‘Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.‘ – Claude Monet
This painting, depicting four women, elegant, idle and carefree, is the best attainment of Claude Monet’s biggest ambition – to paint an everyday scene, in the open air, in the sunlight.
Upon arriving to Paris and visiting Louvre, Monet witnessed art students copying works of old masters. He also brought his paints and brushes but instead painted a view from the window, capturing his own impressions, rather than simply painting a lifeless copy of someone else’s masterpiece. In 1859 he settled in Paris. Disillusioned with the traditional art, Monet enrolled at the Académie Suisse. It was a ‘free studio’ which meant that nobody taught you anything, you decided for yourself what you wanted to paint. He soon met Camille Pissarro and the two got on very well, bonding over their love for painting outdoors. He met Frederic Bazille, Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the same time; all these painters would later be the heart of the Impressionism. Young Claude was dashing, handsome chap, a bit of a dandy but girls, lorettes, loved him. ‘I only sleep with maids and duchesses. Preferably duchess’s maids‘, he once proclaimed haughtily.
Although a typical Impressionistic canvas is rather small in dimensions, this painting is actually large, about eight feet high. In the past, large canvases were always used for representing coronations, mythological or historical scenes, something grand, serious and significant, but Monet’s subject was a simple everyday scene! With this discourteous move, Monet secured himself a role of a rebel; a role he was yet to confirm with his painting Impression, Sunrise. As a boy, Monet was known for his cunning caricatures of the famous people of Le Havre where he grew up but in Paris his artistic wind blew in a different direction. It was Eugéne Boudin who encouraged Monet to start painting landscapes, and, in addition, to start working en plein air (‘in the open air’), that is, paint in the nature itself, not in the studio. By the way, Boudin’s pastels of stormy skies, boats, beaches, sunsets of Le Havre gained him admiration from both Baudelaire and Courbet who called him ‘king of the skies‘.
So, Monet followed Boudin’s advice and took up painting landscapes; frozen moments in time, decorated with flowers and women. However, in Women in the Garden Monet wanted to capture a bit more than just nature and idleness of women. He wanted to capture the play of light and shadow, one of the hardest tasks in art. Monet painted this painting in the summer of 1866, in his garden in Ville d’Avray in Paris. But painting on such a large canvas proved to be a difficult task so he dug a trench and lowered the canvas into it. Model for all of the figures was Camille Doncieux, Monet’s mistress and eventually wife. In this painting Monet aimed to capture the movement of light and air around figures, and he succeeded, partly. No one in art had previously painted sunshine as bright as this. Monet brilliantly captured the light on the white dress in the foreground, but there’s a sense of unreality about the painting. Isn’t a garden scene suppose to be playful and lively? And women gracefully strolling around, flaunting like butterflies? Instead, these modern women look like dolls, their idleness preserved for eternity.
The artificiality of their poses is partly due to Monet’s study of fashion magazines in order to paint his ladies in the latest finery. Still, heavy brushstrokes, interpreted as a sign of carelessness, and the obvious modernity prevented the painting from being exhibited at the Paris Salon. Other artists, writers and bohemians appreciated the painting, such as Emile Zola who commented: ‘The sun fell straight on to dazzling white skirts; the warm shadow of a tree cut out a large grey piece from the paths and the sunlit dresses. The strangest effect imaginable. One needs to be singularly in love with his time to dare to do such a thing, fabrics sliced in half by the shadow and the sun.‘
The painting was eventually bought by Frederic Bazille for 2500 francs as a way of helping Monet financially.
Painting Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden belongs to the same time period and shows Monet’s obsession with the play of light and shadows, and his enormous wish to capture the air, the sunshine, and nature in full flair.