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The madness of Claude Monet

Jackie Wullschläger’s exemplary biography reveals the impressionist painter’s obsessive commitment to his art.

By Michael Prodger

In 1865, Claude Monet suffered one of the most bizarre accidents ever to befall a painter. He was in the Forest of Fontainebleau near Chailly, starting work on an ambitiously large painting showing 12 picnickers and a dog in a glade, when he was hit by a discus thrown by some English tourists. He saw the projectile coming and scrambled to protect a group of nearby children but was felled. The injury was bad enough to confine him to bed. Had the object struck a couple of feet higher there might have been no shimmering paintings of water lilies, no effervescent images of the Seine, no sun-infused haystacks, indeed no impressionism.

However, as Jackie Wullschläger shows in her exemplary biography of the painter, Monet’s greatest adversary was not a random accident but his own unremitting determination to express in paint a radical new idea: “what I myself will have experienced, I alone”. He was 28 when he articulated this personal manifesto and it drove him to extremes all his life. As a would-be painter it led to estrangements with his family; as a practising artist it meant large swathes of time away from his family; it meant the opprobrium of critics and decades of poverty; and in his later years it meant a sense of failure that for all his hard-won renown he could never quite shake.

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Paintings always poured out of Monet but the difficulty of the task he had set himself never waned. “It makes me feel I am going mad,” he wrote in 1864, “how much I want to do everything, my head is bursting… it’s scary what I see in my mind.” And Monet lived a long life. He was born in 1840 when the presiding deities of French art were Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the twin exemplars of romanticism and neoclassicism, and he died in 1926, by which time Picasso and Georges Braque’s ground-shifting experiments in cubism were already a thing of the past. The art of painting had changed and he had done much of the heavy lifting.

The great liberating invention came the year after Monet was born: the collapsible paint tube allowed artists to work properly en plein air. But it was Monet who first and most comprehensively grasped the possibilities. He grew up too in the age of photography and realised quickly that painting had to adapt to compete. While photographs merely stilled the scene at the moment the shutter clicked, he set out not only to capture the fleeting moment but to embed that transience in each image.

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What Monet and his impressionist peers invented was a response to Baudelaire’s summons in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). The essay was an appeal for artists to take the world around them for their subject: “By ‘modernity’, I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.” Forget set-in-stone classicism and the strictures of the academy, he implored them, and aim instead “to distil the eternal from the transitory”.

As Wullschläger stresses, Monet was far from literal in his response. Among the younger painters, Manet, Renoir and Degas all put the human figure at the centre of their art, and Pissarro too, to a lesser extent – but Monet chose landscape. He did paint people, both portraits and as staffage in his pictures but, says Wullschläger, he was, for example, “the only great artist from the Renaissance to the early 20th century” never to paint a nude. Nor did the life of the streets, the cafés, the racecourse or theatre entice him as subjects.

His territory was the semi-rural environs of Paris, and the Seine was his perennial theme. He painted 1,000 works where water is a key motif and said: “I have painted the Seine all my life, at every hour, at every season. I have never tired of it.” Monet’s artistic origins were nevertheless as a figure painter. The first works he made in his home town, Le Havre, were newspaper caricatures of eminent locals, and the painting that announced him as an artist of note at the Salon of 1866, the showcase of French art, was The Woman in a Green Dress (1866), a full-length portrait of his then lover and future wife Camille Doncieux.

It was another painting of Camille from the same year that better indicated Monet’s direction of travel. Women in the Garden showed four women, all of them modelled by Camille, grouped together in dappled light among grass, flowers and trees. In it he updated the rococo fêtes galantes of Watteau from the early 18th century, using bright sunlight contrasting with rich shade, pops of pure colour with a wide palette of greens. His aim was to paint the summer hum in the air as much as the women or the garden. The picture, however, was rejected by the Salon.

Monet grew used to disappointment and critical attacks. His loose and immediate brushwork, unmodulated colour, and lack of finish and modelling were an affront to many. “M Monet was four and a half years old when he painted this picture,” ran the caption to a satirical illustration of his work in 1868. And famously the name “impressionism” was initially attached to Monet and his circle as a pejorative term: Zola, a friend of the group, thought they should be called “the actualists”. The impressionists, said one critic, “have declared war on beauty”.

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The story of the group and Monet’s subsequent career has been told many times. What distinguishes Wullschläger’s account is not just her thoroughness and lucidity but the deft use she has made of some 3,000 of the painter’s letters, many previously untranslated. They reveal, for example, the full depths of his poverty. His correspondence, especially to his friend, the painter Frédéric Bazille, is full of pleas for money, exacerbated by the birth of his son Jean with Camille. He begged 20 francs here, 100 there. In 1883, he couldn’t even afford the train fare to Paris to be a pallbearer at Manet’s funeral.

Monet was, however, unrepentant about his unedifying cadging. As Wullschläger notes: he “believed his art conferred a right to good living, and he enjoyed fine things”. Here was a man who, when called up to the army to fight in Algeria in 1861, commented: “In any case, the uniform was elegant.” But his baker, tailor, framer and landlords could go hang: his laundrywoman was still chasing him for payment more than ten years after she had sent in her bill for his washing.

Wullschläger is particularly astute on Monet’s relationships with his wives, Camille and her successor, Alice Hoschedé. The first was his model, the second the wife of Ernest Hoschedé: Monet’s first real patron who near-bankrupted himself buying art and was supplanted in Alice’s affections too. The three lived in a strained ménage until Ernest’s death in 1891 allowed Monet and Alice to marry. Monet loved both women dearly if not always conventionally: Camille features in 50 of his paintings, the last of which was made in the hours after her death. Staring at her dead face, he nevertheless reacted as an artist, writing that his “automatic instinct was first to tremble at the shock of the colour”. Later, a decade after becoming Alice’s lover but not yet her husband, he would still address her in letters as “Chère Madame” and use “vous” rather than “tu”.

The combined Monet-Hoschedé family numbered ten adults and children and Monet felt it financially imperative to be “more sensible, more bourgeois” and make paintings that would sell. Nevertheless, he remained finickity, once paying a farmer 50 francs to remove the foliage from a tree he was painting that had inconveniently started to come into leaf.

Money, and plenty of it, did begin to flow – and critical acceptance too. He withdrew from exhibiting at the Salon and sold instead largely through his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who, said Zola, was “crazy for Monet, he buys and buys still more”. He spent his new riches on cars, food and, as the grand old man of French art, living at Giverny and cultivating the water gardens that were the focus of his extraordinary late burst of creativity. He employed six gardeners – one simply to dust and wash his water lilies.

The young, staunch Monet had painted “in the rain, in the wind. I gorge myself on it.” The old man continued to work even as cataracts eroded his sight. By 1920, the Grandes Décorations, the series of huge multi-panel water lily paintings that he gave to the French state as a commemoration of the soldiers of the First World War, covered 170 square metres of canvas. His studio wasn’t large enough to accommodate these heralds of abstraction, so he had a new one built. 

Wullschläger depicts the ageing Monet as a petty tyrant, setting up the household as a machine to service his needs. It was his stepdaughter Blanche who was his real helpmeet, painting alongside him and fetching and carrying. Monet described creating his celebrated Haystacks series and calling Blanche when the light changed: “Would you go back to the house, please, and bring me another canvas?” Then, as the atmosphere shifted, “one more”, then “one more still”.

At the end of this consummate biography, Wullschläger describes Monet in despair, fearing he will die “without having achieved anything I like… because I am seeking the impossible”. By then, however, many of his contemporaries had long recognised the enormity of his achievement. He was responsible for a new conception of landscape; not just recording a place but also painting time, not just depicting his own sensations but disinterring the memories of the viewer. When Proust wrote, “There has to be someone who will say to us, here is what you may love; love it,” Monet was that man.

Monet: The Restless Vision
Jackie Wullschläger
Allen Lane, 576pp, £35

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