The name Monet conjures up pictures of water lilies, Rouen Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and French haystacks, some of European art’s best known works.
Now a Paris exhibition will focus on another, lesser known, Monet: Léon Monet, the artist Claude Monet’s long overlooked elder brother who supported him when he was poor and struggling to make his name.
It will be the first time an event – which also includes previously unseen works and sketches by the painter known as the ‘father of impressionism’ – has focused on the elder sibling.
Léon Monet, a chemist and industrialist, has been largely ignored by posterity but was one of the first patrons of the blossoming impressionist movement in the 19th century. He not only supported his brother but also helped his painter friends including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley.
Géraldine Lefebvre, curator of the new exhibition that opens next month at the Musée du Luxembourg, said very little was known about him.
“I contacted the family, Monet’s descendants, and went through public and private archives but there was very little information,” Lefebvre said. “I saw his name here and there but not much else. It really piqued my curiosity.”
Digging deeper, the curator discovered that Léon, like his brother, had been passionate about colour, and had been a key figure helping Claude financially by buying his paintings and introducing him to the rich industrialists who could support him.
Léon was born in 1836, four years before Claude, the oldest son of Adolphe and Louise-Justine Monet, and both boys spent their early years in Paris before the family moved to Le Havre, Normandy, some time around 1845. He studied as a chemist and specialised in the then new field of synthetic dyes and pigments used to colour fabrics. After moving to Rouen as a sales representative for a Swiss-based factory producing Indian-style fabrics, he was one of the founder members of the Rouen Industrial Society established in 1872.
“It was interesting to see Léon was interested in the chemistry side of pigments and dyes while Claude was interest in the artistic use of colour,” Lefebvre said. “Léon was conscious of the importance of his brother’s work and supported him when he was poor and could hardly afford to eat.”
Léon began collecting art – mainly impressionist works – directly from the struggling artists he met through his brother and encouraged them to take part in local exhibitions for greater exposure.
His patronage of what became known as the Rouen School painters encouraged others to buy works from the nascent radical art movement officially launched in 1874 with a show in Paris made up of works rejected by the influential Académie des Beaux-Arts’ Salon – the then arbiters of artistic taste. Its name came from an insult flung by the journalist and playwright Louis Leroy who sarcastically described Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise as worse than sketches for wallpaper. Léroy coined the word ‘impressionist’, which stuck.
Although all correspondence between the brothers has disappeared, Lefebvre said Claude’s letters to his wife suggest Léon had a “lively and quick intelligence” and was “cordial and frank”. The brothers nevertheless fell out before Léon died in 1917, in part after Claude’s son Jean worked for Léon his Rouen factory.
The Musée du Luxembourg is devoting three months to showcasing the little-known Monet and his impressionist collection. Pride of place will go to a portrait of Léon never seen before in public that Claude painted in 1874, showing him in a bowler-style hat and sombre black suit. Two of Claude’s first sketch books – one of which was started when he was just 15 years old – that Léon bought at auction and his brother later signed, also unseen until now, will also be on display.
The exhibition will also feature 20 works by Claude Monet and others by Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Berthe Morisot – doyenne and co-founder of the impressionist movement – as well as paintings by lesser-known artists of the Rouen School, along with fabric samples and colour swatches from the elder Monet’s work. More personal exhibits will include drawings and photographs of the Monet brothers and family.
“This is an unusual exhibition. Léon Monet’s collection was not very large – there are only about 60 works – but the quality is extraordinary and many are still in private collections and have never been seen by the public,” Lefebvre added.
Léon Monet, artist’s brother and collector opens at the Luxembourg Museum on 15 March and runs until 16 July.