Who knows Leon Monet? Without his chemistry skills perhaps his brother Claude would not have gone far

Jun 20, 2023

Almost everything has already been said about the great Claude Monet. But there is another Monet in the history of Impressionism: it is Léon, brother of the painter and also passionate about art. Without Léon, perhaps Claude would not have gotten so far. In all honesty, until the exhibition “Léon Monet, Frère de l’artiste et collectionneur” until 16 July 23 at the Musée du Luxembourg, the name of this brother had practically never appeared in the books dedicated to the famous creator of the Ninfeas. It is true that relations between the two brothers broke down at the end of their lives, but Léon played a notable role in Claude’s life, especially at the beginning of his career, becoming a collector and buying some of his paintings. And his chemical skills were not secondary either, as he is a specialist in the chemistry of aniline-based colours.

While his younger brother Claude since he was a child appears devoted to the world of art, Léon Monet (Rouen 1836-1917) in fact studied chemistry. From Le Havre he moved to Paris where he married in 1865. He was then called to work by the important Swiss company Geigy & Co., founded in 1758 in Basel for the marketing of chemicals, dyes and medicines of various kinds. It later opened offices in Déville-lès-Rouen at the gates of Rouen, where Léon became the director. In 1872, Claude painted the scandalous Impression. Soleil levant, while Léon founded the Societé Industrielle de Rouen and in parallel began to support his brother and his impressionist friends. He also took care of an Indiennes factory born from the Société Industrielle de Rouen (SIR). Le Indiennes are fabrics printed in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries, inspired by similar fabrics made in India. Léon had a collection of these fabrics and of Japanese prints.

Le Indiennes are fabrics printed with motifs inspired by India.

Leon will have numerous roles in the society and will have the idea of founding an industrial art museum. Later the SIR will move to the old covered fabric market in Rouen, near the Cathedral and it will be this new location of the brother’s workplace that will inspire Claude to create the famous series of the facade of the Gothic monument. Léon’s founding of the SIR highlights his patronage aspect. Indeed, joining the powerful Swiss firm Geigy & Co, specializing in synthetic aniline colors, he provided active support to his brother and his Impressionist friends. Furthermore, the exhibition deals with the scientific aspect of the creation of colors in the French region in full chemical and textile development, of which Léon Monet was one of the leading actors.

On display the industrial development of color manufacturing

Entrepreneur and color chemist, endowed with a “lively intelligence” and a “frank and cordial character”, the hitherto forgotten Monet will also become a formidable collector: with his friend François Depeaux he will bring together a collection of modern art worthy of a museum. Enthusiastic patron of the works of his younger brother, he will also be close to artists such as Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir but also to minor artists such as Narcisse Guilbert and Joseph Delattre, belonging to the Rouen School. And he always offered his help when there was a sale of a painting by Claude at stake. The works from his collection on display highlight Léon Monet’s taste for subjects that evoke the landscapes of his childhood spent in Le Havre, but also those related to his professional and family development between Rouen and the Petites-Slabs, on the coast of the Normandy.

Claude Monet, Boats in the port of Honfleur

After two centuries of oblivion, his story is revealed. About 100 paintings and drawings that belonged to Léon are exhibited in the rooms, alongside recipes for the preparation of the revolutionary synthetic colors, fabric samples and many period photos to get to know the Monet family up close. The exhibition also boasts two completely unpublished pieces: Claude’s first sketchbook, dated 1856 and purchased by him in 1893, and the Portrait of Léon executed by the artist in 1874, the year of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris. Léon is dressed in black with a black hat on his head and the background is grey, actually a variety of grays ranging up to white, almost a celebration of his brother’s color as a chemist.

A page from Claude Monet’s first sketchbook (1856), with the inscription: “A memory of youth, to my dear brother, 20 September ’95”.
Filippo Melli