gave a name to an entire new art movement: impressionism. It also found a buyer, Ernest Hosched, a Parisian businessman who had inherited a fortune from his father’s business (a merchant of fine laces and shawls) and from his marriage in 1863 to Alice Raingo, who came from a wealthy Belgian family.

Alice and Ernest divided their time between their luxurious Paris apartment at 64 Rue de Lisbonne and at the Chteau de Rottembourg at Montgeron to the south-east of the capital, where they entertained on a lavish scale, even chartering a special train to transport guests from the city.

Hosched inherited a love of art from his uncle, who left him his collection of 19th-century French paintings. Ernest went on to develop a passion for the impressionists, especially Monet and Sisley, and became one of their most important early patrons. He commissioned Monet to paint four large decorative panels in his house at Montgeron between 1876 and 1877. During this period, Monet and the Hoscheds became close friends, and when Ernest’s extravagant lifestyle eventually caught up with him and he was financially ruined, Monet was swift to offer his support.

Hosched’s large collection of impressionist paintings was sold in June 1878. The pictures went for disappointingly low prices and Ernest fled to Belgium for a while to escape his debts. The Hoscheds were forced to abandon their life of luxury and, in August 1878, at Monet’s suggestion, they moved into a small house in the village of Vtheuil, together with the artist, his wife Camille and their children Jean and Michel.

Vtheuil is a picturesque village on the right bank of the River Seine, about 60km to the north of Paris. In Monet’s day, it was neither a favourite spot for holidaymakers, since it offered little in the way of leisure pursuits, nor easy for commuters, since the only link with the capital was by railway from Mantes, a 12km carriage-ride away. Most of the 622 residents made their living from the land.

The Monets, the Hoscheds and their children numbered 12 in total, not including their handful of servants, and they were soon forced to move to a larger house, situated on the road from Vtheuil to La Roche-Guyon. It was owned by a Madame Eve Elliot who lived nearby at Les Tourelles, an imposing mansion, whose distinctive turrets feature in several of Monet’s views of the village.

Monet’s house had a large garden leading down to the river where he tethered his studio boat. In 1881 he painted the garden in full bloom, bathed in shimmering light. The Artist’s Garden at Vtheuil includes three figures - probably one of the Hosched daughters standing on the steps with Monet’s younger son, Michel, and four-year-old Jean-Pierre Hosched in the foreground.

Absent from the scene is Monet’s elder son, Jean, who was born in Paris in August 1867. Monet married Jean’s mother, Camille Doncieux, three years later in June 1870. Their second child, Michel, was born in March 1878. From the moment he was born, Camille’s health, which had been bad for some time, began deteriorating, marking the beginning of a period of constant anxiety for her husband.

Soon after the two families settled in Vtheuil, Ernest Hosched started working for the Paris newspaper Le Voltaire. He spent most of his time in the capital, leaving Alice and the family in Vtheuil where the rent was cheaper. Meanwhile, Monet was having difficulty selling his paintings and, to make matters worse, Camille was in need of almost constant care.

Any money that Monet made and didn’t spend on paints and materials went towards buying medicine. As their finances worsened, Monet fell behind with the rent and was unable to pay the servants’ wages. It was not long before the children’s nanny and tutor both handed in their notice.

Yet looking at the pictures that Monet produced during this period, there is little evidence of these difficulties. Although his letters to his friends are full of self-pity and pleas for financial assistance, his paintings, by contrast, are bursting with sunshine, colour and luminosity. One of the earliest of these, The Church at Vtheuil, was a view of the church of Notre Dame with its splendid 16th-century faade. The church was not only the religious and social centre of the village but also the dominating feature of Monet’s views of Vtheuil. He painted it in different seasons from the opposite bank of the river or from his studio boat.

On several occasions, Monet painted the same view covered in a blanket of snow. In Vtheuil, in the winter of 1879, he used cool blues, greys and violets to convey the bitter cold. Despite the ice floes on the river, the ferry still appears to be operating, carrying passengers to Lavacourt on the opposite bank where Monet had set up his easel. The notion of painting the same view at different seasons of the year was also practised by Monet’s fellow impressionist Sisley in his paintings at Louveciennes.

Monet further developed this practice in his images of the nearby village of Lavacourt, a collection of houses huddled together along the banks of the Seine. In 1879, Monet painted the village in snow - picking out the sunlit, distant hills with bold flecks of pink and lilac - and also in sunshine. Sometimes he painted the scene from the Vtheuil side, as in Lavacourt of 1880, taking in the broad sweep of the river and the vast expanse of intensely blue sky.

In the spring of 1879, Monet took part in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, held in a new building at 28 avenue de l’Opra in Paris. He sent 29 paintings, which were hung in the final room alongside the work of Pissarro. He did not attend the exhibition as Camille was extremely ill at the time and almost certainly dying. By August 1879 she was unable to get out of bed or hold down any food, and Monet was looking after her full time.

On August 31, a priest was called to the house to administer the last rites and to sanction her marriage to Monet (which had been conducted in a civil ceremony in 1870). Five days later she died at the age of 32. Monet was devastated. He painted her shrouded in a veil of white and blue brushstrokes in a last desperate attempt to preserve her memory.

After Camille’s death, rumours began spreading about Monet’s relationship with Alice Hosched. Ernest was unwilling to give up his job in Paris, and Alice was reluctant to join him there. That year Hosched did not even return to his family for Christmas. In January 1880, Le Gaulois newspaper announced a mock funeral, reporting the "grievous loss" of Claude Monet who was living in Vtheuil with his "charming wife" (Alice Hosched). The article went on to report that Monet supported his former patron, Ernest Hosched, who was financially bankrupt and living in the artist’s studio in Paris.

In truth, Monet was hardly able to support himself. He was now six months behind with the rent and relying more and more on his friend, the artist Gustave Caillebotte, to lend him money.

Monet spent much of the winter of 1879-80 painting still-lives, in the hope that they would sell more easily than his landscapes. In February 1880, the servants, tired of working for no pay, handed in their notice. 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.

Once the thaw set in, huge blocks of ice began to force their way down the river, crashing into each other with such force that the family was woken from its sleep. Monet worked throughout the winter to capture this beautiful and eerie spectacle in a group of about a dozen stark and semi-abstract canvases such as The Break-up of Ice, some of which appear to prefigure his later waterlily paintings.

In June 1880, Monet exhibited a number of these paintings at his first solo exhibition at the gallery of La Vie Moderne, a weekly publication run by Georges Charpentier, the publisher of Emile Zola’s novels and an important early patron of the impressionists. In the exhibition catalogue, the collector and art critic Thodore Duret described how the artist "despite the season... leaves his studio and works outdoors under the open sky".

Monet had set up his easel in sub-zero conditions to execute these paintings and he liked to encourage the myth that they were completed entirely in the open air. We now know that Monet’s dedication to painting outside was not as rigorous as he liked to indicate and that, although he would spend several sittings working in front of the subject, many of his pictures were improved in the studio at a later stage.

The previous month Monet had been described by Zola as the "leading impressionist", and many of the pictures sold almost immediately. It seemed that things were finally looking up. Monet was beginning to achieve modest success and recognition, and it would not be long before he was able to repay his debts.

In the autumn of 1880, Monet spent a short holiday with his brother Lon on the Normandy coast. This brief sojourn marked the beginning of a six-year campaign, focusing on the soaring cliffs and dramatic coastline at Fcamp, Pourville and Etretat. Monet’s work of this period began to develop in an entirely new direction. His paintings are characterised by unusual viewpoints and decorative tendencies - many of his pictures are veiled in an atmospheric haze - and in general he moves towards a more abstract approach.

The first signs of this new direction are in the pictures he produced in the fishing port of Fcamp, where he was staying in the spring of 1880. Paintings such as The Sea at Fcamp of 1881 have an invigorating quality, and a wildness and freedom of handling absent in his earlier work.

Significantly, these stylistic tendencies coincide with the renewed support of his Paris dealer Durand-Ruel, giving him freedom at last from financial worries. In October 1881, the lease on Monet’s house at Vtheuil came to an end. Monet and Alice relocated to Poissy, also situated on the Seine, but closer to Paris. One of the main reasons for choosing Poissy was that it provided better schooling for the children, but it also had the added benefit of offering the whole family a fresh start.

Monet rented a large house, the Villa Saint-Louis, with a view of the river. Stationed at an upstairs window, he painted an unusual view of anglers fishing from their boats in Fishermen at Poissy 1882, one of only four pictures that he completed in Poissy itself.

By comparison with tranquil and picturesque Vtheuil, Monet found the town "horrible". He packed his bags and painting materials and set off for Dieppe, but, finding it too urban, swiftly moved along the coast to Pourville, a tiny fishing village, where Alice and the extended family joined him for the summer.

At Pourville Monet discovered a variety of suitable subjects, ranging from spectacular cliff walks to fishing nets drying on the beach. Among the most atmospheric pictures he painted during this period are his views of the church at Varengeville, perched dramatically above the sea cliff and the Gorge des Moutiers.

He soon became attached to one particular subject close to Pourville, an abandoned Napoleonic customs officer’s cottage overlooking the English Channel at Varengeville, to which he returned time and again, completing 14 different canvases during the course of the summer.

We know from Monet’s letters that most of these studies were painted over 10 or so sessions and that some took as many as 20 sittings. On any given day, he worked on up to eight different canvases, changing each canvas as the atmospheric conditions altered. This was the first group of paintings in Monet’s career that amounted to what could be described as a series.

These works took the impressionist aesthetic to its natural conclusion. Instead of capturing a particular moment on canvas - a passing effect of light or weather - Monet captured several such moments, so that, when viewed together, the paintings give the impression of time passing.

By 1882 Monet’s paintings were fetching reasonable prices. Yet fellow artists such as Sisley and Pissarro were still finding it difficult to sell their work and the public at large remained uncomfortable with the sketchiness and inconsequential subject-matter of impressionist painting. Some critics even suggested that the pervasive blue-violet tonality typical of impressionism was symptomatic of some kind of visual disorder suffered by the artists.

In January 1883 Monet moved along the Normandy coast to Etretat, booking himself a room at the Htel Blanquet, overlooking the sea. This rocky coast had attracted many artists before him, including Boudin, Corot, Daubigny, Jongkind and especially Courbet. Monet was clearly inspired by Courbet’s paintings of landmarks such as the Aiguille and the Porte d’Aval - the rocky promontory with its flying buttress-like formation that sticks out into the sea. Rough Sea, Etretat, Monet transforms Courbet’s tranquil vision of the Porte d’Aval into his own more turbulent and exciting image.

Not content to paint the subjects on his doorstep, Monet ventured farther afield, gaining access to the Manneporte, a huge mass of rock hollowed out over the centuries by the constant battering of wind and sea and accessible only by clambering through a hole in the cliff wall at low tide.

In The Manneporte, Etretat he focuses on the sublime and monumental form of the rock as it plunges into the boiling and frothing sea. Only the tiny figures standing beneath the dramatic arch give a sense of the vastness of this extraordinary geological feature. The surface of the painting is divided into elemental water, sky and rock. The brushstrokes shimmer and glitter, creating a new luminosity and intensity of expression.

In April 1883 Monet and Alice moved to Giverny, a small farming village between Paris and Rouen. They rented a pink stucco house called Le Pressoir, "The Cider Press", with two and a half acres of land, later transformed into the beautiful gardens and lily ponds which you can visit there today.

Monet bought the house in 1890 and, two years later, after the death of the unfortunate Ernest Hosched, he married Alice in a civil ceremony.

Monet’s fortunes had taken a decided upturn and he was beginning to make a name for himself. A major retrospective of his work at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1889 boosted his sales, and the exhibitions of his paintings of haystacks and poplars at Durand-Ruel’s in 1891 and 1892 enjoyed a runaway success. The worries and anxieties of his years at Vtheuil seemed a distant memory. And yet the notion of painting a series of images developed from the work that he produced on the Seine and on the Normandy coast.

The paintings of Vtheuil and Lavacourt in both summer and winter prefigure the haystacks and the poplars, painted during different seasons of the year. The sublime image of the Manneporte foreshadows the towering faade of Rouen Cathedral. And the abstract paintings of breaking ice on the River Seine at Vtheuil and of breaking waves on the sea at Fcamp paved the way for the famous waterlily paintings for which Monet is chiefly remembered today.