Claude Monet, Free Thinker

Radical Republicanism, Darwin's Science, and the Evolution of Impressionist Aesthetics

by Michael J. Call (Author)
©2015 Monographs XII, 175 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 40


This revolutionary interdisciplinary study argues that Monet’s artistic practices and choices were the direct result of his political stance as a nineteenth-century libre penseur, a position characterized by radical republicanism, a progressive social agenda, and fierce anticlericalism. His efforts to create a style reflecting his personal political code led him to produce paintings proclaimed by like-minded free thinkers as «a science being constantly perfected» (Gustave Geffroy), that is, emphasizing only observable phenomena in the immediate present through scrupulous, insistent on-site observation, capturing the raw data of sensations and sensory experience, and purporting to record a world free of embedded meaning. Darwin’s world similarly comes with no prepackaged reassurance of humankind’s privileged place in it; it is instead a space in which all varieties of organisms and species compete for limited resources in a struggle for survival. The Darwinian model of nature appears to have influenced Monet’s artistic production increasingly as his style evolved over several decades. In opposition to post-Renaissance art that privileged the human presence in both representation and the viewing act, Monet’s later paintings create a sense of virtual and visual equality among all observable phenomena. The human – and the viewer, by extension – is thus represented as neither separate from nature as a disengaged observer nor superior to it but rather co-equal with all other organic life forms surrounding it. This approach, while echoing Darwin’s admiration of nature and its laws, also reminds humankind of its own fragility and the hard choices it must make to avoid extinction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Triumph of Secularism
  • Chapter 2: Republicanism and Science
  • Chapter 3: Claude Monet, Free Thinker
  • Chapter 4: A Scientific Style and Its Interpreters
  • Chapter 5: The Demise of Anthropocentrism
  • Chapter 6: Time and Mortality
  • Chapter 7: The Search for Harmony
  • Chapter 8: The Painted Garden
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index

| ix →


Fig. 1. Claude Monet, Jules Didier, Butterfly Man, c. 1860. Art Institute, Chicago.

Fig. 2. Claude Monet, Parisian actors and actress, c. 1860. Musée Marmottan, Paris.

Fig. 3. Georges Clemenceau, c. 1878.

Fig. 4. Clemenceau, c. 1910.

Fig. 5. Clemenceau and Monet, at Giverny, 1921.

Fig. 6. Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1869. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig. 7. Claude Monet, Camille Monet on her Deathbed, 1879. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig. 8. Paul Cézanne, Portrait of Gustave Geffroy, 1895. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig. 9. Gustave Geffroy, 1893.

Fig. 10. Monet and Geffroy at Giverny, c. 1920, photograph by Sacha Guitry, Roger-Viollet.

Fig. 11. Octave Mirbeau. ← ix | x →

Fig. 12. Claude Monet, The Petite Creuse River, 1889. Art Institute, Chicago.

Fig. 13. Claude Monet, Poppies (Argenteuil), 1875. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Fig. 14. Claude Monet, The Fisherman’s House at Varengeville, 1882. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Fig. 15. Claude Monet, Gorge du Petit Ailly at Varengeville, 1897. Private collection.

Fig. 16. Claude Monet, On the Cliff near Dieppe, 1897. Private collection.

Fig. 17. Claude Monet, Railway Bridge at Argenteuil, 1873. Private collection.

Fig. 18. Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Portal and Saint Romain Tower, Full Sun, 1894. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig. 19. Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Symphony in Gray and Pink, 1894. National Museum Cardiff, Wales.

Fig. 20. Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond, Green Harmony, 1899. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig. 21. Garden map, Giverny.

Fig. 22. Claude Monet, Train in the Snow, 1875. Musée Marmottan, Paris.

Fig. 23. Claude Monet, Saint-Lazare Station, the Normandy Train, 1877. Art Institute, Chicago.

Fig. 24. Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1907. Tate, London.

Fig. 25. Water Lilies, Morning. Room One, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

Fig. 26. Water Lilies, Green Reflections. Room One, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

Fig. 27. Water Lilies, Clouds. Room One, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

Fig. 28. Water Lilies, Clear Morning with Willows. Room Two, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

Fig. 29. Water Lilies, The Two Willows, detail. Room Two, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

Fig. 30. Water Lilies, The Two Willows. Room Two, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

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Many have contributed to the eventual completion of this project and are thus deserving of recognition here in its opening pages. I am indebted first to Brigham Young University’s College of Humanities for its generosity in funding trips to museums in Europe as well as here in the U.S. There is no substitute for seeing a Monet in person; no image in a book can ever reproduce the subtleties of color, surface textures, and light effects that the artist achieved with his paints. One memorable evening spent at the Art Institute of Chicago chatting with conference colleagues while staring simultaneously at a wall of Monets yielded more insight into his aesthetic theory than a year of studying Wildenstein’s books.

My students have been especially helpful in the refinement of my approach to Monet’s oeuvre. I am grateful to all those who took my Impressionism in the Arts senior seminar over the last twenty years and who listened to and critiqued my ideas as they developed. Two in particular deserve special thanks: Michael McKeon whose master’s thesis helped deepen my understanding of the philosophical implications of Monet’s aesthetic choices, and Brittany Atkinson who, as my research assistant, helped me sift through Monet’s extensive—and rather mundane—personal correspondence in search of the rare and often embedded comment that hinted at the artist’s political leanings. ← xi | xii →

I have profited too from the public forum in which to test my ideas provided by conferences sponsored by two interdisciplinary humanities organizations: the National Association of Humanities Educators (NAHE) and the Humanities Education and Research Association (HERA). I appreciate the good will of colleagues who, over the last few years, have listened to early drafts of different segments of this book, offered advice, and encouraged its completion. Material from two articles I published previously in HERA’s official journal, Interdisciplinary Humanities, has been incorporated into this longer study of Monet: “Retreat to Eden: Time and the Cosmos in Monet’s Giverny Images” (vol. 14, num. 2, Summer-Fall, 1997, 173–190); and “The Cathedral as Nexus of Time and Memory in the Works of Monet and Proust” (vol. 16, nums. 1–2, Spring/Fall, 1999, 1–13).

I also wish to thank Professor Philip Nord of Princeton University whose pioneering book Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2000) helped provide critical historical background for my own work on Monet. Professor Nord accepted my invitation to deliver two lectures on Impressionism and French history at BYU and, while visiting our campus, was gracious enough to listen to my ideas and offer encouragement for my project. I greatly admire his ability to produce scholarly work that is both insightful and eloquent.

Finally as always, I thank my wife, Connie, who, as an art lover and a consummate gardener, has always appreciated Monet’s contributions in both realms. She has been a constant source of moral support throughout the writing process. Together, we pay tribute to our dear friend Huguette Richards who in 1988 introduced us to the gardens at Giverny and in so doing set in motion the chain of events that produced this book. Her passing in February of 2014 left the world a poorer place and we miss her.

Michael J. Call


XII, 175
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
Secularism Darwin Painting art
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XII, 175 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Michael J. Call (Author)

Michael J. Call is Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He holds a joint PhD in French and Humanities from Stanford University. He is past president (2011–2013) of the Humanities Education and Research Association, an international organization of interdisciplinary scholars. While on the faculty at BYU, he was awarded the Karl G. Maeser General Education Professorship, one of the university’s most prestigious teaching honors. His previous publications include Infertility and the Novels of Sophie Cottin and Back to the Garden: Chateaubriand, Constant and Senancour.


Title: Claude Monet, Free Thinker
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189 pages