Monet’s color palette: uncovering the secret of the founder of Impressionism

the lily pond Claude Monet (CC) / Oil on canvas / National Gallery London / 1899 

Claude Monet, the renowned French painter and one of the founders of the Impressionist movement, revolutionized the art world with his unique approach to color. Monet relied on his carefully curated color palette to capture the essence of his subjects. In this blog, we will delve into the fascinating world of Monet’s color choices, explore the impact of his deteriorating eyesight on his art, and uncover the secrets of his famous palette.

Monet’s color palette was characterized by his use of vibrant and harmonious hues. His extensive collection of artwork showcases his mastery of color, capturing the essence of landscapes, seascapes, and everyday scenes. Monet had a deep understanding of how colors interacted with and influenced each other, and he used this knowledge to create captivating and atmospheric paintings. He often employed a wide range of colors, from delicate pastels to bold and vivid tones, to evoke different moods and emotions in his artwork. The color palette he employed reflects his unique artistic vision, elevating his works to iconic status in the art world.

early career: exploring dark colors

At the beginning of his career, Monet’s paintings, such as the ‘Studio Corner’ from 1861, were marked by the use of dark colors reminiscent of the Realist School. However, this soon changed as Monet embarked on a journey to explore the potential of light and color in his art.

embracing pure light colors

In 1860, Monet made a significant shift in his color palette, abandoning the use of dark hues and opting for a limited range of pure light colors. He believed that color had the power to “draw” the subject without the need for traditional black lines. Monet’s palette, as he described it in 1905, consisted of white lead, cadmium yellow, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue, and chrome green. These colors became his tools for capturing the ever-changing nuances of light and atmosphere.

the issue of black: avoiding traditional colors

One striking aspect of Monet’s paintings is his deliberate avoidance of traditional black. Instead of using pure black, Monet achieved the appearance of darkness by combining various colors such as blues, greens, and reds. Even in the shadows, Monet eliminated black almost completely. For example, in the painting “Red Boats, Argenteuil” from 1875, the shadows are depicted in shades of purple, showcasing his aversion to using black in his work.

This refusal to use black in his paintings became so ingrained in Monet’s artistic style that when he passed away, his friend Georges Clemenceau famously replaced the black sheet covering his coffin with a flowered material, exclaiming, “No black for Monet!”

the impact of cataracts on Monet's perception of color

In 1908, at the age of 68, Monet began to experience the effects of cataracts in both of his eyes. This progressive condition caused an opacity of the crystalline lens, resulting in a distorted perception of colors. As his cataracts worsened, whites appeared yellow, greens turned yellow-green, and reds and oranges became more prominent. Blues and purples, on the other hand, were replaced by shades of red and yellow.

Despite his deteriorating eyesight, Monet continued to paint, determined to capture the beauty he saw, even if it was through a mist. He relied on the labels and the consistent order of colors on his palette to guide him in selecting the appropriate hues. Monet embraced his altered vision, stating, “Even so, it is beautiful, and that’s what I would like to show.”

the evolution of Monet's color palette

In his later years, Monet’s paintings underwent a notable transformation due to his cataracts. Reds and yellows began to dominate his compositions, while blues gradually vanished from his palette. Details in his paintings started to fade, resulting in a blurred and hazy appearance. This can be observed in works such as the 1919 “Weeping Willows” and the 1920 “Waterlilies.”

To better understand the impact of cataracts on Monet’s perception of color, we can compare two paintings depicting the same motif: the “Japanese Bridge” from 1897 and the “Waterlily Pond” from 1923. In the former, the colors are vibrant and true to life, while in the latter, the effects of Monet’s cataracts are evident, with a dominance of red and an absence of blue.

battling cataracts and continuing to paint

Despite the challenges posed by his failing eyesight, Monet persisted in his artistic endeavors. In 1911, he wrote to a friend, expressing his growing concern about his diminishing vision. Eventually, his right eye became almost completely blind. However, with the encouragement of Georges Clemenceau, Monet underwent surgery in 1923 and regained partial vision in his right eye, albeit with altered perception.

With his special green glasses, Monet resumed painting. The series “The House Seen from the Roses Garden” exemplifies the effects of his surgery. In paintings where his left eye, affected by cataracts, dominated, everything appeared red with a yellow sky. In contrast, when painting with his operated eye, everything appeared blue. Monet expressed his frustration at the loss of certain colors, stating, “I see blue, I don’t see red anymore, nor yellow. […] I remember very well how it was like.”

Monet's legacy: inspiring artists and illustrators

Claude Monet’s unique color palette continues to inspire artists and illustrators to this day. One such artist is Bijou Le Tord, the author of the book “A Blue Butterfly,” which tells the story of Monet to young children. Le Tord was captivated by Monet’s use of colors when visiting the Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris, where Monet’s famous Water Lilies paintings are housed. Le Tord admired Monet’s ability to achieve remarkable depth and emotion using only a few colors.

Monet’s palette, as revealed by Le Tord, included silver, white, cobalt violet light, emerald green, ultramarine extra-fine, vermilion, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow dark, and lemon yellow. These colors formed the foundation of Monet’s masterpieces, enabling him to evoke the beauty of nature and the play of light on his canvases.

capturing the beauty of nature through ill eyes

Claude Monet’s color palette was a crucial element in his artistic vision. From his early experiments with dark colors to his embrace of pure light hues, Monet’s choices revolutionized the art world and laid the foundation for the Impressionist movement. Even as his eyesight deteriorated, Monet’s determination to capture the world’s beauty never wavered. His paintings, transformed by cataracts, continue to captivate audiences and inspire artists, reminding us of the incredible power of color in art.

Now that you have gained insight into Monet’s color palette and the impact of his cataracts, you can appreciate his masterpieces on a whole new level. Take a moment to immerse yourself in the vibrant hues and remarkable brushstrokes of Monet’s paintings, and discover the beauty that can be created with a carefully curated color palette.

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