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MONET, CLAUDE OSCAR (1840-1926)


Who was Claude Monet?

Claude Oscar Monet was born on November 14, 1840 in Paris, France. He spent his latter years at his estate at Giverny, where he died on December 5, 1926, at the age of 86. The son of a Parisian grocer, Monet spent most of his childhood in Le Havre and studied drawing in adolescence. By the age of 19, he was committed to becoming an artist and spent as much time in Paris as possible in pursuit of this goal. He refused to study at the traditional prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, choosing instead a private art school, the Académie Suisse (Paul Cézanne attended the same school).

In the 1860s Monet associated with the painter Edouard Manet. His association with Manet, a pre-Impressionist, had a formative effect on Monet, who along with other French painters such as Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, went on to form the Impressionist school. Like Pissarro, Monet lived in London from 1870-71 during the Franco-Prussian war. Upon his return to France, Monet made many trips to the coasts and rural areas to study the effects of light and color. He employed meticulous observation and his perception was critical to his work. In reaction to the harsh detail deemed fashionable by the Salon, Monet and the Impressionists were more concerned with how the object in the painting was portrayed, rather than what the object in the painting actually was. Composition and form was loose, and color was applied in bright strokes.The “father” of impressionism, Monet sought to paint scenes as they would appear to a "relaxed" viewer. In fact, the term “Impressionism” is based on an art critic's negative view of Monet's 1873 work, Impression: Sunrise.

In 1883, Monet and his family moved to the town of Giverny, on the outskirts of Paris. There, he constructed his famous Japanese footbridge and water-lily garden. Much of his work in his later life depicts his time at Giverny. Some of his most famous murals were drawn there and are now displayed at the L'Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries, close to the Louvre Museum in Paris. By the mid-1880s, Monet was regarded as the leader of the impressionist school. Monet painted many series of subjects seen in varying degrees of light, different times of the day, and different seasons of the year. These series include Haystacks, Poplars, the Rouen Cathedral, Water Lilies, and the Japanese Bridge.

 

 

 

 

Monet's visual disorder: Cataracts

Although Monet was diagnosed with nuclear cataracts in both eyes by a Parisian ophthalmologist in 1912, at the age of 72, his visual problems began much earlier. Soon after 1905 (age 65) he began to experience changes in his perception of color. He no longer perceived colors with the same intensity. Indeed his paintings showed a change in the whites and greens and blues, with a shift towards "muddier" yellow and purple tones. After 1915, his paintings became much more abstract, with an even more pronounced color shift from blue-green to red-yellow. He complained of perceiving reds as muddy, dull pinks, and other objects as yellow. These changes are consistent with the visual effects of cataracts. Nuclear cataracts absorb light, desaturate colors, and make the world appear more yellow.

Monet was both troubled and intrigued by the effects of his declining vision, as he reacted to the the foggy, impressionistic personal world that he was famous for painting. In a letter to his friend G. or J. Bernheim-Jeune he wrote, “To think I was getting on so well, more absorbed than I’ve ever been and expecting to achieve something, but I was forced to change my tune and give up a lot of promising beginnings and abandon the rest; and on top of that, my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey. All in all, I am very unhappy.” – August 11, 1922, Giverny.

 

Treatment Received: Surgery and corrective lenses

Monet sought the help of many ophthalmologists. The French ophthalmologist Charles Coutela, M.D, prescribed eydrops to dilate the pupil of the left eye and Monet was very happy with the results intially. The good vision afforded by the drops, however, didn’t last long and surgery was recommended. Monet was aware of the poor outcome of cataract surgery for his contemporary Impressionist Mary Cassatt, and so was reluctant initially to undergo the same surgery. Doctor Coutela finally performed a cataract operation on Monet’s right eye in January of 1923, when Monet was 82.

At first, Monet was very disappointed with the results of the operation. Immediately after the surgery he did not want to rest his eyes, that doing so interfered with his work. Depressed, he tried to rip off the bandages. He expressed this frustration in writing to Doctor Coutela: “I might have finished the Décorations which I have to deliver in April and I’m certain now that I won’t be able to finish them as I’d have liked. That’s the greatest blow I could have had and it makes me sorry that I ever decided to go ahead with that fatal operation. Excuse me for being so frank and allow me to say that I think it’s criminal to have placed me in such a predicament.” – from letter to Doctor Charles Coutela, June 22, 1923, Giverny.

Monet adamantly refused to have his left eye operated on. The left eye, clouded by a dense yellow cataract, could not see violets and blues; the right eye however, could see these colors clearly. As a result of their difference in color perception and acuity, Monet was never again able to use both eyes together effectively.

Coutela fitted Monet with spectacles specialized for cataracts, enabling Monet to read easily and continue his correspondence. Although Coutela recorded Monet’s vision as near perfect with correction, he found it hard to adjust to the new lenses complaining about seeing distorted shapes and exaggerated colors that were “quite terrifying”. He tried a new pair of glasses in 1924, and was somewhat happier with those.

 

Impact on his work

Monet’s exquisite sensitivity to light, color, and detail was central to his work. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye– yet what an eye”. As his cataracts advanced Monet's work was increasingly affected. His paintings of water lilies and willows over the period 1918-1922 as Monet entered his eighties, exemplify this change. Tones became muddier and darker, and forms became less distinct as his contrast sensitivity declined. His later works are typified by large brush strokes, indistinct coloration, and an often an absence of light blues. The sense of atmosphere and light that he was famous for presenting in his earlier works disappeared. In order to distinguish colors, Monet carefully read the labels on his paints, and kept a regular order of colors on his palette. Monet also experienced problems with glare that made working outside difficult. He took to wearing a wide-brimmed panama hat and ceased painting outside in the middle of the day.

While other possible explanations, such as stylistic change or age-related changes in manual dexterity, may account for the dramatic alterations in his work, Monet attributed them to the effects of the cataracts. He wrote, “in the end I was forced to recognize that I was spoiling them [the paintings], that I was no longer capable of doing anything good. So I destroyed several of my panels. Now I’m almost blind and I’m having to abandon work altogether. It’s hard but that’s the way it is: a sad end despite my good health!” – letter to Marc Elder, May 8, 1922, Giverny. Throughout his letters, Monet comments on his good physical health with the exception of his vision. There is no evidence for a great decline in manual dexterity. Thus, it does not seem unlikely that the broad brush strokes of his later paintings are a result of his declining vision and the psychological distress accompanying it.

 

The absence of form and detail in the paintings below contrasts starkly with those done earlier in Monet's life.


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