Impressions of despair

Art - Richard Cork discovers a darker Monet in the painter's long lament for his wife

Despair is not an emotion we associate with Monet. His irrepressible optimism nourishes most of the work he produced, but on one occasion even Monet was forced to convey a far bleaker and more harrowing order of feeling. In September 1879, his wife Camille died at the age of 32. Although her loss must have been foreseen, Monet was devastated. He decided, at some stage in the two days before her burial, to paint a deathbed portrait.

It is, in every sense, a stricken image. Camille is scarcely visible through the blizzard of brush strokes inflicted on the canvas. Restricting himself to white, grey and violet, enlivened here and there with a gash of red, Monet does not sanitise the appalling spectacle in front of him. Looking at his wife propped up on the pillows, her mouth askew, jaw bound tight and skin blanched to the point of looking glacial, he seems barely capable of making coherent sense of her corpse.

He slashes at the canvas, as if desperate to bring her back to life. But the ferocity of his strokes serves only to blur her form more fuzzily. She is fading from view even as Monet struggles to preserve her in pigment, and he is honest enough to admit that the battle has almost been lost. The woman swathed in bedlinen is hardly more substantial now than the pale autumn sunlight splashed on the sheets around her.

Nothing else in Monet's immense output approaches the anguish he exposed here. Camille Monet on Her Deathbed dominates "Monet: the Seine and the sea", the Royal Scottish Academy's magisterial survey of the work he produced between 1878 and 1883. It was a period of incessant productivity, focused above all on views of the River Seine and the Normandy coast. But the taboo-breaking intensity commanded by the painting of his dead wife gives the whole show an air of crisis. Flanked here by Monet's smaller portraits of his two sons - one a russet-cheeked baby grinning in a bonnet, the other a 13-year-old who appears stunned by his mother's recent decease - the deathbed picture makes us realise how much its painter had to endure in this period.

By 1878, the success Monet had achieved as a leading young impressionist was faltering. Fewer collectors were willing to buy his work, and his foremost patron, Ernest Hoschede, had become bankrupt. Monet was forced to move his family to the village of Vetheuil, about 60 kilometres along the Seine north of Paris. Property proved cheap to rent there, and he was able to tether a studio boat on the river at the end of his large garden.

Vetheuil was, in Monet's words "a ravishing spot", and he attempted initially to celebrate it. Dirty smoke can be glimpsed in one view of the river bank, where the bucolic stillness is disrupted by a passing steam-tug. But the other paintings present a pollution-free idyll, where the machine-age clangour of Monet's recent Gare St-Lazare paintings give way to a vision of pre-industrial innocence.

By the summer of 1879, Monet was painting with an exhilaration that suggests he saw his new home as a present-day version of paradise. Out in the fields, he managed to detach himself from the trauma of his wife's illness, to paint a mother with her children gathering poppies in an apparent state of bliss. That the woman must have been Alice Hoschede rather than the housebound Camille does not impair the picture's mood. Monet handles the crimson flowers with exemplary freedom, summarising them in swift dabs of paint that spatter the landscape with a freewheeling energy.

After his wife's death, however, he could not prevent dejection from invading his work. The winter of 1879-80 became excessively harsh, making it difficult for Monet to continue painting outdoors. Retreating to the studio, he produced a Still Life with Pheasants and Plovers in a style far more doggedly conventional than his uninhibited summer views. By paying open homage to artists of the past, most notably Chardin and Oudry, he ensured that the painting soon found a buyer. But on another level, our knowledge of Camille's recent death makes us realise how very personal this still life really is. Laid out on a creased white tablecloth, the four birds are incontrovertibly slaughtered. Monet makes no attempt to arrange their slumped bodies and limp wings. It is an utterly cold image, prophesying the even more chilling work he would go on to produce.

The Seine froze over, and in what Monet described as "a terrible debacle", the ice blocks broke and crashed against each other as they made their way down the river. He wasted no time transforming this scene into art and produced some impressive paintings of the sub-zero Seine. They look more akin to the Arctic than to northern France. Riverside trees were toppled by the impact of the shattered floes, and Monet invests this devastation with a fierce yet lamenting eloquence. It is as if the disintegration of the ice mirrored, in his own mind, the breaking up of all his hopes for life at Vetheuil. The elation in his earliest paintings of the village had given way to a dejected alternative. The frozen countryside suddenly appears bereft and defenceless. Even the ferrymen steering their silhouetted boats through the splintered blocks look like huddled, diminutive refugees escaping from a catastrophe.

They reappear in a large, powerful painting called Sunset on the Seine, Winter, where the stripped trees and skeletal outlines of houses fade into the gloom. Monet admitted that this heartfelt and vestigial canvas was "too much to my own taste" to send in to the Paris Salon, but it duly accepted his far more bland and elaborate view of nearby Lavacourt. It is a sadly pedestrian exercise, lacking the stylistic attack and headlong emotional commitment of the Sunset painting. But Monet's desire for official acceptance at the Salon convinced him that "I ought to get in there with something better behaved, more bourgeois". A similar belief must account for the tepid views he went on to produce in the spring and summer of 1880.

Subsequent paintings of the Normandy coast become livelier, and yet they are also wildly uneven. Significantly, the most persuasive paintings disclose a fascination with loneliness. Concentrating on a customs official's cottage marooned on the cliffs near Pourville, he conveys a mood of extreme isolation. A painting of a path along the cliffs at Varengeville is still more desolate, as shadows threaten to extinguish the vulnerable people making their way towards the sea.

On the evidence of this exhibition, Monet took a painful amount of time to recover from his grief. In 1901, long after leaving Vetheuil to settle with his new wife, Alice, in Giverny, he returned to paint a final series of the village. They are sweet, nostalgic images bathed in a strangely decorative pink light. But the undertone of sadness has not been ousted. The church, houses and their reflections in the water seem just as faint and remote as Camille had been, dissolving into the broken patches of light on her deathbed more than 20 years earlier.

The Monet exhibition continues at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh EH2 (0870 906 3770) until 26 October. Richard Cork's four books on modern art were recently published by Yale

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Coming soon: the new poor