A table set for lunch, the afternoon light on an ornamental lily pond — the Impressionists depicted scenes so genteel by contemporary art’s standards that it is easy to forget how revolutionary they once were and how important they remain. French painter Claude Monet was Impressionism’s founding father. The movement took its name from his 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise. Together with his friend, Auguste Renoir, Monet’s work pioneered Impressionism’s radical new way of seeing and depicting the world. ‘For me,’ Monet wrote, ‘a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment.’ It was a revolutionary idea that used painting not as a means of representing the visible, but of evoking and exploring deeper sensory realities of human intuition of the world.
Born into the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1840, his father, a wholesale grocer, moved the family to Le Havre when Monet was five. Monet began painting en plein air having been encouraged by the landscape painter Eugène Boudin, whom he met as a teenager. ‘It was as if a veil was torn from my eyes,’ he wrote of the experience. ‘I had grasped what painting could be.’
By 1859 he was studying at the Académie Suisse in Paris. Following military service in North Africa, Monet met Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille while training at the studio of Swiss painter, Charles Gleyre. The group of young artists were greatly inspired by Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1862–63). While Monet found favour with the Salon with early works such as Entry to the Seine at Honfleur (1865), like Manet he would find his relationship with the art establishment growing strained.
By the early 1870s, Monet and his circle had begun to actively protest the Salon’s conservatism. The first Impressionist Exhibition was held in 1874. Over the following decades, Monet would lead the movement, with masterpieces like his Gare Saint-Lazare, Waterloo Bridge and Haystack series.
After settling at Giverny, 50 miles west of Paris, in 1883, a great deal of his work focused on his garden. Most famously it included more than 250 versions of Water Lilies, which preoccupied him during the First World War until his death in 1926.