You long for sublime artists to be sublime people. Or, if they’re bad, to be magnificently so. Possessing ‘a vanity born of supreme egoism’, Claude Monet ‘believed his art conferred a right to good living’ and that ‘his welfare must be … the immediate concern of others’, writes Jackie Wullschläger, chief art critic of the Financial Times. With great honesty, Wullschläger records her subject’s wearisome scrounging letters and his propensity for petty and often pointless mendacity. At the end of his life, when he was earning millions, he at last became generous with money. We chafe at his domestic tyranny, but that was par for the course at the time. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, and we’d forgive Monet a lot more than this for his divine art.
Born in 1840, the petted son of a prosperous family who disdained the arts, Monet grew up in Le Havre. Eugène Boudin introduced him to plein air seaside painting, but it was Johan Jongkind’s airy marine studies that gave him ‘the final education of my eye’, awakening a lifelong fascination with the transience of light.
Monet studied in Paris under Charles Gleyre in the 1860s, alongside Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille. The circle soon widened to include Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Edgar Degas. When his mistress Camille (later his first wife) bore him a son, his disapproving family withdrew financial support. It was the making of him. He frequented La Grenouillère (The Frog Pond), a working-class hangout on the Seine where the ‘frogs’ were prostitutes leaping between their petit-bourgeois clients. In keeping with the great Impressionist mission of idealising the everyday, Monet elevated the busy Frog Pond into Watteauesque scenes of fêtes champêtres, depicted in broken, flickering brushstrokes. It was his own contribution to the Impressionist gush of flowery fields, flickering flags, cherubic children and pretty figures scattered within an updated arcadia.
The orgy of careless rapture was rudely halted in 1870 by the outbreak of the Franco–Prussian War. Manet, Degas and other artists served and suffered severely through the war and the dreadful Siege of Paris, but Monet did not incline to soldiering. Earlier, when he was twenty-one, he had been called up for military service in Algiers. He always said that he had stolen a mule, run away and been imprisoned for desertion. The real story was that a doting aunt had bought him out. Now, to avoid fighting, he skipped over to England, where he studied the works of Constable and Turner and had the good fortune to meet Paul Durand-Ruel, the great picture dealer who would make the Impressionist market and Monet a lot of money.
After the war, with Paris in ruins, Monet settled in Argenteuil to resume the ‘wonderful easy godlessness’ of Impressionism. His brushstrokes became smaller and his marks more vivacious and noticeable. He painted the ever-popular Poppy Field. In 1874, he showed in the first Impressionist exhibition, which got its name from a journalist picking up on the title of his painting Impression, Sunrise.
Wealth beckoned, with a commission from the textile magnate Ernest Hoschedé for a scheme of grandes décorations for his chateau, but before it could be finished Hoschedé lost all his money. In the meantime, Monet had fallen in love with the woman who would become his second wife, Alice. Bizarrely, the bankrupt Hoschedés and their children moved into shared rented accommodation with Monet, Camille and their children in Vétheuil, a village on a loop of the Seine rich in bucolic scenery for Monet to paint while running up a huge bill for cognac. The wives sold their jewellery and took up sewing. The rent never got paid. In 1879, Camille died.
Camille had been Monet’s principal figure model. Following her death, he largely abandoned the Impressionist preoccupation with the depiction of the human figure in relation to the external world. Now he would focus on the depiction of light. In Pourville, close to Dieppe, he produced a hundred seascapes in half a year. Durand-Ruel sold them as fast as Monet could produce them.
For painting on water, Monet had his studio boat fitted with grooves to hold multiple canvases so he could dab at them in turn as the light changed. He said he had just seven minutes to capture an effect. Eventually, he worked on one hundred canvases simultaneously. On land, he dug trenches to lower his viewpoint to ‘truthfully’ represent skies at the top of the canvas.
In 1883 he moved to Giverny with Alice and all the children. He was not yet vastly rich and when Manet died Monet sent a letter begging Durand-Ruel to buy him a mourning suit to wear while acting as one of Manet’s coffin-bearers. Manet’s death left Monet as the leader of the new painting, though not for long. The 1886 Impressionist show included Seurat’s La Grande Jatte. Pointillisme was the new kid on the block.
Winters in Giverny being dreary, Monet fell into a pattern of taking winter painting trips. The first, with Renoir to Liguria, included an excursion to Cézanne’s studio. It toughened up his palette, silvery northern French pastels giving way to the strong colours of the south, with its terracotta roofs and hard, purple shadows. Sales flourished. Durand-Ruel was doing so well that he decided to take his stock of pictures to America to woo its millionaires. With their dealer gone, the Impressionist artists feared disaster. Monet told Alice to economise. He need not have worried. He moved dealer to Georges Petit and later identified Petit’s exhibition of 1886 as the turning point that legitimised Impressionism. The purchase of a canvas by American sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer (later the Princesse de Polignac) brought wealthy global flâneurs descending upon Giverny. It all sounds like something out of a Henry James novel, unsuitable romances flourishing as American new money interfaced with the Old World.
Great wealth enabled Monet to shape his environment to his painterly vision. His house rose like an iced gateau from a whipped-cream froth of flowers. Waterlilies began to burgeon in his newly dug ponds. Indoors, he hung the Japanese prints whose mix of isometric and reverse perspective so strongly influenced him and all the artists of the era. Maybe Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji was the springboard for his 1890s series of paintings of haystacks, poplars, cliffs, mornings on the Seine, London’s bridges and the Houses of Parliament. Rouen Cathedral gave him no end of trouble. To capture the hazy wash of light and atmosphere across its encrusted architectural intricacies was impossible. He felt he had failed. When he got home, he couldn’t bear to unpack the paintings.
Increasingly, Monet withdrew into Giverny. Deteriorating eyesight was no bar to the development on canvas of his little piece of France into a Watteauesque arcadia. Unlike Watteau’s, Monet’s perfect, self-made stage set was empty of actors, though in reality his large extended family was swarming about and there were six gardeners keeping the place petal-perfect. One was employed to dust and wash the waterlilies and to clean the surface of the water.
Monet didn’t believe in God. We can see this in his work: he is surely the artist most devoted to the surface and appearance of things. Astonishingly, he never painted a nude. Never going below the surface, he seems to have been able to ignore the gaping void, the upheavals of internal life that tortured his contemporaries the Expressionists, who spread their existential anxieties across their canvases. And yet he was terrified of death. His family and his doctor lied to him to keep him calm at the end. We wonder what lay at the bottom of his terror.
Wullschläger writes as magnificently about the paintings as one would hope and expect. Years of looking, together with masses of original research, have yielded a richly detailed book that will be invaluable for Monet scholars for years to come.