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Claude Monet, Free Thinker

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


Michael J. Call

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.
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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...

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