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Claude Monet by himself, part 1 – A rebellious youth

Self portrait with beret, by Claude Monet, 1886

By 1900, Claude Monet’s reputation was brilliant and his fame, immense. To celebrate a new exhibition of his work at the Durand-Ruel gallery, journalist Thiébault-Sisson asked the great man to tell the story of his life.

Published on November 26, 1900 in Le Temps, the story gives a generous insight into Monet’s life and thoughts about his career.  Although apparently the artist added a few embellishments to his tale, his voice rings clear and true across the century.

We are posting the full interview over four episodes.  In this first part a talented young man is unimpressed with the seascapes of Boudin…

My story, by Claude Monet (part 1)

I am a Parisian of Paris. I was born there in 1840 under the reign of the good king Louis-Philippe; a time that cared only for commerce, when the Arts were regarded with contemptuous disdain. My childhood was spent in Le Havre where my father had settled in 1845 in order to better pursue his own business interests, and my childhood was very free.  I was born undisciplinable. No one could make me stick to the rules, even in my youngest days.

It was at home that I learned most of what I do know. The college always seemed to me like a prison.  I could never resolve to spend my time there even for four hours a day when the sun was inviting and the sea so beautiful, and it was so good to run outdoors along the cliff-tops and paddle in the water.

Up until fourteen or fifteen years of age to the despair of my father, I continued this rather irregular but healthy way of life. Somehow I had learnt my four rules well, with a suspicion of spelling. My studies were limited and not too painful as I slipped in a number of distractions.  I drew in the margins of my books, I decorated the blue paper of my notebooks with fanciful ornaments and I recorded in the most irreverent manner, distorting them as much as possible, the face or profile of my masters.

Caricature of Léon Manchon 1855/6 by Claude Monet

I became very quickly very good at this game and was soon known in Le Havre as a caricaturist. My reputation was so well established that I was commissioned, on all sides, for these portraits. The abundance of orders and the lack of funds from my family inspired me to a bold, scandalous decision, to charge for a portrait.  I charged ten or twenty francs and was rewarded admirably.  In a month my clientele had doubled.  I could charge 20 francs without my orders slowing. If I had continued, I would be a millionaire today.

By these means I was soon a somebody in the city. In the storefront of the one and only Le Havre framer my caricatures were audaciously spread out, five or six in front of each other, with golden surrounds, under a glass, like real works of art.  When I went to look at them a crowd had gathered in admiration, pointing to each face ‘it is so and so!’ I was bursting with pride.

But there was a shadow over my happiness. There was often, in this same shop window hanging above my own works, a number of maritime scenes that I, along with most Havrais, found disgusting. I was not slow to slander this idiot, who, thinking himself an artist had dared to sign his works ‘Boudin’.  To my eyes, accustomed to the seascapes of Gudin with their indiscriminate colours and fanciful arrangements of the fashionable painter, the little sincere compositions of Boudin, his little people just so, boats so well rigged, his sky and his waters so exact, drawn and painted naturally, had nothing artistic, and their honesty seemed to be suspect. His paintings only inspired in me a frightful aversion, and without knowing the man I disliked him.

The dedication of captain Desse, by Baron Jean Antoine Théodore Gudin

Often the framer told me “You ought to get to know M. Boudin. Whatever may be said of him, you see, he knows his profession. He studied it at Paris, in the studios of the School of Fine Arts. He could give you good advice.” But I stubbornly resisted. What could such a ridiculous fellow teach me? One day however, a fatal day, chance put me in the presence of Boudin, in spite of myself. He was in the back of the shop; I had not noticed his presence, and I entered.

Deauville at low tide, by Euguene Boudin 1863

The framer took the opportunity, without asking me my opinion, to present me “See, Mr. Boudin, this is the young man who has so much talent!” And Boudin immediately came over to me, complimented me in his gentle voice and said “I always look at your sketches with pleasure; they are amusing and clever. You are gifted, you see it right away. But you are not going, I hope, to leave it at that? This is very good for a beginning, but you will soon have had enough of caricatures. Study, learn to see and to paint.  Draw, do landscapes. It is all so beautiful; the sea and skies, animals, people, and trees, as nature has made them, with their character, their true way of being, in the light, air, such as they are…”

While his exhortations did not impress me, the gentleman, all things considered, I liked. He was sincere, I felt it, but I did not appreciate what he said and when he offered to take me drawing with him in the open fields, I always found an excuse to to refuse politely.

The summer came. My time was mostly free and I had no good reason left to refuse, so wearily I gave in. And Boudin, with inexhaustible kindness, undertook my education.

My eyes, at length, opened and I really understood nature, and at the same time I learned to love it.

I analysed its form in pencil, I studied its colours. Six months later, in spite of my mother’s objections – she had begun to worry seriously about my expeditions and saw me lost to polite society spending time with a man so little thought of as Boudin – I made it clear to my father that I wanted to be a painter and that I was going to settle in Paris to learn.

“You will not have a sou!”

“I will do without it!”

 

Notes

Claude Monet by Claude Monet, as told to Thiébault-Sisson, published on 26 November 1900 in ‘Le Temps’ newspaper

 

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