Famous Unschoolers: Claude Monet

Claude Monet is next in our favorite unschoolers series.  His art resonates with me, and changed the course of art and painting as we know them.

Monet spent his youth in the coastal town of Le Havre, in Normandy.  He spent his time along the beaches, observing the light and the water.  Though his parents wanted him to attend school, Monet spent more time along the shore than he did in the classroom.  In his own words (source):

“What little I know I learned at home. School was always like a prison to me, I could never bring myself to stay there, even four hours a day, when the sun was shining and the sea was so tempting, and it was such fun scrambling over cliffs and paddling in the shallows. Such, to the great despair of my parents, was the unruly but healthy life I lived until I was fourteen or fifteen. In the meantime I somehow picked up the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic, with a smattering of spelling. And there my schooling ended. It never worried me very much because I always had plenty of amusements on the side. I doodled in the margins of my books, I decorated our blue copy paper with ultra-fantastic drawings, and I drew the faces and profiles of my schoolmasters as outrageously as I could, distorting them out of all recognition.”

Monet’s mother also enjoyed art, sketching, and painting, and she carried a small sketchbook with her as she went throughout her day.  It is undoubtedly in part due to her example that Monet also began doing the same.  He sketched constantly as a child.

Monet’s mother died when he was only 16 years old.  At that time, he was taken in by an aunt who lived in Paris.  She allowed him to leave school for good and focus on drawing lessons.  He began his own “business” of drawing caricatures of people and began to charge more and more for his work as he became more popular.

“I started selling my portraits. Sizing up my customer, I charged ten or twenty francs a caricature, and it worked like a charm. Within a month my clientele had doubled. Had I gone on like that I’d be a millionaire today. Soon I was looked up to in the town, I was ‘somebody’. In the shop-window of the one and only framemaker who could eke out a livelihood in Le Havre, my caricatures were impudently displayed, five or six abreast, in beaded frames or behind glass like very fine works of art, and when I saw troops of bystanders gazing at them in admiration, pointing at them and crying ‘Why, that’s so-and-so!’, I was just bursting with pride.” (source)

Later, after military service, Monet returned to Paris and chose to enroll himself in an art school established by Charles Gleyre.

The things that I find most remarkable about Monet’s childhood are things that aren’t even all that remarkable:

1) His mother set a quiet example of carrying with her throughout the day something that she enjoyed and loved.  She allowed herself the time to cultivate that love.  I feel that when our children see us, as parents, pursue our own passions and interests in what time we have, they are inspired and empowered to do so themselves.  That principle has certainly been true in our home.  My children have different passions than I do, however, they see that cultivating them is important.

2)  He was allowed by his aunt to focus on his passion and on what he loved.  In doing so, he didn’t become an unemployable drain on society.  He excelled and established his own business very early in life.  He writes that he was considered ‘undisciplined,’ but I wonder, if he were viewed through a different lens than traditional schooling prescribes, if he would view himself differently.  He writes of sketching constantly and gradually improving his technique.  That sounds like great discipline to me.  Later, he chose to enroll himself in school when he knew he needed to learn more from someone else who knew what he wanted to know.

3)  Nature played a remarkable role in his artistic and personal development.  Nature gives children an avenue to figure themselves and the world out.  This is a gift we so often deny our children, claiming there is no time.  Sadly, by denying them nature, I feel we are often denying children themselves.