Thursday 31 May 2012

Review: Monet, the Ultimate Impressionist by Sylvie Patin

 In 1874 Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise caused uproar among the critics and a revolution in painting. His inventiveness was inexhaustible: with the Haystacks, Poplars and, finally, the enchanting Water-lilies of Giverny, Monet captured light in all its fleeting qualities.

At last, almost blind – 'I fear the dark more than death' – he feverishly produced near-abstract landscapes of water and reflection, a vision of nature that paved the way for the art of our own times. 

Including hundreds of beautiful reproductions and contemporary illustrations,comprehensive text, documentary witness accounts and letters, Monet: The Ultimate Impressionist, a pocket-sized book, is perfect both for the lover of Monet and of the history of Impressionism. 

Sylvie Patin worked at the Jeu de Paume and the Musée de l'Orangerie before being appointed curator of paintings at the Musée d'Orsay. (via

Though I know very little about it, art has intrigued me for the past few years and impressionism, in particular, has really captured my interest. So, as I have a few months to go until my next university course kicks off, now seems like the perfect time to begin learning a little more about this form of creative expression.

After recently taking an audio tour around the National Gallery and finding myself admiring Monet's work more than most others, this book caught my eye in the giftshop. Unlike many art books that I've seen, this one, published by Thames and Hudson, comes as a compact paperback, making it easy to lug around outside the house without being too much of a nuisance. It's filled with full colour images and plenty of commentary, tracing Monet's life through various sources of direct evidence including the art, various letters, and a transaction log book kept by the artist himself.

Though the book is relatively short (175 pages, many of which are illustrated), there is a wealth of information about Monet's life and everything is unveiled in chronological order. I can't share everything that fascinated me (I would probably end up listing everything in the book!), but here are a few tidbits.
  • It was enlightening to find out how much Monet struggled during his career. He was frequently rejected by exhibition organisers, critics often mocked his work, and he was forced to sell his paintings for prices lower than their worth just to have money to live on.
  • He formed very deep friendships and support systems with fellow impressionists such as Manet, Renoir, and Pissarro. He even appealed to Manet for monetary loans quite frequently, and of course he obliged, though Monet always paid him back. Vincent Van Gogh's brother, Théo, even bought some of Monet's work and had them exhibited.
  • The back pages of the book include various documents written by Monet, his friends, critics, and admirers. Here's a fraction of a letter that Vincent Van Gogh sent to H.M. Levens in admiration:
    "There are many things to see here .... In Antwerp, I never even knew what the Impressionists were; now I have seen them, and although I am not yet one of their club, I am a great admirer of some of their paintings ... [notably] a landscape by Claude Monet." (Paris, summer or autumn 1886)
I also think my understanding of how to read a painting has improved. From what I gather, the most important thing to observe is the composition, for example the lighting, shadows, and the use of colour. But all you art lovers in-the-know can tell me if I’m right or wrong there!

Still, the book wasn't perfect. The compact size compromises the quality of the prints, and so it makes it slightly more difficult to appreciate what the author is trying to convey. Also, the pages are cluttered with information. There are notes explaining each of the illustrations alongside the more detailed main paragraphs, where perhaps readers might just benefit from the name of the piece and a reference to a footnote at the back of the book.

Altogether, though, I found this a very informative and enjoyable read. If you're looking for a good pocket-sized book to learn more about Monet, then this would be a good choice. However, if you'd prefer to something with more high quality prints, I would suggest something published by Taschen. I have several art books by Taschen, and though I haven't read them in great detail, they can be very affordable options (an A3 hardcover can be as little as £8.99, while this Thames and Hudson A5 paperback was £7.95).

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Like what you've heard? Get your copy at The Book Depository.