Claude Monet: The Master of Impressionism
Joe Vitucci
EDP 380.H Fall, 1996
December 10, 1996

"Is that a Monet?" As a nine-year-old boy with minimal knowledge of the arts, I wasn't exactly sure what I was being asked. I turned around to look at the painting on my grandparents' wall and saw the writing "Claude Monet 1903" in the bottom right-hand corner. I politely answered my aunt's question, "Yes, I believe so."

After we both looked at the painting for a few moments, she commented on its beauty and praised Claude Monet as a "great artist." I liked the painting myself. The different shades of yellow, orange, red, and violet were very appealing, but I questioned why Monet was "great." He obviously had difficulty painting exact detail. The objects in the work were so simplistic and blurred that I had difficulty determining what they were. In fact, the painting reminded me of the seemingly pain, unsophisticated art found in some children's storybooks.

Since that time, I've come to understand the painting, The Houses of Parliament, from a historical and more mature perspective. The work lacks detail because it was painted from the Impressionistic style (which will be explained later). Furthermore, it contains more "depth" than what its surface reflects. The Houses of Parliament was created from hours of hard work and life experiences that "guided" Claude Monet's brush.

Even though I now have greater knowledge of Monet's background, I still question the extent of his creativity. In order to answer this question as completely as possible, I've analyzed three areas of Monet's life: Childhood and Early Influences, Military Service to Exhibitions at the Salons, and Early Impressionist Exhibitions to the Final Days at Giverny. By examining different aspects of Howard Gardner's model within each of these periods, we can better understand if Claude Monet was a true creative genius.

Childhood and Early Influences

Claude Oscar Monet was born on November 14, 1840 in Paris, but he spent much of his childhood in the port town of Le Havre. During these early years, Monet had very few artistic influences. His father and uncles ran a grocery business, and Le Havre had no school of art or any noteworthy exhibitions (Kalinta 6).

Despite coming from a background which practically "disdained the arts," Claude Monet stumbled upon his artistic talent in a unique manner (Seitz 11). At school, Monet absolutely hated to sit through hours of classes. To pass the time, he caricatured his teachers on pages of his copy books "in the most irreverent fashion" (Seitz 11). Although his teachers considered him to be undisciplined and unlikely to succeed, it quickly became evident that what Monet might have lacked in scholastic intelligences was supplemented by his spatial intelligence (Sheff 1). He developed a solid reputation for his caricatures and began working for a picture framing store in Le Havre. Overall, like Picasso, Claude Monet's artistic abilities appeared to be enhanced by a fruitful asynchrony between his spatial and other intelligences.

At the picture framing store, the sixteen-year-old Monet's caricatures were placed in the windows and sold for twenty francs each (Seitz 45). Along with Monet's drawings, the paintings of Eugene Boudin were displayed. Boudin's works differed from those of the Realists, the dominant group of artists at the time. Instead of painting people and objects to their finest detail, he painted the changing colors and effects of light in nature (Seitz 12). Consequently, Boudin's works were mocked by the established art community and were also looked down upon by Monet. In time, however, Boudin became one of the greatest influences in Claude Monet's artistic career.

In Andre Arnyvelde's article, "At Home with the Painter of Light," Monet recalled that after much encouragement, he finally decided to paint with Boudin (Stuckey 271). He approached their first meeting in 1865 with a degree of apathy and uncertainty, but he later commented on its overwhelming effect: "Suddenly a veil was torn away. I had understood - I had realized what painting could be. By the single motive of this painter devoted to his art with such independence, my destiny as a painter opened out to me" (Seitz 13).

Overall, Monet's experience with Eugene Boudin strongly relates to the life-course perspective aspect of Gardner's model. The description of his first meeting is similar to the "initial romance," or particular instance when a talented individual falls in love with a specific idea, situation, or person (Gardner 32).

Additionally, the other meetings revealed personality traits and other aspects that became permanent fixtures throughout his life. For example, as the young Monet painted the coast, his strong love of nature could be seen. This attachment to the natural world permeates nearly all of his paintings. Also, Monet adopted Boudin's practices of painting outdoors, finishing works on the spot, and paying close attention to the effects of light (Seitz 12). Excluding his final years, these were hallmarks of all of his paintings.

While Eugene Boudin's impact on Monet is immeasurable, it's important to note that other painters also contributed to his development. Monet received many practical lessons from Johan Jongkind and Gustave Courbet (Kalinta 7).

Jongkind came from the Barbizon school, a group that painted the French countryside. He shared similar interests with Boudin, especially on the effects of light (Kalinta 11). In general, Jongkind appeared to reinforce many of Boudin's ideas.

Gustave Courbet, on the other hand, was a Realist. His influence can be seen in Monet's thick application of paint and defined forms in his early works (Kalinta 11).

Before examining the next area of Monet's life, it's critical to address a particular issue. When reviewing Monet's childhood and early influences, it becomes apparent that he didn't have any creative ideas of his own. The idea of painting outdoors can be traced as far back as the early 1800's (Seitz 12). Furthermore, it was Eugene Boudin who first wrote about attempts to capture "fleeting color and light" and emphasized that "everything... painted directly and on the spot always has a force, a power, or vivacity of touch that cannot be re-created in the studio" (Seitz 13).

Because it was Boudin and others that first expressed some of the essential principles of Impressionism, we must ask ourselves if this undermines Monet's "creativity." Although this question requires more investigation, it eventually becomes clear that "while in some ways following a well-trodden path, Monet was still able to display his individuality" (Kalinta 11). In the next two areas of Monet's life, we will see how he built upon and grew from the influences of Boudin, Jongkind, and Courbet. We will also address other aspects of Gardner's model.

Military Service to Exhibitions at the Salons

As a young adult, Monet had many obstacles to overcome before establishing himself as a painter. He had little formal training, and his parents constituted an even greater burden. Both his mother and father were absolutely against him pursuing an artistic career (Stuckey 271). Furthermore, at the age of twenty, Monet was faced with yet another challenge to becoming a painter. He was chosen in a draft lottery to serve in the French army.

At this point, Monet could have switched his chosen profession of painting in exchange that his parents pay for a replacement soldier (Stuckey 271). Instead, he decided to serve in the military and risk his life so that he could paint. Thus, we begin to see Monet forming a Faustian bargain to ensure the fulfillment of his artistic potential.

As his life progressed, this Faustian bargain became even more evident when he continually sacrificed for his painting at all costs. For example, Monet ultimately sacrificed his relationship with his parents. After refusing to change his profession and even disagreeing about how he would obtain a formal art education, his parents all but disowned him in the early 1860's (Stuckey 272).

Additionally, Monet gave up comfortable living conditions and personal health for improved painting technique. During his twenties, he refused to quit painting even though it provided a meager allowance and meant living in poverty. Moreover, in his later life, he collapsed from overwork and painted Water Lilies despite having double cataracts (Stuckey 15,16).

Monet's treatment of money further portrayed his Faustian bargain. In 1908, he destroyed some of his work that had a market value of one hundred thousand dollars (Stuckey 250). He felt that it wasn't worthy enough to pass on to future generations. Although he was more financially stable at this time, his actions show that he still placed the highest importance on the quality of his work.

Along with the Faustian bargain that Monet initiated during this period of his life, several other aspects of Gardner's model also appropriately fit within this time frame. These aspects were developed after Monet's military excursion.

Upon returning to France, Monet studied in the studio of Charles Gleyre. Here, he received formal art education and met Frederic Bazille, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley (Kalinta 8). During the two years under Gleyre's instruction, these four men became close friends and colleagues; moreover, they represent the support element of Gardner's model on several different levels (Sheff 2).

For Claude Monet, these men provided emotional, professional, and financial assistance in times of ease and difficulty. When they first exhibited as Impressionists, they received much criticism. They emotionally supported Monet and each other from comments like those printed in an April 1876 article in Le Figaro: "Some people burst out laughing at the sight of these things [the Impressionists' paintings], but they just leave me heartsick. These self- declared artists style themselves the intransigents, the impressionists; they take canvas, paint, and brushes, throw some color on at random, and sign the result" (Stuckey 60).

Along with emotional support, Monet received professional advice as he painted with these three colleagues in the forest of Fontainbleau, located southeast of Paris. Here, the men strayed from the Realist approach of painting with subdued colors and dark shadows and replaced them with space and light (Sheff 2). Also, in 1867 Bazille provided financial help for the penniless Monet by allowing him to stay in his studio (Stuckey 11). Overall, Bazille, Renoir, and Sisley helped support Monet as he "broke through" with some of his early paintings.

While many examples of this support aspect originated in the "Military Service to Exhibitions at the Salons" period, others can be found in his later life. In particular, Monet's friend Georges Clemenceau strongly encouraged him to paint the water landscapes around Giverny (Seitz 43).

Before painting at Giverny, however, Monet and his colleagues were forced to exhibit their paintings at the Salons. The Salons were annual government-sponsored exhibitions of contemporary art and represented the primary means for new artists to sell their work. (Stuckey 26). Furthermore, they were dominated by the traditional Realist principles at the time. Because Monet's income came solely from his paintings, he had to conform somewhat to the Realist style even though he disliked it.

Despite his efforts to include Realist aspects in his paintings, Monet's individuality was still evident. His first two paintings accepted by the Salons, Pointe de La Heve and Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur, were criticized considerably. An 1865 article from the Gazette Des Beaux- Arts said they lacked "finesse," an attribute of Realism (Stuckey 32). However, the article complimented them for portraying a "sensitivity to color harmony," a future quality of Impressionism (Stuckey 32).

In 1866, Monet's Camille, or "Woman in the Green Dress," was highly admired at the Salons. It depicted Camille Doncieux, Monet's first wife who bore him two sons, Jean and Michel. One critic at the time said Camille "speaks whole volumes to me about energy and truth" and described Monet as being "more than a realist, someone who knows how to interpret each detail with delicacy and power" (Stuckey 34).

In the following years, it became increasingly clear that Monet was definitely more than a realist. He was motivated to go beyond the Realist-dominated Salons. Furthermore, he had built upon the influences of Boudin, Jongkind, and Courbet in several ways. Monet was superior to Boudin in technical ability and seemed to have a more emotional expression of and attachment to nature (Seitz 13). Also, his "simple and calm" coastal paintings differed from Jongkind's seascapes which still contained Romantic exaggeration (Kalinta 11). Finally, his landscapes refused to define concrete forms like those in Courbet's work (Kalinta 11).

Therefore, by demonstrating the drive and growth to transcend the traditions and influences around him, Monet revealed two more aspects of Gardner's model: marginality and re-orientation of a domain. In order to maximize his potential, Monet painted outdoors, which represented a non- traditional perspective at the time. Also, he painted most effectively by engulfing himself completely in nature. Monet utilized his spiritual attachment to the environment in his works. In the end, Monet's marginality provided a fresh, personal perspective that significantly enhanced his artistic ability.

Claude Monet also re-oriented many ideas and principles from numerous individuals and schools of art to develop Impressionism. This style suited his own needs and desires. Its specific aspects will be discussed in the next section, but a quote from Emile Zola's article, "The Actualists," best captures the style's emotion: "Those painters who love the times they live in from the depths of their hearts and minds as artists, perceive everyday realities in a different way. Above all, they try to penetrate the exact meaning of things... they interpret their era as men who feel it living themselves, who are possessed by it and happy to be. Their works have nothing in common with those stupid, trite, fashionable [Realist] illustrations and sketches of daily life you find in the magazines. Their works are alive, because they have taken them from life and painted them with all the love they have for modern subjects" (Stuckey 38).

Early Impressionist Exhibitions to the Final Days at Giverny

With the enthusiasm and love that Zola described in her article, Monet and twenty-nine other participants formed the First Impressionist Exhibition on April 15, 1874 at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. This was a very important date in French art history because no group had ever exhibited outside of the established art community (Kalinta 12). Monet presented nine paintings for the first exhibition. There would be a total of eight Impressionist exhibitions overall.

As the critics viewed the one hundred and sixty paintings submitted, their comments largely defined Impressionism. Louis Leroy, a writer for Le Charivari, especially captured the essence of the style. As he critiqued Monet's Boulevard des Capucines, he referred to the people in the work as "black-tongue lickings" (Seitz intro.). He then mockingly questioned if that's how he looked as he walked down the boulevard. (Seitz intro.).

Through these comments, he indirectly revealed how Monet re-oriented numerous principles of painting. Monet believed that a person couldn't paint an object's true form because its appearance changes with different intensities of light and the air surrounding it (Kalinta 14). Additionally, one's perspective changes as the object moves.

Thus, Monet's style was defined as capturing a momentary perception of an object. He painted works directly and completely on the spot. Moreover, his objects appeared muddled because he showed the "blurred reality of dynamic vision" as dictated by movement, light, and air (Seitz 22). Charles Stuckey perhaps best described the effect created by Monet's brush: "Seen close-up, Monet's paintings... tend to break into little incoherent bits, like spilled mercury in different colors. Many who viewed Monet's painting from the proper distance for viewing an Italian Renaissance picture of the same size complained that Monet had failed to represent convincingly what he saw. But seen from further away, Monet's landscapes give... [a very impressive] illusion of spatial depth... " (29) Ultimately, Monet attained such a high mastery of Impressionism that his portrayal of Paris's blue-violet atmosphere in Boulevard des Capucines would later be confirmed by color photography (Seitz intro.).

Before the first exhibition came to a close, it's important to mention that the artists were nameless at this point. ("First Impressionist Exhibition" comes from hindsight). As Louis Leroy critiqued Monet's Impression. Sunrise, though, he dubbed the group "impressionists" because of the lack of defined forms in any of the painters' works. Although this was a mockery, the Impressionists soon developed a love for their name (Kalinta 13).

After the exhibition, two more aspects of Gardner's model, previously not discussed, were extremely relevant to Monet's life: consistent production of quality paintings and a ten-year cycle. (The consistency aspect was an integral element of Gardner's definition of the creative individual.)

As the rest of Claude Monet's life unfolded, he regularly produced paintings of solid artistic merit. In 1877, Monet completed his first series, La Gare Saint-Lazare (Kalinta 15). He painted numerous canvases of the Saint- Lazare railway station and its railway lines, bridges, and steam-engines.

Monet produced other series in the near future with each separate canvas depicting a variation of light and weather. For example, his Haystacks series at Giverny portrayed the motif in red, yellow or lilac, and with multi- colored shadows (Kalinta 21). Monet also painted Haystacks with glowing or darkening skies and bright green or ashen- gray meadows (Kalinta 21).

His Rouen Cathedrals series also contained a similar pattern. The cathedral was represented in gray and sunny weather and in separate incidents from dawn to sunset (Seitz 39). Monet additionally distinguished a transparent film of light from dark shadows and stains on the cathedral's masonry by using gray and white pigments (Seitz 39).

Monet's other series include Poplars, poppy fields, different views of London, snow scenes, and more. While all the series represent excellent Impressionist works, Haystacks, Poplars, and Rouen Cathedrals were especially unique since no previous European artist had devoted an entire series to similar motifs (Kalinta 20). Perhaps the most well known and beloved of all Claude Monet's series, however, was Water Lilies.

Monet's work on Water Lilies can be divided into two periods. From 1898 to 1908, he produced canvases of small dimensions (Kalinta 25). During the span of 1916 to 1926, he produced panels up to seventeen meters in length (Kalinta 26). In general, Monet somewhat neglected the effects of light and air in the series, but he showed the "decorative resonance between vivid grasses and white and pink water- lilies" in his Giverny home's water garden (Kalinta 26).

Throughout the twenty-seven year cycle that Monet devoted to these water landscapes, he studied the Giverny site thoroughly. He pondered the daily opening and closing of the lily blossoms and watched the reflections of the huge, white clouds drifting on the pond's surface (Seitz 42). As a whole, even though Monet was losing his sight at the time, this final series represents a "theme of peace and contemplation" (Seitz 41).

While the quantity and quality of Monet's works are firmly established, his rate of production is also similar to Gardner's other creative individuals. Monet produced his significant works in roughly ten year intervals with works of lesser notability falling in between the time spans. It should be mentioned that the eighteen year difference between the Water Lilies of small and large dimensions was caused by the substantial amount of time spent on developing the small canvases. Also, Monet remained relatively dormant for several years as he mourned the death of his second wife in 1911 (Seitz 42, 46).

The following dates represent the starting points for the works and series: Camille (1866), Boulevard des Capucines and Impression. Sunrise (1874) and La Gare Saint- Lazare (1877), Haystacks (1888) and Poplars (1890) and Rouen Cathedrals (1892), Water Lilies (small canvases, 1898), and Water Lilies (large canvases, 1916) (Stuckey 11-15, Kalinta 25). I placed the Boulevard des Capucines, Impression. Sunrise, and La Gare Saint-Lazare in the same creative period because they were only three years apart. Also, I placed Haystacks, Poplars, and Rouen Cathedrals together because of their overlap. The exact differences between the intervals were eight to eleven years between the first and second periods, eleven to fifteen years between the second and third intervals (using La Gare Saint-Lazare as the focus date in the second period), ten years between the third and fourth intervals (using Haystacks as the focus date in the third period), and eighteen years between the fourth and fifth intervals. The differences definitely suggest the idea of a ten-year cycle shown by many creative individuals.

Other Factors

Before presenting a final analysis on the extent of Monet's creativity, it's important to consider and expand upon several more factors: birth order, kinesthetic ability, and additional relationships.

While Monet's fruitful asynchrony between his spatial and other intelligences enhanced his painting, his kinesthetic ability also was of paramount importance. Monet contained a superb technical ability to paint. Without this talent, an accurate rendition of his spatial depth might have been jeopardized.

Another factor that I neglected to mention in the main body of the paper was Monet's birth. I found information only about one sibling, his brother. None of my sources discussed other siblings or the order in which Claude Monet was born into his family.

Despite this lack of information about his sibling(s), it appeared that Monet might have been the first child because of his parents' strict expectations. As a result of these restrictions, Monet counteracted with a strong, rebellious personality. This independence guided his work and the rest of his life. In the end, there's no question that Monet was "his own man."

Monet's defiant personality can also be seen in some of his relationships. For example, he broke the "sacred union" of the Impressionists by refusing to participate in the fifth, sixth, and eighth exhibitions. Some called his actions pure selfishness (Kalinta 6).

On the other hand, we see warmth in Monet's relationship with his second wife, Alice Hoschede. With her four beautiful daughters, they heightened the "peace and contemplation" that he experienced while painting at Giverny.

Overall, these additional relationships reinforce Monet's Faustian bargain and Gardner's support aspect. More specifically, Monet sacrificed certain relationships with the Impressionists to promote his own art. His second wife and stepdaughters, however, greatly contributed to the tranquil mood displayed in Water Lilies.


When reviewing all of the information presented, the evidence heavily supports Monet as a creative individual. By revealing a fruitful asynchrony between his spatial and other intelligences, growth from different artistic influences and supportive individuals, the formation of a Faustian bargain, increased painting ability from marginality, re-orientation of a domain, consistent production of quality works, and a ten-year cycle, Monet was unquestionably creative... but was he a creative genius?

This question becomes much more challenging because creative genius, within the context of Gardner's work, implies the formation of or significant contribution to a field. Although Monet altered the field of art, he did not carve the path for an entirely new domain as Freud did for psychology. Furthermore, unlike many of Gardner's other individuals, he seemed to rely more heavily on his predecessors and didn't devise many singular creative ideas of his own.

So should this disqualify Claude Monet as a creative genius? Before answering, it's important to consider this quote. In 1914, he told Andre Arnyvelde, "You see, I miss the days when someone would painstakingly save a hundred francs, buy a painting from the artist, and carry it off, trembling with happiness. Now, they pay fifty thousand francs... and don't know anything about what they're buying. They say they love painting...; I don't believe it" (Stuckey 275).

This quote captures the essence of Monet's character and work. For Monet, painting was not a job or hobby. It was his life. Painting brought him so much joy that he spent hours performing this activity in the sun, wind, rain, and snow alike. Throughout his life, he re-oriented and expanded upon different elements of painting to develop a style which satisfied him most. He hoped this style would create the same happiness in people that it brought him.

Over time, Claude Monet became such a master of his style, that it's been said, "Impressionism is Monet" (Donoghue et al. 1). In different terms, all of his works contain a unique "touch" that directly indicates him as their author.

In the end, perhaps our eyes serve as the best judge if Monet was a true creative genius. By looking at the Houses of Parliament, which I first saw as a boy, I now view it from a different perspective. I can almost see Monet's diligence, mastery, warmth, and happiness radiate from the calm violet and orange hues of the work. Furthermore, the special Monet touch, that is so well known and loved throughout the vast majority of his works, is evident in this painting as well. Was Claude Monet a true creative genius? My final answer becomes clear as I silently ponder a description of his paintings from his friend and colleague, Auguste Rodin: "... In the countryside, by the sea, before the distant horizon, before trembling foliage, before the ceaseless whispering of the waves: 'Ah, how beautiful it all is - it is Monet' " (Kalinta 26).

Claude Monet Web Sites

View Monet's paintings at these web sites:

Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Monet Gallery

Works Cited

Donoghue et al. Claude Monet web site,

Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. New York: BasicBooks, 1993.

Kalinta, Nina. Claude Monet: Paintings in Soviet Museums. Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1984. 5-28.

Seitz, William C. Claude Monet. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1960.

Sheff, Jeremy. Claude Monet web site

Stuckey, Charles F. Monet: A Retrospective. New York: Park Lane, 1985