John Lilley - Parallels Between the Art of Claude Monet and John Coltrane: Impressionism and “Impressions”

Monet and Coletrane collage

If we use the word “impression” to mean the unique imprint the outside world makes on the mind of a given individual, it can be said that the role of the artist is to communicate his impression to the audience as clearly and with as little coloration as possible. This is why good art cannot help but be original and recognizable; the best artists can so clearly articulate their perspective or emotion that the originality of the art is as natural to the work as the way any particular person talks. You can study and imitate a persons dialect for a lifetime, but to duplicate it exactly is impossible. This is why good art often takes the trend in a new direction, for great artists rarely feel that they can most clearly communicate in a set style developed decades or generations before them. The art of French impressionist Claude Monet and American jazz musician John Coltrane perfectly illustrates this concept, for both artists came out of a academic style to produce art that was highly evolutionary, if not revolutionary. This paper will examine the art of Monet and Coltrane in attempts to better understand and appreciate their works through parallels in the artists lives, historical climates surrounding the art, and the artistic styles of the two men.

Oscar-Claude Monet was born in 1840 in Paris to Claude-Adolphe and Louise-Justine Aubree Monet. Monet’s family was relatively poor, and was forced to rent out any spare room in their house to boarders to make ends meet. Little is known about his adolescence, but it is known that his first art teacher was a man by the name of Jacques-Francois Ochard, a largely forgotten artist of modest talent. Monet’s early sketch books reveal a young man learning his trade in a traditional way; by copying landscapes and everyday structures with as much realism as he could. His early works are that of an artist imitating the popular style of his time period, and doing so quite well. Although Monet would later claim to have always been an independent, self-made artist, one can see in this early period an artist learning his craft through intense study and mimicry of his predecessors.

This intense study of previous masters is common to the artistic education of John Coltrane also. Coltrane was born in 1926 to a lower middle-class black family in Hamlet, North Carolina, and was said to mimic not only the stylistic aspects of his favorite musicians, but also the physical. He modeled his sound on the saxophone off of Duke Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and spent hours modeling his posture in the mirror off pictures of Hodges. Coltrane said of his childhood hero “The confidence with which [Hodges] plays! I wish I could play with the confidence he does (A Love Supreme, Ashly Kahn, pg. 44).” While this period of mimicry in the early years of Coltrane and Monet may seem counterproductive at creating new and original art, it influenced the art of both men greatly in that while both would be accused by critics at one point or another on their artistic style being based off of a lack of skill, their dedication to and mastery of their craft is evident in their works and separates them from the sometimes soulless and cerebral art of some of their their predecessors.

Another parallel between Monet and Coltrane is in the artistic climate surrounding their art, and the response it received by the artistic community. In the case of Monet, the Impressionist style he was at the forefront of creating was named by a critic who used the term “Impressionist” as an insult to the new style. Impressionism was not lauded by the art establishment as the new wave, but was seen as an unrefined and coarse new style defined by thick short brush strokes and unmixed colors. The subject matter also differed from the popular paintings of the 1870’s. Impressionist works offered no narrative content or mythological creatures. They appeared unfinished by the standards of the time, and had the rawness and spontaneity of a sketch. This shift away from the popular style proved too much for the art establishment, and the Impressionist painters were largely rejected by the Salon, a popular art show, in the 1860’s and 70’s.

John Coltrane’s work was also not understood by the majority of the artistic establishment in it’s early years. When Coltrane’s individual style began to mature in the 1950’s it was viewed as indulgent and unrefined. Critics often complained that Coltrane sounded as though he was searching for something in his music; causing a unsettled and frantic feeling in his solos. This was a contrast to the popular Bebop style, which displayed smoothly connected and well constructed musical phrases at blistering tempos. Bebop was an acrobatic style of music requiring dexterity and mental and physical endurance to sound effortless. Coltrane was at the polar end of this style, sounding strained and yearning. To many people this was incorrectly interpreted as poor musicianship, and Coltrane's playing is described by one critic as “stuck, repeating figurations time and time again, as if such repetition could somehow improve what little they had to offer the first two or three times they occur. It doesn’t, obviously (Downbeat, Dec. 2003 pg. 87).” This kind of criticism of Coltrane’s art as rushed or abrasive is strikingly similar to the criticism of the Impressionist who also had a more spontaneous style, which emphasized quick composition in order to avoid the artist intellectualizing or romanticizing the art.


An interesting point of comparison for the two artists is in Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, and Coltrane’s Impressions. Beyond the obvious connection through the names of the works, these pieces share a similar conceptual basis. Firstly, Monet’s rather barren subject matter closely resembles Coltrane’s simple song construction. The majority of Monet’s work is a study of the sunrise in the atmosphere and its reflection on the water. This broad subject allows Monet to experiment stylistically more freely than if he had painted a more intricate subject. Similarly, Coltrane’s Impressions relies on a very simple 2 chord structure. The piece only changes chords once throughout the form, forcing the musician to experiment with improvising within a single chord for much longer than a jazz musician would normally spend. Because of this, style and artistic interpretation take a larger role in these works than they would in a realistic sculpture like that of Michalangelo, or a structurally complex musical work like that that of Beethoven. Another similarity between these works is in the slightly agitated and fragmented nature of the compositions. In Monet’s painting, this is caused by short brush strokes to give the sense of ripples on the surface of the lake.

Coltrane, on the other hand, achieves this agitation by using short repeated phrases sometimes only several beats long to give the piece a sense of yearning. Another stylistic similarity in these works which separates them from earlier styles is the spontaneous nature and quick composition. Monet is said to have composed many of his paintings in just a few hours to try to capture a singular impression. If he had worked on the piece over a number of days or weeks his mood and perspective on the piece would have changed, ruining his goal of capturing a singular moment. Coltrane’s improvisations are equally spontaneous; the simple chord structure requiring no advance preparation, and the length of the piece, at over thirteen minutes, requiring the soloist to stretch out and abandon pre-constructed musical ideas and exist in the moment of the piece.

A Monet equivalent to the length of Coltrane’s solos which forced him to reach further and take mores risks are the Water Lilies paintings. These paintings are ambitious in their size, approaching 4 feet tall in some cases, and were painted outdoors at his house in Giverny, France. The study of light from the atmosphere on the waters surface in these paintings is similar to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound”, a term coined by music critics to describe his spontaneous playing and technical prowess. Here we once again see both artists striving to reach new levels of expression with their art. Monet working quickly to catch the ephemeral as the play of light on a ponds surface, Coltrane searching for a higher level of expression so hard that he played faster than the ear could absorb the sound.


In conclusion, although Post-Bop Jazz came about 100 years after Impressionism in visual art, it was the first time musicians were working in a medium that allowed such unpremeditated music as to work in a similar way to Claude Monet. While both John Coltrane and Claude Monet never did reach a point of satisfaction with their art, both working right up to their deaths, they left behind some of the most interesting and uncontrived art of the last 200 years.