Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of France’s most renowned and popular painters. His Impressionist paintings, including the iconic water lilies series, are some of the most recognisable of the movement, and still enjoy much admiration today. His body of work is vast and filled with masterpieces, but here’s our pick of ten of his best.
Impression, Sunrise (1872)
This painting by Claude Monet famously inspired the name of the Impressionist movement when it was displayed in 1874 at the first exhibition of the “Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers etc.”. Art critic Louis Leroy used its title to coin the term “Impressionist” in his satirical review of the event, which appeared in Le Charivari and was titled “L’Exposition des Impressionnistes” (“Exhibition of Impressionists”). Although Leroy’s review was derisive about the event and this particular painting, the term “Impressionist” soon caught on, and was eventually adopted by the “Impressionists” themselves, although Edgar Degas notably preferred to call himself a “Realist” or “Independent”.
Impression, Sunrise depicts the port of Le Havre, Monet’s hometown, and is often interpreted as a patriotic tribute to French revitalisation efforts after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), also known as the Franco-German War. French loss in this war resulted in the end Napoleon III’s Empire and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, and severely lowered national morale. However, the growth of Le Havre in the early 1870s represented the reconstruction and renewal of the Third French Republic.
Woman with a Parasol (1875)
This portrait depicts Monet’s first wife Camille and their son Jean. It was painted in the suburban town of Argenteuil, which was very popular among the Impressionists, especially because of its scenic views that were ideal for en plein air paintings.
Claude Monet himself painted numerous canvases of the town, including Woman with a Parasol, during the period in which he lived there with his family between 1871 and 1878. This portrait has been noted for Monet’s unconventional point of view, as he looks up at his wife from below. Monet also plays with light and colour in this painting: Camille is positioned so as to create a silhouette between the artist and the sun, enabling Monet to show the sunlight filtering through her veil and the edges of her dress, which also has projected onto it yellow light from the flowers at her feet.
Houses of Parliament Series (1899-1904)
During three trips to London between 1899 and 1901, Claude Monet began painting many canvases depicting the Thames River. He painted Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge (both of which cross the Thames) from a room in the Savoy Hotel, and painted the Houses of Parliament from a terrace at Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Typical of his work in series, Monet did not complete these paintings in single sessions, and continued to work on them for several years when he was back in France, even sending for photographs of London to help him. In 1904, 37 of Monet’s paintings depicting various views of the Thames were exhibited in Paris at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery.
Out of his London works painted at the turn of the century, it is the Houses of Parliament paintings that are the most well-known and admired. In these paintings, Monet takes a similar viewpoint to that of William Turner in his works depicting the 1834 fire that destroyed both Houses of Parliament.
The Magpie (1868-69)
This early masterpiece by Monet depicts a snow-covered part of the countryside in the surrounding area of Étretat, a town on the Normandy coast where Monet lived with Camille and Jean from the end of 1868 until autumn 1870, when they moved to England. After his arrival in Étretat, Monet wrote a letter to Frédéric Bazille in which he stated “I walk in the countryside which is so beautiful here I actually prefer the winter to summer”.
Monet would later return to Étretat every year between 1883 and 1886, and eventually completed over 50 paintings inspired by the town. As well as snowscapes, he also made notable canvases depicting its beaches and rock formations. The Magpie has been noted for Monet’s innovative use of luminous, pale colours and its execution in a single session en plein air. Monet submitted this painting to the 1869 Salon, but it was rejected by the jury.
This landscape painting is another Monet canvas from his time in Argenteuil, and probably also depicts his wife Camille and son Jean in the foreground. In the painting, Monet’s Impressionist style is evidenced with loose and variegated brushwork that sacrifices detail and instead suggests at the forms and textures of the figures, landscape and clouds. As with many other paintings by Monet and his fellow Impressionists, he depicts a landscape and a scene of contemporary everyday life.
Depicting a rural scene with quite trivial subject matter contrasted with the academic rural genre paintings that were exhibited at the Paris Salon. These canvases tended to focus on dramatic landscapes, or else depict French agriculture, often with scenes of peasants at work – notable examples include any number of Jean-François Millet canvases.
San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk (1908-12)
This painting was begun in 1908, when Claude Monet and his second wife visited Venice in what would be the artist’s first and only trip to the Italian city. Venice had been popular among artists for centuries, and was also painted by many of Monet’s contemporaries, including Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet. Upon arrival to the city, Monet declared it to be “too beautiful to paint”, yet he went on to paint just under 40 canvases of Venice, which he took back to France and continued to work on. In 1912, an exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris showed 29 paintings of Venice completed by Monet, which were met with much acclaim.
This particular painting depicts a view of the monastery-island of San Giorgio Maggiore – the main subject is the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, but on the right of the canvas, Monet has faintly painted the dome of the minor basilica Santa Maria della Salute and the mouth of the Grand Canal.
Haystacks Series (1890-91)
In 1890, Monet asked his local farmer in Giverny to leave his haystacks out over the autumn and winter, so the artist could paint them. By the start of summer the next year, Monet had produced at least 30 paintings depicting the haystacks, fifteen of which were exhibited in the Paris gallery of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. This exhibition was a great critical and financial success, and before the end of the summer, the majority of the available paintings had been sold, and Monet finished several other canvases to be sold on by his art dealers.
The Haystacks series marked the first time that Monet painted the same subject, or motif, in different light and weather conditions, something that we would go on to do throughout the rest of his career. Just like these later series, Monet would begin painting outside, often working on several canvases throughout the day, and then rework and finish the paintings in his studio. In May 2019, one of the series (shown above) sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $110.7 million, making it both a record-breaking Monet and Impressionist piece.
Regatta at Sainte-Adresse (1867)
In June 1967, Claude Monet went to Sainte-Adresse, an affluent suburb of Le Havre, where he stayed with his aunt Sophie Lecadre until the near winter. Here, Monet painted numerous canvases, and it is generally believed that this particular painting was created as a pair with The Beach at Sainte-Adresse. These two canvases are virtually the same size and their viewpoints differ by only a few metres.
However, put together, Regatta and Beach juxtapose two very different scenes. The former depicts a regatta taking place at high tide in fine weather, and watched on by fashionably dressed and wealthy tourists. Beach on the other hand depicts fishermen going about their work on an overcast day at low tide, whilst a lone couple sit at the water’s edge.
Shortly after his arrival to Sainte-Adresse, Monet wrote to his friend and fellow painter Frédéric Bazille, stating he had “about 20 canvases well underway”. However, only few have survived from that summer.
Water Lilies (Nymphéas) (1897-1926)
The Water Lilies cycle occupied Claude Monet between 1897 and his death in 1926. This work was inspired by the water garden that the artist, who was an avid horticulturist, had created at his estate in Giverny in the 1890s. Despite suffering with cataracts in his 70s and 80s, Monet created almost 300 paintings of the garden. (This cycle may also be referred to as the “Nymphéas cycle” – nymphéa is just the French botanical name for a water lily.)
Monet’s paintings of water lilies are often noted for breaking from early Impressionism with their open compositions. In other words, the water lilies in his paintings are very large, meaning that we don’t see the sky, the edge of the pond, or the tress in the distance. As a result, when we look at the paintings, we have the impression of being right up at the surface of the water, and become immersed in the canvas. This contrasted from his earlier work, where the horizon would divide the landscapes and seascapes.
This new immersive style is most evident in the cycle of water lily murals that Monet produced after 1914, which were made up of around 40 large scale panels. He intended for the murals to be placed side by side in two adjacent oval rooms, and after his death, eight compositions were installed as such in the Musée de l’Orangerie.
Rouen Cathedral Series (1892-94)
Between 1892-94, Claude Monet made over 30 paintings depicting the Gothic façade of Rouen Cathedral in Normandy. He began these canvases in Rouen and then reworked them at his studio back in Giverny. He later showed 20 of these works as a group in an 1895 exhibition at the Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. In these paintings, the cathedral itself, like the other motifs he depicted in his various series, is secondary to the effects of light and weather. Indeed, Monet himself stated in 1895: “To me the motif itself is an insignificant factor, what I want to reproduce is what exists between the motif and me.” As a result of his emphasis on light and weather, Monet has rendered the solid, strong structure of the cathedral exterior into an almost fleeting form.