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The Impressionists : Playing Claude Monet

Richard Armitage was granted his wish to play a ‘real figure from history’ when he was cast as Young Claude Monet in the BBC drama series The Impressionists.

“I knew very little [about the Impressionists] - I’ve eaten my dinner off a placemat of the water lilies. I was really interested to see how a man that radically changed the art movement and lived with great poverty and struggle became that placemat, so it was a very interesting exploration for me.” [1]

Monet not only left behind his wonderful paintings, but a large collection of letters and records of interviews, used in the creation of the series. Richard Armitage was aware of the benefits and demands such a role entails.

“There’s a great body of literature that you could look back on. And because there are probably still members of the family that exist, you have a much greater responsibility and, I suppose, less freedom to do your own thing, so it was a good challenge.” [1]

The drama charts the essential details of Monet’s artistic life – his friendships with Bazille (James Lance), Renoir (Charlie Condou) and Cézanne (Will Keen); the inspiration he found in the work of Manet (Andrew Havill); his sometimes turbulent relationship with Degas (Aden Gillett); the development of his artistic philosophy and technique; and the battle all of them faced for their work to be understood and accepted.

The series shows Monet as a passionate man, who feels driven to paint and consequently turns his back on his family’s grocery business. This imposes severe financial burdens on himself and his young family. Richard Armitage said, “His obsession with his work meant some of his friends accused him of not caring for his first wife, Camille, who died young, probably as a result of the poverty they lived in. Monet had quite a lot of guilt about that.”[2]

These struggles continue for some years, exacerbated by the need to look after Monet’s own two children and the six children of Alice Hoschedé (Amanda Root), the wife of an art collector with whom Monet develops a close relationship. It is only in his later years that Monet becomes a celebrated artist, enjoying a degree of financial and domestic stability with Alice, his second wife, at the home they created and shared at Giverny.

For the role of Young Claude Monet, Richard Armitage had to don relatively flamboyant clothes – bright waistcoats and cravats and fairly distinctive hats – along with wigs and false beards on occasions, though thankfully not the luxuriant beard sported by the older Claude Monet (Julian Glover)!

In addition, all the actors were given coaching by the series artist and consultant, Leo Stevenson. “Painting is not just about technique, it’s about body language – it’s a whole psychology," he said. "Monet painted at great speed and was lavish in his use of colour.” [3]

Richard Armitage was fascinated by the process and eager to learn more.

“The artist on set taught us particular brushstrokes and how to mix paints and I knocked up a reproduction Monet in rehearsals. It wasn’t bad!” [2]

He said of his artistic instruction, “I’ve really enjoyed finding out about Monet’s technique – how he mixed the paint on the canvas, dragging it across the surface and letting it dry in ridges. And it’s been funny discovering the problems of painting outside. Sand in the paint, gusts of wind, leaves and flies getting stuck in the oils, easels falling over – Monet had to deal with all of them.” [3]


[1] Simon Mayo Interview, BBC Radio Five Live, 19th April, 2006
[2] Daily Express Saturday Magazine, 29th April, 2006
[3] BBC Homes and Antiques Magazine, April 2006

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The Impressionists : Introduction | Playing Claude Monet | Video clip
Pictures episode 1, episode 2, episode 3 | Production details and DVDs
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