In 1875, a poor artist named Claude Monet was selling his art at an auction in Paris. He was still relatively unknown, and his paintings were not slated to perform especially well. Surprisingly, though, the sale was a success, mostly due to one enthusiastic buyer who helped drive up the prices—a buyer listed in the records by the name Monet.
The artist, however, wasn’t buying his own paintings. And now, for the first time, a new exhibition is exploring the legacy of the early admirer who was: Léon Monet, the famous Impressionist’s older brother and patron.
“It’s never been known before, but without Léon there would not have really been a Monet—the artist the world knows today,” Geraldine Lefebvre, exhibition curator at the Luxembourg Museum in Paris, tells Thomas Adamson of the Associated Press (AP).
The exhibition, titled “Léon Monet: Brother of the Artist and Collector,” opened at the Paris museum last week and features around 100 works of art by Claude Monet and other painters that his brother supported.
Léon, who was four years older than Claude, worked as a color chemist in Rouen, France, and enjoyed financial success. A lover of the arts, Léon patronized several famous Impressionists of the era, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.
Claude followed Léon to Rouen and worked as his assistant—an experience that fundamentally shaped his understanding of color. Léon experimented with synthetic pigments, using chemicals to create new colors that were much more vivid than the natural pigments artists traditionally worked with. An early Claude Monet illustration from the 1860s exemplifying the technique will feature in the exhibition.
By the end of the 19th century, “80 percent of all Impressionists’ work” used these synthetic colors in their art, Lefebvre tells the AP.
Lefebvre began researching Léon more than three years ago. She visited Monet’s great-grandchildren and searched through photo albums to shed light on the family. Records of Léon were particularly hard to find.
“I saw his name here and there but not much else,” she tells the Guardian’s Kim Willsher. “It really piqued my curiosity.”
In the process, Lefebvre discovered a portrait of Léon that Claude painted in 1874. Stored away in a private collection, it had never been seen by the public. Monet painted the work outside and intended to finish it later, but “Renoir and Sisley advised their friend to leave it as is,” writes Euronews’ Theo Farrant. “Léon Monet didn’t agree and hid the painting until his death.”
Why has Léon been ignored by art historians? For a long time, they thought that the two brothers were estranged. The truth is that they were estranged—but not until the early 1900s.
Around that time, Claude’s son Jean contracted a fatal respiratory infection from exposure to the chemicals at Léon’s factory. Léon’s daughter Adrienne suffered from the same illness, and Léon claimed that Jean had spread the disease, refusing to accept that the chemicals were responsible, according to Euronews.
When Jean died in 1914, Léon’s branch of the family was not invited to the funeral.
Despite the tragic ending to their story, the two brothers’ early relationship changed the course of art history. Léon’s financial support enabled his younger brother to become a key figure in the art scene that became Impressionism.
“His rich big brother supported him in the first period of his life when he had no money or clients and was starving,” Lefebvre tells the AP. “But more than that, the vivid palette Monet was famous for came from the synthetic textile dye colors Léon created.”
Perhaps Claude painted the 1874 portrait because he recognized the significance of his brother’s support. He depicts Léon in a black suit and top hat, with a bushy beard and vibrant red cheeks. When Léon hid it away, the piece was forgotten for nearly 150 years. Now, it will be the centerpiece of the exhibition, emblematic of a pivotal relationship almost lost to time.
“Léon Monet: Brother of the Artist and Collector” is on view at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris through July 16.