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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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Life is short, and art long.

—Hippocrates, The Aphorismi

Claude Monet died on December 5, 1926. “Monet did not like to talk about his death,” writes biographer Daniel Wildenstein, “and thus omitted to make certain arrangements. But he had made clear to his immediate circle that he did not want a religious ceremony.”1 The only other alternative at that time was a civil burial at which the town mayor, representative of the secularized Republic, officiated. Henri Vidal, an eyewitness that day, recounted his memory of the events surrounding the funeral: “With his servants, the town mayor, and the pallbearers, we were not even twelve that morning in his Giverny studio. … A black cloth with silver borders was draped over his coffin; someone entered and abruptly tore off this funereal garb while exclaiming, ‘No! Not that! Not that!’ That someone, in whose eye a tear was forming for perhaps the first time ever, that someone was [Georges] Clemenceau, his friend, the only friend the painter had. He tore down an old cretonne curtain, a colorful print with periwinkles, forget-me-nots, and hydrangea, a curtain with subdued colors—the colors of Monet’s skies—and he redraped the coffin with it. It was beneath this old piece of finery that the splendid painter, who had stolen its secret from the pearl, was put to rest in Giverny’s cemetery.”2 ← 141 | 142 →

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