A Deeper Look at Claude Monet

“One is not an artist if one does not carry his painting in his head before painting it.” – Claude Monet  

March 1883, four years after the death of his first wife, Camille Doncieux. Claude Oscar Monet was 43 years old. He’d had his first commercial success. His dealer Durand Ruel was selling his paintings in Paris for 1000 francs or more. In London, they brought at least 100 pounds. La Débâcle, his painting of the breakup of the ice at Vétheuil, completed shortly after Camille’s death, sold for 1500 francs.

His works were increasingly successful in galleries and the art critics, while still not fully comprehending, were at least more respectful. 

“I am going mad,” Monet wrote to Durand Ruel, “I find it more and more difficult to be satisfied with myself. I have reached a point where I simply cannot say whether what I am doing now is better or worse than what I did before. There is no doubt that what I used to do easily now seems like torture! 

Over the next ten years, Monet would be plagued with doubts and despair about his ability to achieve seemingly impossible artistic goals. The letters he sent from the places he visited to find new landscapes were like unending howls of pain.

In 1883, “It’s hell to paint! I have destroyed six canvases since my arrival here. I’ve only done one that I like. I’m tired of it all.” 

In 1885, “The feeling of helplessness that has been creeping up on me for a week is driving me almost crazy. Starting a canvas over and over again, scratching and finally tearing the whole thing to shreds.” 

In 1888, “I work hard and it makes me sick. I am horribly worried about everything I do.” 

In 1889, “I am heartbroken, completely discouraged and dead tired.” 

In 1890, “I’m working so slowly that I’m losing hope.”

In 1892, “I have shredded my last canvases. I suffer anguish.”

As always, Durand Ruel received Monet’s letters and read them with patience. Early on, he’d had the foresight to see the potential of Monet’s work as well as those of Degas, Manet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley. He’d helped establish markets for Impressionism in Europe and the United States, often at great financial risk.

Was Durand Ruel missing something deeper in Monet’s tortured efforts? Could they have been steeped in his unrelenting grief over the loss of Camille? 

Long after Camille’s death, Georges Clemenceau, an old friend of Monet’s, recalled how he described his own behavior as Camille lay dying in their small cottage in Vétheuil.

“He never stopped working. As he contemplated Camille in the morning on her deathbed, he realized that, despite his grief, he was most concerned with the different shades of color on her young face. His instinct was to notice the blue, yellow and gray death tones. With horror, he felt trapped in his visual experience and compared his fate to that of an animal turning a millstone.”

Camille sur son lit de mort

In the days following Camille’s death, Monet became obsessed with painting the village church of Vétheuil in the morning fog. He labored to complete the painting, bit by bit, in which the morning sun slowly burns away the fog as if to bring the church to life.

He always thought he’d failed. What was Monet trying to express that he could only reveal visually, never in words?

Monet first met Camille when he was in his early twenties. She was 19, living with her parents and younger sister in Les Batignolles where she waited tables and served drinks to the shopkeepers and workers who frequented Le Café Guerbois. She sometimes modeled for painters. Imagine a scene in Le Café Guerbois that Emile Zola could have written in his novel, The Masterpiece.

Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Bazille sit at a large oak table. Wine glasses, beer mugs and plates filled with half-eaten sandwiches litter the table. Boxes of paint, canvases, easels, and other artists’ paraphernalia are piled on the floor around their chairs.

A lithograph of Le Café Guerbois by Monet

A lithograph of Café Guerbois by Manet

Claude spots Camille, who seems suspicious of the gruff workers who ogle her while she serves them. She notices Monet staring at her and ignores him; then hears him ranting at the table.

“Beaux-Arts painters!” he growls. “Like the innkeepers who make soup on Sunday. They add water to old broth from the previous week and contrive pale nudes in false half-lights, like dishwater!” Renoir and the others burst out laughing.

“At least they use live models and can display their bottoms,” Renoir replies whimsically. 

“And the half-light makes them look good, even if their odor leaves something to be desired,” Sisley adds in an English accent. 

“Looks like Monet needs another dose of plein air painting,” adds Bazille with a feigned aristocratic air.

“You’re absolutely right!” Renoir tells Bazille. “A nude could never hide her imperfections in the natural light of Fontainebleau. And, no doubt, she’d smell a lot better in the open air.” They burst into laughter. 

Monet ignores them. He can’t keep his eyes off Camille. 

Later, he finds her card pinned to a wall with the names of women who, in addition to modeling, were known to provide additional services to painters: Zoé Pidéfer, 7 rue Campagne-Première, Flore Beauchamp, 32 rue de Laval, Camille Doncieux, 17 boulevard des Batingnolles.

How did Monet persuade Camille to pose for him? Did they negotiate the price? Camille, who had street smarts, certainly knew how to deal with Monet and the other painters who approached her. How might Zola have written the exchange between them?

Camille finds Claude waiting for her after a long day at Le Guerbois.

“I want you to pose for me.”

“Partially or completely naked? Naked will cost you more.”

“I want to do a portrait for Le Salon, a woman in a green dress.”

Le Salon.” 

“I’ll pay ten francs per sitting.”

“Ten francs! From the look of you, you can hardly afford the clothes on your back.” 

“Twenty francs!”

“To pose, nothing more.” 

Claude nods. Camille bursts out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” 

“Paying me more to keep my clothes on.”

How could Zola have described what happened between them as he painted her?  

Claude, standing by his easel, studies a sketch he’d made of Camille’s face as she waitressed at the Guerbois. He pins it to the edge of a large canvas, sheltered from the light streaming in through a skylight.

Camille is behind a dressing screen. “Such an elegant dress. But a portrait of me naked would sell much better naked.” 

She emerges from behind the screen wearing a green silk dress with a velvet jacket trimmed with fur and a matching cap. The dress has wide strips of dark velvet that trail behind her as she moves.

She pulls at the sides of the dress. “I can hardly breathe in this thing! 

“Keep the buttons lined up. And stop fidgeting.”

He turns her around, her back to his easel, then moves her head until it dips into the light streaming through the skylight.

“Yes, like that.” 

“This dress makes my tits itch.” 

“Don’t move!”

She follows him with her eyes to his easel, where he compares her pose to his drawing. 

He works his brushes, applies flesh-colored pigments, renders the fur of the jacket and cap, the silky-smooth green of the dress, presenting Camille in a somber setting where only her face and hand are highlighted.

The Woman In The Green Dress

She approaches the canvas. Claude probes her face impatiently.

“You’ve painted me so sad.”

Woman in the Green Dress sold for 800 francs at the 1866 Salon, an astonishing sum for an unknown artist. 

Monet never tried to explain to Camille why he’d rendered her face so mournful. Was the young artist, who always visualized pictures in his head before painting them, expressing something deeper that he’d unconsciously projected onto her?

On at least two occasions, Monet abandoned Camille. The first time was in the spring of 1867. Monet was deeply disappointed by the rejection of his painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, by the third Salon. Camille was almost six months pregnant with their first child. They were not married and penniless. Monet knew that if he returned to his father, Adolphe, he’d get food and lodging and could continue painting. But his father categorically refused to recognize Camille. 

Monet managed to sell two small paintings to art dealers in Paris. He gave the money to Camille, found her a room in Les Batignolles and returned to Le Havre to paint, leaving her in the care of Frédéric Bazille who had often sent money in the past. Monet left for Le Havre knowing that he could count on the compassionate Bazille to care for Camille. The most revealing painting Monet created while in Le Havre is La Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse which portrayed his father and another woman, probably his aunt Jeanne-Marguerite, watching the regatta with another couple from the terrace of their summer home. One wonders how Monet managed to reconcile the sumptuous bourgeois comfort and affluence conveyed in the painting with the extreme poverty of Camille’s life in Paris.

La Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse

How must Monet have felt painting his father and aunt on the terrace? Could he have heard them talking about the trouble he’d gotten into with the girl from les Batignolles? How might Zola have dramatized the scene?

“He never finished his baccalaureate,” Adolpe grumbles to Jeanne-Marguerite. “Now too proud to work in the family business. Apart from those absurd caricatures he drew after his mother died, he’s never earned an honest sou in his life. You had to buy him out of the army. And now that whore he got pregnant, will it ever end?”

“You’ve been so hard on him, ever since his mother died.”

Adolphe’s face hardens. “If he had half the discipline of his brother.”

“He has talent, unlike his brother.”

“Talent?! Those daubs on his canvases! He calls it art. He’s a spoiled, good-for-nothing slacker who’s never worked a day in his life. Well, I’m done with him. Not another sou! He’ll learn the marine supply business or he can beg for scraps! And that whore Camille Doncieux, she’ll get exactly what she deserves for taking up with him.”

Monet wasn’t there when Camille gave birth to Jean. He was totally obsessed with his painting…

A Deeper Look at Claude Monet

 …and almost went blind from sunstroke.

At this point in his life, Monet could have earned enough money to care for Camille. Much earlier, as a rebellious high school student, he’d shown a talent for satire, creating sketches of himself as a smart-alecky drifter in a pointed hat and other acquaintances that brought him to the attention of Eugène Boudin and later Berthold Jongkind, established painters who subsequently played a crucial role in helping him develop his talent.

A Deeper Look at Claude Monet

When the rebellious Peintre au Chapeau Pointu drew these caricatures, he managed to sell them for a substantial 10 to 20 francs per portrait.

During Camille’s painful confinement, it never occurred to Monet to support her with earnings from such sketches which would likely have drawn the attention of famous caricaturists of the day such as André Gill, the undisputed master of caricature in France, who’d published full-page color illustrations of famous people in La Lune. Nothing, not even Camille, could distract Monet from the obsessive pursuit of his painting.

The most revealing aspect of Monet’s neglect of Camille can be found in the way he expressed himself emotionally at the time, especially in his letters to Bazille during Camille’s pregnancy, Monet was forced to beg his friend to help him care for his sweet and innocent burden. His letters are filled with pleas and imprecations as if written by a parent unable to cope with a child whose needs are too painful to bear. 

In June 1867, when Camille was eight months pregnant, he wrote to Bazille: “Before leaving Paris, I sold a small marine to Codart and one of my views of Paris to Latouche. It was a great relief and joy for me because I was able to help poor Camille a little…Send whatever you can, as much as possible.” 

At the end of June, “What a painful situation! Camille is a very sweet, good child and has been so reasonable. I have a prayer to make. Camille is to be hospitalized on July 25. It is essential that I go to Paris and stay there for about ten days. I will need money for many things. Please try to send me something, even if only 100 or 150 francs. Don’t forget, because without it I will be in great despair.”  

At the beginning of July, having gotten nothing from Bazille: “It is cruel of you not to have written. I am worried about Camille who doesn’t have a sou to her name. Every day I fear she will be forced to take to her birthing bed. What a state of affairs for the poor creature! I beg you, dear friend, get me out of here. My chagrin is obvious to everyone in the household. I must leave in a week at the latest. I would be horribly unhappy if Camille were bedridden without any of the necessary things, without a midwife, without a nurse, without care, even without anything to wrap the little one in. I must be there at all costs. Think of me and forgive the great distress with which I call upon you in these desperate moments.” 

In another letter that quickly followed, “Think of me. This is my prayer to you. I absolutely need money. After that, I will leave you in peace, but the child must not come into the world in misery. He must have what he needs. And I can only count on you. I am in a constant state of anxiety and your answer alone will calm me.”

Monet was still in Le Havre when Camille gave birth to their son Jean. He never stopped painting.

Monet could not afford to live with Camille until the winter of 1868. After receiving a modest allowance from his benefactor Gaudibert, he rented a small cottage in Étretat and moved in with Camille and their one-year-old son Jean. It was a brief respite from landlords and creditors and perhaps the happiest period of Monet’s life.

Imagine Camille sitting by the fire, Jean at her feet, chewing an apple. Claude sits across from Camille, smoking a pipe, reading the newspaper as in this portrait of him by Renoir.

Portrait of Claude

He wrote Bazille: “I am surrounded here by all that I love… In the evening, I find a good fire and a small loving family in my cozy cabin. I wish you could see your godson now. How lovely he is. It is fascinating to see this little being grow up. I’m very happy to have him. I’m going to put him in a painting for le Salon, a luncheon scene with other characters around naturally, an interior with a baby and two women. I want to do them in a really exceptional way.” 

In the same letter to Bazille, “…the further I go, the more I regret the little I know…the more I notice that one never gives frank expression to what one feels. How strange. That’s why I’m doubly happy to be here.”

Such a happy, relaxed state of mind is conducive to the expression of repressed feelings. In Le Déjeuner, Monet is absent, but his seat has been set at the table with a copy of Le Figaro, as if he were expected to arrive momentarily.

Le Déjeuner

Little Jean sits next to Camille who conscientiously looks after her son, but without much pleasure and with an ambivalent expression on her face. Another identical Camille, wearing a veil over her face, as if in mourning, leans against the window. The maid who has just served lunch leaves the room and glances disapprovingly at the luncheon scene. 

If Monet is manifestly absent in the painting, could he be there in the guise of his young son Jean? And could the facial expressions of the two Camilles allude to the state of mind of not only Camille but Monet’s own mother, Louise Justine, during the earliest years of his life? 

What do we know about Louise Justine? Her first husband, Emmanuel Cleriadus Despaux, was a wealthy man well established in the Paris business world, which allowed Louise Justine to lead an affluent, artistic life. She was a gifted cantatrice who gave recitals at Notre Dame de Lorette near her home. She enjoyed romantic poetry and wrote alexandrine verse, quatrains and sonnets. She enjoyed sketching and kept her drawings and watercolors in small notebooks that she treasured. She was a graceful hostess and enjoyed entertaining members of elegant Parisian society. She also took pleasure in reading the prose of Balzac and the poetry of Lamartine.

Everything changed for Louise Justine after Despaux’s death. At the age of 30 she married Adolpe Monet who had no interest in literature, paintings or watercolors. During the next five years, Adolphe failed in business in Paris and could barely support Louise Justine, Léon, their oldest son, and Claude. The family had to move to more modest accommodations before Adolphe’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Marguerite Lecadre, helped him find a position in Le Havre in the shipping supply business of her husband, Paul-Eugène Lecadre.   

How did having to move to Le Havre affect Louise Justine’s state of mind and her emotional relationship with her youngest son? One can imagine a responsible but often distant and troubled mother, deprived of her former life in Paris, the life of a dreamer with a deeply artistic sensibility to which she could no longer give free rein? 

Does the disapproving maid suggest Monet’s aunt, Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre, who, despite her financial support for Adolpe Monet, indulged Claude’s artistic sensibilities, sometimes helping him financially?

What was the artist who always carried a picture in his head before painting it – who wrote to Bazille that one never gives straightforward expression to what one feels – trying to express in Le Dejeuner? Could the painting be a set of dream images, of Claude as a small child, cared for by a devoted mother depressed by the indifference of her husband who was never able to empathize with her artistic sensibilities or Claude’s talent? 

In the 22 years between his mother’s death and the death of Camille, Monet expressed a obsessive devotion to his painting that overshadowed all other aspects of his life. We’re left with the impression of a proud, engaging man who gave a fascinating interview to the journalist François Thiébault-Sison in 1900 in which he vividly recounted the disagreements he’d had with his father, his meeting with Eugène Boudin in Le Havre who became his first master, a moving dinner with Berthold Jonkind who became his master after Boudin, and his friendships with Bazille, Sisley and Renoir. Monet, the consummate storyteller, said virtually nothing about his life with Camille.

At least four of Monet’s paintings provide keys to understanding his hidden feelings toward Camille, and his mother:

La Femme dans la Robe Verte that highlights a deep sadness in Camille’s face, 

Le Déjeuner which gives us dream images that hint at crucial events in Monet’s early childhood, 

Vetheuil dans le Brouillard, that conveys Monet’s deep anguish over the loss of Camille, and 

Les Cathédrales, that express his deeper wish to keep both Camille and his mother alive.

If Vétheuil dans le Brouillard was a failure for the man who compared his fate, as he struggled to complete the painting, to that of an animal circling a millstone, Les Cathédrales was an unrelenting obstacle course. 

We get a sense of what Monet experienced in his letters as he struggled to capture the light on the cathedrals, “I am exhausted, I give up, and on top of that, something that never happened to me, I couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares: the cathedral was falling on me, it was blue or pink or yellow. “

Monet eventually returned to Giverny exhausted, unable to even look at Les Cathédrales, let alone judge them. He finally admitted, grudgingly, that he’d perhaps created something acceptable.

Georges Clemenceau, Monet’s old friend, who was far better with words than Monet could ever be, described what Monet had accomplished with Les Cathédrales:

“The marvel of Monet’s way of perceiving things is that he sees the stone vibrating and gives it to us bathed in light waves that clash and shatter into sparkling shards…. Now, the stone itself lives, we feel it shedding its previous life while turning to the next.

Les Cathédrales

 “These gray cathedrals…of purple…of azure hammered into gold…

Les Cathédrales White

…These white cathedrals with flaming portals streaming with green, red, or blue flames…

Les Cathédrales - green

 …These blues cathedrals…

Les Cathédrales - Blue

…blue cathedrals that become rose…

Les Cathédrales -Rose

 …suddenly give us a lasting vision of not twenty, but a hundred, a thousand, a million eternal cathedrals in the endless cycle of sunlight. It amounts to life itself, as far as meaning can be granted us, in its most vivid reality.”

Another hint of what drove Monet to finish Les Cathédrales comes from his step-son, Jean Hoschedé, who had many opportunities to observe Monet as he worked. Jean seemed to be sensing Monet’s deepest feelings when he observed, “The cathedral was splendid yesterday, so colorful, flooded with sunshine, and here, in this gray, inverted weather, it is dark and sad; its contours seem worn by the years. More than ever, it seems large and unfathomable. The ringing of the bells at this moment reinforces its imposing mass and the grandeur of its past. But how make the ringing heard on canvas, how express the emotion it provokes?” 

Could this emotion be the joy of a small child deep in the heart of the man striving to recover the singing voice of his lovely cantatrice mother?

Monet lived 34 years after creating Les Cathédrales. In 1897, he began work on Les Nymphéas that would consume him for the rest of his life. He would also devote more and more time to his garden at Giverny, a garden that was for him a palette of colors for each season, created with the support of six full-time gardeners; a garden he always considered to be his great consolation.

It’s easy to conjure up an image of Monet on the porch of his mansion, his heart overflowing with joy, contemplating the cornucopia of colors.

A Deeper Look at Claude Monet

Imagine Monet’s reaction one morning when he awakes to find his precious garden devastated by an Autumn storm.

He gets out of bed, staggers to his bedroom window and pushes open the shutters with his cane. Despite the rosy hues that blur and imprison his vision – a temporary condition that the idiot doctors recommended by Clemenceau had told him after cutting out his cataracts – it’s worse than he could have imagined. 

Nasturtiums litter the path like swollen rags. The asters, bare stalks stripped of their petals. The rudebeckia choking on mud. “Worthless crap!” he growls.

Outside, in front of the manor house, Ēmile his gardener approaches him, hands shaking. 

“Well, don’t just stand there! Tell me the worst.” 

“La Grande Allée has collapsed,” Monsieur Claude. “The nasturtiums and asters have been torn from their beds. Now we must wait for spring to replant the roses, zinnias and delphiniums.” 

“I don’t care what you do with the damn garden!” 

Monet’s stepdaughter, Blanche, whom he called his ange gardien, brings his coat to shield him from the autumn cold. She gently takes hold of his arm and leads him back to the manor house.

After a little rest, Monet walks to the water lily pond and sits in the soothing shade of a weeping willow. One can only imagine the kaleidoscope of images passing through the old warrior’s head. 

Monet never believed Les Nymphéas were finished. Clemenceau nagged him perpetually until he finally willed them to L’Orangerie.

The work was interrupted by his death in 1926.  

How might we understand this man who, thanks to his extraordinary talent, was only able to express his deepest emotions in his paintings, emotions hidden to everyone who knew him? A man who gave hints of his grief over the death of Camille in Vétheuil dans le Brouillard and made both Camille and his mother live in Les Cathédrales. A man who could only express his deepest joy silently in his garden in Giverny and his sublime Nymphéas. The irony of Claude Monet is that Vétheuil dans le Brouillard, Les Cathédrales, his magnificent garden and Les Nymphéas move us to express our own deepest emotions more openly than he ever could himself.

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