It has been a common practice throughout the ages for artists to employ assistants to help in the production of their work. From Peter Paul Rubens, who often only painted the hands and faces in his paintings, to contemporary artist Jeff Koons who has a “paint by numbers” factory to create his work, their designs are realized by the hands of unknown others.
The French artist Claude Monet also employed assistants, but not for his paintings in which each brush stroke was applied by Monet himself. He employed his assistants to create the subject matter of some of his most enduring works, the garden and water lilies series.
Considered to be the founding father of the Impressionists, whose painting Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) gave the movement its name, was in his youth a gifted caricaturist able to charge 20 francs per drawing. It was through their mutual framer that Monet met the outdoor painter Eugène Boudin who introduced the 16 year old to landscape painting, the love of bright colors and the play of light on water.
Four years later Monet met the marine landscape artist Johan Jongkind about who he told the French journalist Thiébault-Sisson “He became from this moment, my true master and it’s to him, that I owe the definitive training of my eyes.”
With the money he had saved from the sales of his caricatures Monet was able to defy his family and move to Paris to study painting. But unlike other aspiring artists who would go to the Louvre to copy the masters Monet copied what he could see outside his window. After a stint in the army which was cut short by a bout of typhoid fever Monet reconciled with his family, who had accepted his desire to become an artist, and he returned to Paris with their blessing.
His obsession with painting what he could actually see led him to produce series of paintings of the same subject viewed in different atmospheric conditions be it time of day or seasonal variations. And as he told his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, “It would be a very bad idea... to exhibit even a small number of this new series, as the whole effect can only be achieved from an exhibition of the entire group.”
In his early 30’s Monet spent a poverty stricken year in London upon his return to France he completed several series of landscapes and seascapes attempting to document The French countryside. In his early 40’s he discovered the village of Giverny in northern France where within weeks the Monet family were living in a rented house on a two acre property. Once Monet’s paintings started selling in America he was able to purchase the house and land.
It was here that he created his garden. A garden that reflected through flowers his love of color in all its various combinations, living arrangements he reproduced in his paintings. Three years later Monet purchased the adjoining land and created his water lily ponds. At its peak Monet employed up to seven assistants to tend his horticultural designs whilst he captured their ever changing moods on canvas. Which museum director, Gary Tinterow, described as “the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”
The exhibition Monet and the Birth of Impressionism is current on show at Frankfurt’s Stadel Museum until 21st of June.