In 1861 the young Claude Monet was called up for national service, and ended up in Algeria in North Africa. His experiences there, of the intense colors, the bright light, and exotic-seeming culture, would help lay the foundation for his artistic experiments with color, and ultimately the creation of the Impressionist style of painting.
At the time France had a lottery system which determined who was called up for seven years of military service. If your family had the resources, you could pay for someone to take your place. Why Monet’s father didn’t do this isn’t known for definite. Monet is notorious for altering his life’s story over the years too, adjusting it to suit his audience and the image he wanted to project.
Why Monet Chose Algeria
One account has it that his father offered to pay for a substitute if Monet came to work for him, an offer rejected because Monet didn’t want to go into business, but wanted to study art in Paris. Another has it that Monet was attracted to the exoticness of the French Algerian regiment, the Zouaves or Chasseurs d’Afrique – his sketchbooks contain studies of their uniforms and equipment.
Yet another explanation is that he "possessed an early admiration for French artists already engaged in creating Orientalist subject matter (that is subject matter drawn from North Africa and the Middle East) [which fired] his determination to request a posting to North Africa where he could study the intense southern light, exotic subject matter and heightened colour."1
Whatever the reason, it is known that Monet succeeded in getting himself drafted into the Zouaves. He landed in Algiers in June 1861, undergoing military and horsemanship training. Not surprisingly, he found military life "tiresome"2 but did find time to sketch and paint: "drawing was one of his principal occupations during his periods of freedom. He distracted his companions in the garrison by making caricatures of their seniors and of his friends."3 He sent back "a succession of delicious small drawings, very minutely executed, which represented picturesque little scenes of Algeria [depicting]… fauna and flora, various landscapes, countryside views, inhabitants, riders, camel-drivers, veiled women and young girls, buildings and mosques, scenes of the market and everyday life."4
Monet’s time in Algeria ended when he contracted typhoid; he returned to France in 1862 and his family funded a substitute so he didn’t have to return to military life. Monet spent six months of convalescence "drawing and painting with redoubled energy"5, then went to Paris to study art, and ultimately to change painting forever. One other consequence of his time in Algeria was that, because of ridicule, he stopped using his first name, Oscar, and swapped to his second, Claude, instead. So without the time spent under the intense North African light in Algeria, we wouldn’t have the famous Impressionist, Claude Monet.
What Monet Had to Say About the Light in Algeria
"I chose Algeria because of the sky."6
Algeria was "a splendid country with constant sunshine, with hot, seductive colors, an eternally blue sky accentuated by the greens of palms and exotic plants."7
"I incessantly saw something new: in my moments of leisure I attempted to render what I saw. You cannot imagine to what extent I increased my knowledge, and how much my vision gained thereby. I did not quite realize it as first. The impressions of light and color that I received there were not to classify themselves until later; but they contained the germ of my future researches." 8
1. The Unknown Monet: Drawing New Conclusions, Royal Academy of Arts, http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/monet/the-unknown-monet,350,AR.html, (accessed 28 June 2007).
2. As quoted in Monet: A Retrospective edited by Charles F. Stuckey, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., ©1985.
3. As quoted in The Unknown Monet by James A. Ganz and Richard Kendall, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, ©2007.
7. As quoted in The Unknown Monet.