Inside Monet’s Secret Collection of Impressionist Masterpieces

Casey Lesser
Oct 27, 2017 9:30PM

Nadar, Portrait of Claude Monet, 1899. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Boudin, Le Clocher de Sainte-Catherine, Honfleur, ca. 1897. ©Henri Brauner. Courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet.

Claude Monet was one of the most famed artists of his day, but he was also a private person. Even the few friends and professional contacts lucky enough to merit a visit to his home in Giverny were unlikely to see his actual living quarters. And while Monet did open himself up to numerous biographers and journalists late in life, he still managed to leave some secrets behind when he died in 1926. Among them was his art collection.

“Monet was someone who would only talk about his own work,” says Marianne Mathieu, a director of Paris’s Musée Marmottan Monet. “When people were invited to Giverny, they would visit the garden and the ground floor with the lounge and dining room, and that’s it.” It was in those off-limit places, like his upstairs bedroom, where he reportedly kept drawings, paintings, and sculptures by peers and forebears, from Auguste Rodin to Eugène Delacroix. Yet only recently have some insights surrounding the origins and motivations behind that collection come to light.

Mathieu notes that Monet considered the collection a part of his private life. “My collection is for myself alone… and for a handful of friends,” Monet told Marc Elder, author of the 1924 biography À Giverny, chez Claude Monet. “I keep it in my bedroom around my bed… do come and see it.” And despite this and various other written accounts that emerged in the artist’s final years, few concrete details hinted at the scope of the collection or Monet’s motivations for forming it.

To make matters more complicated, the inventory taken at the time of the artist’s death—which documented the collection—was destroyed during World War II. And while the artworks were all left to Monet’s single heir, his son Michel, a portion of it was dispersed. Intensive research conducted over the past few years has uncovered that the artist was in fact an avid and discerning collector, with a taste for art that picks up where his own left off.

Monet’s home, Giverny, France. Photo © Eric Sander.


Mathieu and art historian Dominique Lobstein investigated the artist’s collection over the past four years—“almost as if conducting a complex police investigation,” wrote the museum’s director, Patrick de Carolis—and their findings, including 77 works from Monet’s collection, form the fall 2017 exhibition “Monet Collectionneur” at Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. While much of the collection that Michel Monet inherited was bequeathed to Musée Marmottan Monet, some of the works that Monet once owned are today located in the collections of major museums across the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery in London.

While Monet’s taste for Japanese woodblock prints is well documented (he hung them decoratively throughout his home and is known to have found inspiration in their depictions of nature), he also amassed a large quantity of works by Impressionist comrades and formidable forebears. Among the 120 works confirmed to have been owned by Monet were paintings and works on paper by Gustave Caillebotte, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Edgar Degas, Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro; he even had sculptures by Rodin. The most represented artists though, with over 14 of the pieces each, were Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

“We had the impression that it was a wonderful, major collection, but Monet never said anything about how, when, or why he collected these pieces,” Mathieu explains. The curators found their information through culling inventories—including documents that enumerated the estate of Michel Monet—and digging into the artist’s transactions with one of his Paris art dealers, Paul Durand-Ruel. Additionally, they pored through first-person accounts of the Giverny home written by journalists, biographers, and the artist’s friends.

Accounts suggest that Monet began collecting in 1859, when he arrived in Paris. But it wasn’t until the 1880s that he began adding to the collection in earnest; during that time, as he became an established art-world figure, he began purchasing significant works, and would continue to do so through the end of his life.

“It was a private passion,” Mathieu says. “There was nothing to do with the market, nothing to do with supporting friends, nothing to do with friendship. Monet wanted to collect pieces he considered major and all of them are linked to his main concern, Impressionist painting, but all of them are different from what he did.”

Mathieu gives the example of Young Girl Bathing (1892), which she estimates is one of the most beautiful nudes Renoir ever painted, and is now in the Robert Lehman collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Monet acquired it from Durand-Ruel in 1900 for 6,000 francs, after it was up for sale at another Paris gallery, Bernheim-Jeune. As its title suggest, it pictures a solitary nude female, in her early teens or perhaps even younger, seated before a spirited Impressionist backdrop including jade-green trees that compliment her flowing auburn hair. “When Monet had enough money to buy Renoir on the market, he bought bathers,” she explains. “Bathers are the paintings Monet never did. He never painted nudes—and he collected nudes. It’s a complementary point of view of his own.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl Bathing, 1892. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.199). © New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet.

Paul Cézanne, The Negro Scipio, c. 1867. © João Musa. Courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet.

Monet’s earliest collected works, amassed during his his first two decades in Paris as he made a name for himself as an artist, were gifts. What is considered to be the first work is a caricature created by Charles Lhuillier, who, like Monet at the time, was selling such drawings to make money. During those early years Monet first met of the artists who would later become his close friend and colleagues, including Renoir and Manet; they would sit for one another and give each other the resulting portraits. During this period, Monet also wrote to his mentor, Boudin, and asked him to send works.

Later, Monet would be gifted more significant works, like a portrait of his family done by Manet in 1874. Caillebotte gifted the artist an oil painting, The Piano Lesson (c. 1879), and a sketch for his now-famous Paris Street. Rainy Day (1877). Monet would continue receive works as a gesture of gratitude or honor from peers and family members of artists throughout his life. He received three works by Berthe Morisot, the first from the artist herself—including The Bath (1886), now in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute—and later, from her daughter Julie, given in her mother’s memory. He similarly acquired three works by Pissarro—two etchings and a painting. The latter, Peasant Women Planting Peasticks (1891), was a gift from the artist’s wife as thanks for financial aid that Monet had given to help the Pissarro family purchase a home.

In 1888, Monet met Rodin. The pair became colleagues, showing together with the dealer Georges Petit, and they made a friendly swap: the former’s 1886 painting of Belle-ÎÎle-en-Mer for the latter’s bronze cast of Jeune mère à la grotte (1885).

Monet’s earliest purchases were done so with great consideration, the Musée Marmottan curators have determined, indicated by the fact that these were pieces that the artist held onto for the length of his life. Among these works was Cézanne’s Picnic on a Riverbank (1873–74). As the artist would tell his biographer four decades later, it was a bargain.

“This painting cost me fifty francs, as I have the honor of telling you . . . Yes, fifty francs!,” Monet told Elder. “But that was long ago, very long ago. . . . Forty years ago a modest color merchant known as Père Martin bought some paintings from Sisley, Pissarro and myself. One day, I offered him a canvas. We agreed on a hundred francs, but he was short. . . . However, as he wished to pay me at once, he offered me fifty francs and this little Cézanne to make up the sum. I accepted.”

Another early purchase was Manet’s Woman in a Fur Coat in Profile (c. 1879), which was included in a sale at Hôtel Drouot in February 1884, where Durand-Ruel purchased it for 180 francs; Monet would purchase it from the dealer for 250 francs.

He had developed a habit of attending day sales of auctions and the exhibitions that preceded them, but never bidding. Instead, he would work with a dealer or acquaintance who would do the bidding, and he would later purchase the work from that person, thus maintaining his own privacy. Woman in a Fur Coat in Profile was the first work he had acquired this way.

Around this time, Monet also purchased Degas’s Woman Drying Herself after the Bath (or The Tub) (1876–77), from the dealers Boussod and Valadon, though there is no record of what he paid. “Whether it was Cézanne or Degas, the most surprising thing is that he did not go directly to the artists themselves, since he had known them for more than fifteen years,” the curators write in the “Monet Collectionneur” catalogue essay.

Paul Cézanne, Bathers, 1890-92. Saint Louis, Saint Louis Art Museum, donation by Etta E. Steinberg, 1955. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

Auguste Rodin, Bacchantes Embracing, c. 1896. © Christian Baraja. Courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet.

Beginning in the 1890s, Monet had become quite wealthy and could afford to pay thousands of francs for a single work; the first of this more mature collecting phase was a Morisot painting, The Bowl of Milk (1890), which he bought from Boussod and Valadon in 1892 for 1,500 francs.

It was during this time though, that Monet paid particular focus to Cézanne’s oeuvre. He transacted with the artist’s primary dealer at the time, Vollard, who, given the high demand and limited supply of the Cézanne’s works, was able to set lofty prices. Though Monet had purchased a few works by the artist in the mid-1890s for hundreds of francs—among the highlights of the entire collection, Mathieu notes, is The Negro Scipio (c. 1867), which he bought in 1895 for 400 francs—Cézanne’s market skyrocketed in 1898. That year Monet bought Still life with a Pot of Ginger (1893) for 4,500 francs. In the years that followed he would pay over 8,000 francs for multiple other Cézanne paintings, including The Vase in the Garden (1900–04). He would go on to pay comparable sums for works by Renoir, like The Mosque, Arab Festival (1881), for which he paid Durand-Ruel 10,000 francs.

Monet also used his wealth to buy works that had sentimental value for family members. While married to his second wife Alice Hoschedé, he embraced her family and would buy portraits of their family members, like a Paul Baudry painting of Ernest Hoschedé, which he gave to one of his daughter-in-laws.

The artist also had a handful of paintings by a younger generations of artists, including Édouard Vuillard. Records show that he attempted to purchase a work by Pierre Bonnard, but changed his mind. That abandoned Bonnard, Mathieu and Lobstein write, “suggests that Monet was not ready to spend on a young artist the kind of money he paid for his own contemporaries.”

He was looking to his forebears too, like Delacroix, Corot, Boudin, Johan Barthold Jongkind, and Constantin Guys. He owned two watercolors of the Normandy coast and an ink drawing of a tiger by Delacroix, whom he may have possibly met at the Paris Salon at some point, though there is little way of knowing how he purchased these works, and for how much. It is possible that Monet put drawings he owned by Delacroix back on the market. Mathieu and Lobstein note that Monet’s collection was constantly changing, and as such “he would dispose of certain items at public sales in preparation for new purchases.”

Utagawa Kunisada, Heavy Snow at Years End, 1844. © Claude Monet Foundation – Giverny. Courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet.

The most widely known parcel of Monet’s collection is his cache of Japanese prints, which is well documented in the 2003 book La Collection D’estampes Japonaises De Claude Monet. The artist reportedly left behind 231 such works when he died, with significant holdings by Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige, and Kitagawa Utamaro. He was known to purchase works from the Paris dealers Siegfried Bing and Tadamasa Hayashi. These prints were affordably priced; in an 1895 Paris sale, eight prints by Hokusai went for 22 francs and 54 prints by Hiroshige went for 380 francs.

It’s believed that Monet began this part of his collection in the late 19th century, at a shop in Amsterdam, and then continued it upon returning to Paris, where tea shops had begun a tradition of selling Japanese wares decades before and ushered in the proliferation of purveyors of Japanese prints, ceramics, and other art objects.

Japanese art is known to have influenced Monet’s chosen subject matter and palette, and that of his peers (Manet was among the first to cite Japanese motifs in his work). Despite this, journalists documented that the artist considered these works “decorative,” and as such placed them in the more public parts of his home, like the ground floor, staircase, and bathroom.

Unearthed via Mathieu and Lobstein’s new research, however, are 36 albums of Japanese prints, from between 1795 and 1864, which seem to have been viewed differently by the artist. “Unlike the prints, which were displayed and therefore had a decorative function, these albums were probably meant for the painter’s eyes alone, affording both mental stimulation and relaxation,” Lobstein writes. The artist’s taste and flair for collecting still remains somewhat mysterious, though it is clear that Monet intended for his collection to be first and foremost for his eyes alone—a private experience for a private man.

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.