You must begin by drawing … Draw simply and directly, with charcoal, crayon or whatever, above all observing the contours, because you can never be too sure of holding on to them, once you start to paint.
Claude Monet, 1920
Despite his statement, Claude Monet (1840–1926) spent most of his life staunchly denying the role drawing played in his creative process. Critics, biographers and journalists did not write about it, and his paintings were often praised for their lack of it. The reality, however, is that Monet carried pocket-sized sketchbooks with him throughout his life, setting out into nature to make notations and jot down scenes and people that caught his eye. Monet left eight folios of sketches, containing 400 individual drawings, to his son Michel, who in turn donated them to the Musée Marmottan in 1966. They are reproduced digitally in this exhibition, allowing visitors to explore different periods in Monet’s artistic career.
Although our perception of Monet is one of an artist preoccupied with the mastery of painted colour and texture, he also had a lifelong fascination with drawing. Henri Matisse (1869–1954) claimed that ‘drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.’ Certainly for Monet, the act of drawing, whether as a preparatory tool for a composition in oil or as a finished work in its own right, was an intrinsic element of his creative process, albeit one at odds with the supposed spontaneity of Impressionist painting and, until this exhibition, largely unexplored.
Although Impressionist art is now largely seen as a pleasing, benign and almost universally beloved school of art, in the nineteenth century it completely contradicted popular concepts about art’s purpose and ideals. The Impressionists’ method of painting was very different to the academic traditions of previous generations. The Impressionists favoured smaller canvases and natural, informal and quotidian subjects. Most controversially, they strove to elevate the perception of landscape painting to that of history painting, then considered the highest form of art by the official academies and two bastions of the art establishment, the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Monet was a founding and dominant member of the Impressionists, and he excelled at both painting and self-promotion. His now stratospheric fame began its ascendancy in the 1880s, but he first achieved a certain artistic success as a teenager in Normandy, not with his popular painted interpretations of light and nature, but with carefully drafted drawings and caricatures.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department Introduction To The Unknown Monet (816 KB) .