A farmyard in Normandy 1863 by Claude Monet age 22. Painted the year after he left military service.
In part 1 Claude Monet, a rebellious youth, told his father his wish to be an artist…
My story, by Claude Monet (part 2)
‘You will not have a sou!’
‘ I will do without it’
And I could do without it, indeed I had long since made my own money. My cartoons had amply rewarded me. In just one day I was asked to execute seven or eight portraits. My returns had been fruitful and I had been accustomed from the very beginning to entrust them to one of my aunts, keeping for myself only insignificant sums for my pocket-money.
With two thousand francs at sixteen one thinks oneself rich. Armed with letters of recommendation acquired from admirers of Boudin, who had connections with Monginot, Troyon with Amand Gautier, I promptly left for Paris.
I took some time first of all to find my feet. I went to visit the artists recommended to me and I received excellent advice from them, and I also received some appalling suggestions. Troyon tried to make me attend the studio of Couture, a decision I refused, needless to tell you. I admit that it chilled, momentarily at least, my esteem for Troyon. I gradually ceased to see him and only associated with artists who were looking for something new. It was at this time I met Pissarro, who had not yet thought of posing as a revolutionary, and who was simply working in Corot’s style.
This seemed a good model to emulate and I did as he did. But for the time of my sojourn in Paris, which lasted four years and which was frequently interrupted by frequent trips to Le Havre, it was the advice of Boudin that I respected, despite my inclination to elaborate upon nature.
So I reached my twentieth year and my time for (army) conscription. I saw it approach without terror, my family likewise. My Parkis escapade had not been forgiven; I had been allowed to live at my pleasure during these four years only because they hoped I would come back to them after my military service.
It was supposed that I would tire of military life and return home, ready to settle down to the family business. If I refused they would cut off my allowance and if I turned out badly, they would disinherit me.
They were mistaken. The seven years that seemed so hard to so many others seemed to me to be full charms. A friend who was in the ‘Chass de Af’ and who adored military life had communicated his enthusiasm and instilled in me a taste for adventure. Nothing seemed more attractive to me than the endless treks under a great sun, the raids, the crackling of gunpowder, sabre-rattling, nights in the desert under canvas.. and I responded to my father’s demands to return home with superb indifference. I was a bad lot.
I was admitted, at my request, to a regiment in Africa and I left. I spent two years in Algeria, which was really charming. Everything was constantly new and I tried in my spare time to record it. You cannot imagine how much I learned, and how much my ability improved. I did not realize it at first. The impressions of light and colour I saw there would not be in my work until much later; but the germ of my understanding was there.
I fell ill at the end of two years, very gravely. They sent me back to France. Six months of convalescence were spent drawing and painting with a renewed vigour. Seeing me working like this, while weakened by fever, convinced my father that nothing would sway my resolve or could stand in the way of my vocation. From both exhaustion at the battle and a fear of losing me – for the physician had made it clear I was in danger if I returned to Africa – he relented and decided towards the end of my convalescence to buy me out of the army.
“But it is must be understood” said he “that you are going to work seriously this time. I want to see you in a studio under the discipline of a known master. If you return to your previous ways I will cut you off, without any concessions. Is that understood?”
His plan only half appealed to me but as for once my father had tried to see my point of view I felt it necessary not to refuse. I agreed.
It was agreed that I should live in Paris, under the tutelage of the painter Toulmouche, who had just married one of my cousins. He would guide me and provide regular reports on my labours.
I arrived one fine morning at Toulmouche’s with a portfolio of studies with which he declared himself enchanted. “You have a future” he said “but you must focus your artistic direction. Go to M. Gleyre’s. He is the sedate and wise master that you need.” So gruffly I installed my easel in the studio this famous artist ran for students.
In the first week I worked conscientiously, and with great effort drew a nude study from the living model for Mr. Gleyre to correct on Monday. He came by the next week and sat down firmly on my chair to look carefully at the piece. Then I saw him turn round, bowing his grave head with a satisfied air, and I heard him say with a smile “not bad at all, but it is too much like the real model. You have a stocky man and you have painted him squat. He has enormous feet, you show them as they are. It’s very ugly.”
“Remember, young man, that when one executes a figure, one must always think of Classical art. Nature my friend is very good as an element of a study, but it does not offer any interest. The style, you see, is all that matters.”
I was shocked. Truth, life, nature, everything that provoked emotion in me, everything that in my eyes constituted the very essence, the unique raison d’etre of art, did not exist for this man. I could not stay there. I was not born to repeat lost illusions and other nonsense, so what was the point of persisting? But I waited a few weeks, so as not too exasperate my family. I continued to make an appearance, just long enough to execute a sketch of the model and be there for the correction. Then I cleared out. Besides, I had found companions at the studio I liked, who were not superficial.
They were Renoir and Sisley, whom I would never lose sight of, and Bazille, who at once became my intimate friend and who would have made a great name for himself if he had lived. None of them showed any enthusiasm for this teaching, that contradicted both their logic and their temperaments. I immediately preached revolt to them. We took a studio together, Bazille and I.
Claude Monet by Claude Monet, as told to Thiébault-Sisson, published on 26 November 1900 in ‘Le Temps’ newspaper
Read the original article in Le Temps on Gallica