Famous Collections: The collection of Claude Monet

by: Caroline Moore

“Claude Monet is the artist who has made the most inventive and original contribution to landscape painting… Among our landscape painters [he] was the first to have the boldness to go as far as the Japanese in the use of colour,” Théodore Duret, Japanese print collector and close friend of Monet, wrote in 1880.

French Impressionist Claude Monet is known as one of the greatest landscape and plein-air painters. Like his Impressionist contemporaries Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Paul Gaugin, Camille Pissaro, and Vincent van Gogh, Monet looked to “pictures of the floating world,” or Japanese ukiyo-e prints, as a source of artistic inspiration. An influx in international trade to Europe in the second half of the 19th century introduced Eastern art and culture to the West. Japonisme, a craze for all things Japanese, sparked immediately and the Impressionists indulged in their share. Ukiyo-e prints were exhibited at galleries and sold in shops all over Paris. In 1893, the Durand-Ruel gallery held an exhibition with French Impressionists Monet, Pissaro, and Rodin in attendance. Pissaro wrote to his son Lucien about his experience, “Admirable, the Japanese exhibition. Hiroshige is a marvelous impressionist. Me, Monet and Rodin are filled with enthusiasm…these Japanese artists confirm to me our visual position.” In 1871, Monet bought his first ukiyo-e print after a trip to Holland. He traveled to the Dutch territory after his exile in London during the Franco-Prussian war. Monet collected approximately 231 ukiyo-e prints in his lifetime, which he studied intensely and displayed in his home in Giverny, France. The artist was particularly fond of prints created by Japanese artists Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).

Monet’s admiration for Japan and his prominent standing as a successful Western artist permitted him direct contact with Japanese merchants. Monet met Tadamasa Hayashi at an exhibition in Paris in 1878. Over the course of 23 years, Hayashi made trips from Japan to France, delivering impressive hoards of Japanese arts and antiques for dissemination. On several occasions, Monet invited Harashi to Giverny and traded two of his paintings in exchange for prints by Kitagawa Utamaro, Eishi (1756-1829), and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Harashi thrived selling and trading prints in Europe. The merchant collected Impressionist paintings during his time in Europe, which he brought back and exhibited in Tokyo in 1893. Kojiro Matsukata was also a Japanese merchant and collector of Impressionist art who made an acquaintance with Monet. Matsukata, like Harashi, showed his Impressionist collection to the Japanese public. Both Harashi and Matsukata’s collections made it possible for the Japanese to gain exposure to Western art and culture, including the work of Monet. Previously, there was little to no contact before the new Meiji Emperor opened up Japan to the rest of the world. This interaction spawned a cultural synergy between the Occidental and Eastern worlds.

Monet drew from Japanese prints as reference for some of his own paintings, but never copied directly from the engravings. Instead, he incorporated aspects like subject, color, composition, and light from the prints into his work. Monet’s snowscape paintings Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter (1875) and Boulevard des Capucines (1873) bears comparison to prints by Utagawa Hiroshige. The elevated viewpoint and cropped composition are characteristic of ukiyo-e prints. However, it is uncertain if Monet first saw works like Two Ladies Conversing in the Snow by Hiroshige before the creation of his paintings. Claims have been made that Monet’s friendship with Gustav Courbet, who was taking artistic cues from ukiyo-e prints, influenced Monet’s style indirectly. The painting La Japonaise (Camile Monet in Japanese Costume) (1876) also demonstrates the influence Japonisme had over Monet. Monet depicts his wife Camille dressed in an elaborately ornamented kimono and surrounded by Japanese paper fans. Monet later regarded the painting as one of his least favorite works, but La Japonaise suggests his interest in Japanese culture. Art historians believe the work was simply Monet’s visual commentary of Paris’ newfound obsession with all things Japanese.

At his estate in Giverny, Monet designed a Japanese footbridge like ones depicted in the prints and placed it above the garden’s pond. A passionate horticulturist, Monet curated an array of flowers and vegetation that surrounded the bridge. He stated his motive for creating the garden was “for the pleasure of the eye and also motifs to paint.” The artist completed a series titled Japanese Bridge in 1899, and again near the end of his painting career between 1920 and 1922. Monet painted this scene throughout the changing seasons and effortlessly captured the fleeting effects of color and light. Monet never visited Japan, but the garden reveals his desire to emulate the country’s landscape and nature as a model for his work. Similarly, like Vincent van Gogh’s comparison to the French countryside of Arles to Japan, Monet believed Norway was the closest resemblance to the Empire of the Rising Sun. He wrote in a letter to friend Blanche Hoschedé “I am working on a view of Sandviken that resembles a Japanese village; then I’m doing a mountain that one sees from everywhere here and which makes me think of Fuji-Yama.” In Norway, Monet created the painting Mount Kolsaas (1895) after the mountain he recalled in the letter reminded him of Mount Fuji.

Art historians are constantly in debate about the level of influence Japanese art had over Monet and his work. However, Monet’s collection and garden serves as an ode to his appreciation for Japan. Claude Monet’s ukiyo-e prints are still on display in his home in Giverny, France, covering every wall in his home. In 2006 and 2007, Musée Marmottan in Paris, France exhibited the prints.