New Paris exhibition reveals significance of Claude Monet’s forgotten older brother

A landmark new exhibition sheds light on Claude Monet’s brother and his influence on the Impressionist movement.

Leon Monet – four years older than Claude – has largely been overlooked by history, but is believed to have been a crucial influence on his brother.

Leon was a color chemist credited with the famous color palette that created masterpieces such as Claude’s “Water Lilies” series.

“It was never known before, but without Leon there would not have been Monet – the artist the world knows today,” said Geraldine Lefebvre, exhibition curator at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.

“His rich big brother supported him in the early days of his life, when he had no money, no customers and was starving,” she said.

The groundbreaking exhibition is the culmination of years of research by Lefebvre, who visited Monet’s great-grandchildren, studied family albums, and unearthed a masterful portrait of Leon by Claude that Leon hid in a dusty private collection and never before been seen by the public. The painting from 1874 shows Leon with a black suit, a stern facial expression and red – almost wine-red – cheeks.

The exhibition dispels a long-held belief that Claude and his older brother were estranged.

A portrait of Leon Monet painted by his brother Claude

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“Historians always thought the two brothers were unrelated. It was adopted because there are no joint photos of Claude and Leon and no correspondence. In fact, they’ve been incredibly close their entire lives,” Lefebvre said.

The brothers had a falling out in the early 20th century, and that may explain why no direct traces of the relationship exist. “Maybe Leon cleaned up the tracks, maybe it was Claude. Maybe it was jealousy. We’ll never know. It’s a mystery,” Lefebvre said.

What is now known is that Leon entertained and dined his younger brother, introduced him to other artists, gave him money and patronized his art – he bought it at high prices at auction to bolster his reputation.

“One of the problems was because they shared the surname, it seemed like (Claude) Monet was buying back his own paintings. But it was Leon,” said Professor Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art at the National Galleries of Scotland.

“This exhibition is important because it sheds light on Leon Monet, who until now has been an invisible figure. It also shows the broader network at work. Leon was a key figure,” Fowle added.

Photos of Leon Monet, left, and his brother Claude Monet

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Leon’s influence extended beyond his brother: he financially supported other Impressionists such as Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley – some of whom gathered around his dining table in Rouen, where the wine flowed freely. Claude followed his brother to Rouen where he painted his masterpieces of Rouen Cathedral.

Monet also worked for his older brother as a color assistant, a pivotal moment not only in his life – but possibly in the emergence of Impressionism as we know it.

Leon dissolved carbon to create a chemical called aniline, which created incredible synthetic colors that natural pigments couldn’t compete with. One of the earlier examples of Leon’s color invading Monet’s art comes from an illustration from the 1860s – before he became famous – featured in the exhibition. Monet drew his wife-to-be, Camille, in a dress of a striking shade of green that had never been seen before.

“The French press coined the term ‘Monet Green’,” said Lefebvre, adding that journalists initially scoffed at it. “It was said at the time he would make a good dye artist.”

A palette of paintings by Claude Monet

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

However, both Monets had the last laugh.

Claude Monet founded Impressionism – a term coined by his 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise – to become one of the most celebrated painters of the last two centuries. And at the height of Impressionism at the end of the 19th century, according to Lefebvre, an incredible “80% of all Impressionist works” used synthetic colors borrowed from Leon.

State-of-the-art at the time, these synthetic hues allowed members of the group to depict the glimpse of the moment with changing color and luminosity.

“Who knows exactly how Leon influenced the movement?” Lefebvre said with a shy smile. “But it was extraordinary.”

“Leon Monet. Brother of the Artist and Collector” runs from March 15th to July 16th at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris.

Additional coverage from the Associated Press New Paris exhibition reveals significance of Claude Monet’s forgotten older brother

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