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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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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Call, Michael J. Claude Monet, free thinker: radical republicanism, Darwin’s science, and the evolution of impressionist aesthetics / Michael J. Call. pages cm. — (American university studies XX: fine arts; vol. 40) Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Monet, Claude, 1840–1926—Criticism and interpretation. 2. Freethinkers—France—History—19th century. 3. Impressionism (Art)—France. 4. Art—Political aspects—France—History—19th century. 5. Natural history—Social aspects—France—History—19th century. I. Title. ND553.M7C35 759.4—dc23 2015008442 ISBN 978-1-4331-3080-9 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-4539-1594-3 (e-book) ISSN 0890-412X

Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the “Deutsche Nationalbibliografie”; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at

Cover image: Claude Monet, The Petite Creuse River, 1889. Art Institute, Chicago.

© 2015 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York 29 Broadway, 18th floor, New York, NY 10006

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