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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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The bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin in 2009 spawned a variety of celebratory events in America and abroad. Among these were organized explorations of the interplay between Darwinist theory and the visual arts, pointing to a comparatively recent but growing interest in the naturalist’s influence on modes of thought as expressed in visual culture of both his own time and the decades that followed. The exhibition Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts that appeared at both the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Yale Center for British Arts in New Haven has been to date the most ambitious and inclusive treatment of Darwin’s considerable effect on the arts. It included examples of Darwin’s own drawings of specimens, landscapes inspired by Darwin’s take on geologic time and the fossil record, and images of struggle and conflict in the natural world inspired by the notion of “survival of the fittest.” It also looked at the representation of human evolution, beauty and sexual selection, and ended with an exploration of new ways of interpreting late nineteenth-century impressionist painters like Degas and Monet as artists influenced by the new science. In the book accompanying the exhibit, Richard Kendall’s article, “Monet and the Monkeys: the Impressionist Encounter with Darwinism,” which appeared in the exhibit’s published catalog, acknowledged that connections between the Impressionists and Darwinian theory had until that time never been explored by art ← 1 | 2 → historians, even though there was evidence that the painters were familiar...

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