In Provence and Normandy - at Monet's garden at Giverny and in locations in the UK
3 x 1 hour episodes
Claude Monet - RICHARD ARMITAGE
Eighty year old Monet - JULIAN GLOVER
Camille Monet - ISOBEL PRAVDA
Frédéric Bazille - JAMES LANCE
Pierre-Auguste Renoir - CHARLIE CONDOU
Édouard Manet - ANDREW HAVILL
Edgar Degas - ADEN GILLETT
Paul Cézanne - WILL KEEN
Alice Hoschedé - AMANDA ROOT
Written by Sarah Woods
Looking back in 1920, Claude Monet remembers his part in the remarkable story of the Impressionist movement. Young and enthusiastic, Monet leaves his coastal home for the bohemian café society of 19th century Paris to study painting in the studio of Charles Gleyre. His early years in the capital are a struggle against poverty and the rigid conservatism of the Parisian art world. However Monet forms friendships that will support and inspire him for the rest of his life – with his fellow students at the studio, Frédéric Bazille and Auguste Renoir; and with artists Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne.
The group's revolutionary work will go on to shake the foundations of the art world. The driving force is Monet. Inspired by Manet's scandalous Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, in which he painted his mistress naked alongside fully-clothed dandies, Monet strives to perfect an art that reflects the real world. Escaping Gleyre's studio, he paints in the open-air in the forest of Fontainebleau; and at La Grenouillère, a notorious river-side flesh-pot. It is here that Monet and Renoir painted water, colour and light in a style that had never been seen before.
As Monet recalls: "impressionism in style but not yet by name."
Manet is pained by further outrage at the Salon over his blatantly sexual depiction of Olympia, brazenly staring out of the canvas. "I'm not saying come and see flawless works", Manet said at the time, "I'm saying come and see sincere works." Wounded by criticism of his work, he challenges his friend to a duel – an act of despair that he later comes to regret.
Monet too is driven to despair, forced by his father to make one of the most harrowing choices of his life: his monthly allowance or his lover, now pregnant with his child. He is saved by the generosity of Bazille, who buys one of his paintings. Bazille had earlier suggested the artists hold their own exhibition in defiance of the Salon so the public can see their work.
Just as the young artists are finding their way, war and revolution tear the fledgling movement apart. Monet and his family flee to London; Renoir spends the war fighting dysentery; Degas and Manet fight for the National Guard. But tragedy strikes for one of them. Bazille's friendship and generosity sustained the friends through their early struggles, but he is never to enjoy the movement's success.
Written by Colin Swash
In the second episode of The Impressionists, the war is over, but the artists continue to struggle to show their work at the Salon, now controlled by the arch-traditionalist the Marquis de Chennevières. Their work is ridiculed; the Marquis even describes Renoir's Parisian Women in Algerian Dress as suitable only for a "latrine".
Degas works feverishly, creating the delicate paintings of ballerinas for which he is best known. Yet his paintings belie the cold hostility he shows for his models; for him they are just objects and moving shapes.
In contrast, Renoir loves the female form. Indeed while painting La Loge, he wishes his model was not seated:"I prefer paintings that make me want to stroke them. When I finish a buttock, I like to give it a little pat."
Monet is still transfixed with light and colour. He paints his seminal work Impression: Sunrise in just 40 minutes in a race against time to capture the light. Inspired by the steam and smoke at the Gare Saint Lazare, he convinces the station master (played by John Challis) to stop the trains.
In memory of Bazille, who first hatched the plan, the artists decide to stage their own exhibition, although without Manet who opposes the project. It opens in Paris on 15 April 1874 and includes pioneering works such as The Dance Class by Degas and The Poppies at Argenteuil by Monet. However the exhibition is slammed by critics and shunned by the public, but from one of the insults aimed at Monet's Sunrise, "it's a damned funny impression", comes the name of the movement.
Still dogged by poverty, Monet visits the home of his rich patron Ernest Hochedé and meets Hochedé's wife Alice, the woman who will become the great love of his life. When Monet's wife Camille is struck with an agonising illness, he is torn between the pain he feels at watching his wife suffering and his impulse to capture on canvas the shades and colours of Camille's face as she approaches death.
Degas, struggling with his failing eyesight and a growing sense of loneliness, draws nudes as they have never been seen before. Gritty and realistic, these works earn him a reputation for despising women. Privately he takes this even further, drawing prostitutes and brothels in pornographic detail.
Monet and Renoir have works accepted by the Salon. Angry that his old friends in the movement seem to be deserting him – "those half-wits who clutter up the fields with their easels" - Degas plays a malicious hoax on Monet, reporting his death in a Parisian newspaper, and spreads gossip about Monet's relationship with Alice Hochedé.
Just as the band of Impressionists start to receive critical acclaim, their success is threatened by jealousy and petty quarrels.
Written by Sarah Woods
Rivalries and betrayal come to the fore in the concluding part of The Impressionists. After many years struggling with the Salon and the Paris art establishment, Manet's achievements are formally recognised when he is awarded the Légion d'Honneur. Gravely ill with syphilis, he conceals his pain from his friends at the celebrations. He paints his last masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, which is loved at the Salon.
Now living with Alice Hochedé, Monet continues his lifelong pursuit of nature and light. Leaving Alice behind, he travels to Italy, Holland and the coastlines of France where he paints seas, cliffs and violent rock formations including The Sea at Etretat. For his series of paintings of Haystacks, Monet paints on three canvases at once, each one capturing a different light. He creates 15 versions of the image which sell in three days. Haystacks have become as acceptable a subject as flowers. But Monet's physical journey finally ends when he realises that everything he wants can be found at his home in Giverny. He marries Alice and together they create the lily pond which inspires him for the rest of his life.
As the Impressionists start to enjoy their growing acclaim, Paul Cézanne takes the movement in a new direction. Savaging his work as "the cult of ugliness", critics write that it is "painted by a madman with shakes". Even Cézanne admits: "When the people of Aix are stuck for a laugh, they ask to see my paintings."
In his personal life, Cézanne conceals his illegitimate son from his wealthy father for fear of losing his allowance, but a chance event exposes his deceit. But the most painful betrayal comes when his life-long friend, the famous novelist Emile Zola, depicts Cézanne in his next novel as an abject failure. Cézanne finds inspiration at Montagne Saint-Victoire where he does 60 different paintings of the mountain from different angles. Persuaded by the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard to let him exhibit his visionary work, the world finally starts to recognise his genius. Even Degas, one of his harshest critics, buys Cézanne's Still Life: Glass and Apples.
The former rebels are now accepted and applauded by the establishment, their work celebrated around the world.
Returning to 1920, Monet is drawing to the end of his recollections. The master of Impressionism has outlived all his friends but his passion to capture the impression of a moment has not diminished as he completes his latest masterpiece, Japanese Bridge at Giverny.