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Claude Monet was not only an amazing painter, he was also a prolific letter writer. He wrote over 2,000 letters during his life, and lucky for us we have access to all of them via books, library archives, and art institutes.
Isn’t it incredible to be able to google ‘paintings Monet 1884′ and within seconds his entire collection from that year (including the stunning Bordighera featured below) is on display? Just imagine the young artists who made pilgrimages across entire oceans to gaze upon Monet’s art and copy his craft — yet we can do it all from the convenience of our kitchen bench or garden chair.
2021 is such an amazing time to be alive (yeh, there’s a pandemic, but it’s still a great time to be alive) so I wanted to kick off the year by sharing some of the inspirations I’ve gained from a battered old hardback book I found in a 2nd-hand bookstore a few years back.
MONET by himself is a reproduction of Monet’s original letters and paintings (in the order they were written and painted). It’s incredible how much you can learn about the creative process by reading Monet’s urgent pleas to art dealers, peers, and friends for cash and support as he slogged away on 9 canvases (in unison), or coped with a devastating flood.
I promised to bring you a few paintings this week, but I had not reckoned with the Seine flooding. For the moment I’m no painter but a life saver, rower, removal man etc. We are literally in water, surrounded by water on all sides, and the house can only be reached by boat; we had to take refuge on the first floor but the water is still rising and where will all this end? It’s quite frightening. Painting is out of the question, yet there would be some very curious things to do.
My blog today highlights 4 important things we writers can learn from Monet — how he approached his creative work and life generally. He spent years in training, not necessarily in formal study but actually painting (in the wind, rain, and snow). He was determined to make it as an artist and progressed steadily with confidence and vision. He persevered, time and again down to his last francs but found ways to continue.
Imagine the faith it took for him to keep painting knowing that his eyesight was failing. And finally gratitude, for what is the point of it all if we aren’t grateful to the ones who help us along the way. Let’s take a look at Monet.
I am right in the thick of work here and I want to finish three or four paintings at least; I’ve seven under way, but the early ones were very bad and I’ve abandoned them.
When I look through Monet’s collection from 1861–70 (completed before age 30) I am in awe at the quality of those beautiful paintings. But Monet was nowhere near satisfied. He spent his entire life dedicated to the improvement of his craft and painted right up until his death at age 85.
You must know that I’m entirely absorbed in my work. These landscapes of water and reflections have become my obsession. It’s quite beyond my powers at my age, and yet I want to succeed in expressing what I feel. I’ve destroyed some … I start others … and I hope that something will come out of so much effort.
And rather than taking a conventional approach to painting landscapes (ie, copying the masters and following traditional forms), Monet took his palette and canvases into the outdoors to paint what he saw in the natural light.
In those early days, his depiction of light and colour (including his famous painting ‘Magpie’ displayed below) was rejected by the art ‘authorities’. Yet he continued to paint.
As a writer are you prepared to write for the love of your art? Experiment with clusters of words? Present the same narrow subject 250 different ways? Ignore the rejection letters. And write — no, not just sit at your computer checking emails and updating social media — but actually writing real work for more than 12 hours each day? Then throw away everything but the very best?
I guess this is the difference between amateurs, professionals, and masters. I’m certainly not there yet.
I have a few canvases in the rue Vintimille; take them for whatever price you like: but please respond to my call for help and send us what you can. Two or three hundred francs now would save us from hardship and anxiety: with a hundred francs more I could procure the canvas and paints I need to work.
You have to be seriously confident in your creative abilities to write letter after letter after letter after letter begging money for paints, food, and general living expenses. Could you do it? Would you do it? Or would you change careers?
Monet didn’t have the approval of his parents to pursue art, and in the first decades of his career barely sold enough paintings to survive. He suffered from depression and destroyed countless works of art when he lacked belief. Yet he continued to paint.
Don’t fail to write as soon as you receive this if you can do something for me; in any case I expect a word from you. Write to me at La Havre poste restante, as my family refuses to do anything more for me, so I don’t even know yet where I’ll be sleeping tomorrow. I was so upset yesterday that I was stupid enough to hurl myself into the water. Fortunately, no harm was done.
Monet appeared to be so consumed with the need to continue painting he was prepared to sell off his finished works for any price at all. In fact one of his most famous paintings Impression, Sunrise (pictured below) — which actually launched the entire Impressionist movement — was sold at a song to one of his contemporaries. But it enabled him to buy paints and continue painting.
The message here isn’t to start bombarding your friends and family with letters of request for funds as you pursue your creative writing dreams, it’s merely to inspire you to keep going. If you believe in yourself enough to start the writing, believe in yourself enough to finish.
Think of me getting up before 6; I’m at work by 7 and I continue until 6.30 in the evening, standing up all the time, nine canvases. It’s murderous.
Writing feels hard doesn’t it, yet it really isn’t. We write sitting down in a comfortable chair, probably with air conditioning or a nice open window. We aren’t standing for 12 long hours, or carrying paints and pallets and easels and canvases along rocky beach headlands, or working in the outdoors while it snows.
Monet is the ultimate example of perseverance, exemplified in his (more than) 250 paintings of water lilies — and the letters he sent to family and friends while he single-mindedly painted 26 different versions of the cathedral at Rouen.
My stay here is advancing, which doesn’t mean I’m near to finished my Cathedrals. Regretfully I can only repeat that the further I get, the more difficult it is for me to convey what I feel; and I tell myself that anyone who claims he’s finished a painting is terribly arrogant. To finish something means complete, perfect and I’m forcing myself to work, but can’t make any progress; looking for something, groping my way forward, but coming up with nothing very special, except to reach the point where I’m exhausted by it all.
Thank you for your great and loyal friendship, and trust in the no less loyal friendship of your old CLAUDE MONET.
And finally, gratitude. Toward the end of his life Monet had developed severe cataracts over his eyes and this changed his perception of colour. If you look through his paintings from 1915–1925 you’ll notice they gradually become more abstract and predominantly feature reds and yellows. This was because the cataracts over his eyes made him unable to see blue and violet colours.
Yet despite this handicap he continued to paint. I thought this lovely letter written to his doctor in the final 18 months of his life particularly inspiring.
I myself am writing this, since we both were particularly touched by your letter and want to thank you for your kind thought. Furthermore, I’m delighted to be able to tell you that I’ve truly recovered my sight at last and did so virtually at a stroke. In short, I can live and breathe again, am overjoyed to see everything once more, and I’m working passionately.
Your grateful and loyal patient, CLAUDE MONETLetter to Doctor Charles Coutela (Giverny, 27 July 1925)
At age 85 Monet was filled with gratitude and working passionately. How many of us would have given up at 75 — when the cataracts first affected our eyesight —telling ourselves we’re too old or ‘we’ve had a good run anyway’.
Not Monet. Just look at one of his last paintings (below) Wisteria (painted 1925) a triumph of colour, persistence and gratitude.
Happy 2021 friends, now let’s get writing.
Richard Kendall, ed. 1992. MONET by Himself: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, Letters. Translated by Bridget Strevens Romer. BCA 1992 Edition. London, UK: Little, Brown and Company (UK) Ltd.
Featured Image Credit: Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, (1899) Giverny, Philadelphia Museum of Art.