Then, in 1861, Claude Monet was called up for national service. At the time France had a ballot system which determined who was called up for seven years of military service and who was exempt. Monet’s father could have bought Claude’s way out of the army, but chose not to.
Of all the places Claude Monet could have done his soldiering, he seemed particularly attracted to the French Algerian regiment, the Chasseurs d’Afrique. They were a light cavalry corps in the French Army of Africa, first raised in the 1830s. I presume that since Algeria was no longer under the Ottoman Empire and was being invaded by Barbary pirates, France felt they should move militarily into the power vacuum.
In any case, Monet already admired those French artists who had travelled to create Orientalist subject matter. He mentioned Eugène Delacroix in particular, the artist whose colours had been influenced by a visit to Morocco in 1832. Perhaps he hoped a posting to Algeria (near enough to Morocco) would enable him to study the special light, exotic subject matter and heightened colour that could never be found in France.
Portrait of Claude Monet in Uniform, 1861
by Charles Lhuillier, 37 x 24 cm
Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris
Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris
Monet was shipped off to Algiers in June 1861 where he went through military training and work with horses. It might have been boring and sweaty, but at least he found time to practise art. Monet later said that 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. He sent back a succession of minutely executed drawings 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." But where are those Algerian studies now?
Monet said that despite the tedium of military life, he was happy in Algeria and made the most of his time there. "Algeria was a splendid country with constant sunshine, with hot, seductive colours, an eternally blue sky accentuated by the greens of palms and exotic plants. 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 realise it as first. The impressions of light and colour that I received there were not to classify themselves until later; but they contained the germ of my future researches".
Eugène Delacroix, 1855
A Moroccan Saddling His Horse,
Had Monet seen the Delacroix paintings, just before he selected the Chasseurs d’Afrique?
It has been argued that without the time spent under the intense North African light, colour and exotic culture in Algeria, Soldier Claude Monet would never have gone on to become a famous Impressionist. I am not sure that is true. In 1857/58, years before going to Algeria, Eugene Boudin had mentored the young Claude Monet. And within a year or two Monet had also fallen in love with the art of Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix and Charles Daubigny.
So I would suggest that Northern France created his Impressionist passion, not Northern Africa. Even in 1862, after Monet had returned to France, he hurried as quickly as he could to Le Havre, once again to paint the sea with his old mentor Eugene Boudin. If Monet had a second mentor of importance, it was Johan Jongkind, the Dutch marine landscape artist who had moved to France. Monet described the Dutchman as a quiet man with such a talent that is beyond words: "by there completing the teaching which I had received from Boudin, Jongkind was from this moment my true Master, and it is to him that I owe the final education of my eye".
The Beach at Sainte-Adresse
1862, 33 x 46 cm
Ivo Bouwman Gallery, The Hague
Note that Monet spent part of 1867 at the resort town of Sainte-Adresse near Le Havre.