Monet Beneath the Light: The Hidden Story

One is not an artist if one
doesn’t carry his picture in
his head before painting it.”

Claude Monet

It was March 1883, four years after the death of Camille Doncieux, his first wife. Claude Oscar Monet was 43 years old. He had achieved his first commercial success. His dealer Durand Ruel was selling his pictures in Paris for 1000 francs or more. In London, they brought in at least 100 pounds. La Débacle, his painting of the break-up of the ice at Vétheuil completed shortly after Camille died sold for 1500 francs.

Break up of ice at Vetheuil

There were more appreciative crowds at the galleries and the critics in their newspaper articles, if still not fully comprehending, were at least more respectful.

“I am going out of my mind,” Monet wrote to Durand Ruel, “I have more and more trouble in satisfying myself. I have reached a point when I simply can’t tell if what I do now is better or worse than what I used to do. This much is clear. What I used to do easily now gives me a great deal of trouble”

In the next 10 years, Monet would be tortured with doubts and despair over his ability to achieve seemingly impossible artistic goals. His letters from the places he visited to find new motifs were a veritable chorus of frustration and despair. In 1883: “I am having the devil’s own difficulties. I’ve destroyed six canvases since coming here. I’ve only done one that pleases me. I’m tired of it all.” In 1885: “A week of helpless fury has driven me almost insane, beginning a canvas again and again, scraping and eventually ripping up the whole thing.” In 1888: “I work hard and make myself ill with wretchedness. I am horribly worried by everything I do.” In 1889: “I am heartbroken, completely discouraged and feel sick with fatigue.” In 1890: “I work so slowly that I despair.” In 1892: “I have scraped off my latest canvases. I suffer anguish”

Monet in anguish self portrait 1886

As always, Durand Ruel received Monet’s letters with fortitude and patience. Early on he’d had the vision to see the potential of Monet’s work as well as that of Degas, Manet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley. He had been instrumental in establishing markets for impressionism in Europe and the United States often at great financial risk.

Durand Ruel

But what Durand Ruel nor anyone who knew Monet couldn’t understand was that he’d lost something vital with the death of Camille, something he had not fully grasped during their 13 troubled years together. Almost a half century later, his old and trusted friend, Georges Clemenceau, recalled how Monet had described his own behavior as Camille lay dying: “He never stopped working. Contemplating Camille in the morning on her death bed, he realized that in spite of his grief, he was preoccupied above all with the different color tones of 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 lot to that of an animal turning a millstone.”

Camille death portrait

Monet’s wooden, automatic behavior as he painted Camille on her death bed suggests an underlying desperation. His anguish reveals a deep sense of his own tragedy, his realization that the only way he could ever express his true feelings for Camille or anyone who mattered to him was in the visual and spatial domain of his art, a domain whose elements he would always be able to shape and control. This was the only place where he would ever feel safe enough to reveal who he really was.

What was Monet striving to express in Camille’s death portrait? What motivated him to pursue his idée fixe, his magnificent obsession with light effects? He would devote the rest of his life to rendering “les conditions atmosphériques” in his incomparable series…

…the vibrating, luminous waves of stone and sparkling colors of The Cathedrals…

Flashing Sparkles

…the irridescent colors and undulating movement of The Poplars…

wind made branches undulate, lifted up their leaves

…the transient, radiant light of The Grain Stacks…

Bursting with nourishment

…the exquisite amalgam of water, lilies, light and sky in The Nymphéas.


And what moved Monet to devote such prodigious amounts of time and energy to the creation of his exquisite garden in Giverny?

A last profusion of Autumn Colors 2

The biographers of Claude Monet reveal almost nothing about his early life with his family and virtually all of his letters to Camille were destroyed by Alice Hoschedé, his jealous second wife. However, enough is in the biographies, in his remaining letters, in interviews and recollections and in his magnificent paintings to provide keys to the heart and mind of this extraordinarily gifted man. Monet’s story is one of early parental neglect, adolescent rebellion, a tragic repetition of the neglect in his life with Camille, a powerful yearning for reparation after she died, and a struggle for almost 50 years to harness his artistic genius in a remarkably obsessive, tenacious attempt to compensate for the loss of Camille and the earlier loss of his mother.

Monet’s Early Rebellion and the Importance of his two Father Surrogates: Louis Eugène Boudin and Berthold Jongkind

The only recorded instance in which Monet spoke of his childhood is in an interview conducted in 1900. Monet was so busy, the journalist Franςois Thièbault-Sisson had to drag him to his office to be interviewed. Sisson recalls Monet seated before him, gracefully fingering his long black beard, generously laced with the fine white hair of a man of 60. He looked at Sisson through clear blue eyes one would expect to find in a twenty-year-old and proceeded to reveal fragments of his childhood in the lively manner of an accomplished storyteller: “I am a Parisian, from Paris, born in 1840 during the reign of the good king Louis-Philippe, in a business-oriented environment in which everyone exuded a contemptuous disdain for the arts. I spent my youth in Le Havre where my father had moved in 1845 for business reasons. I [was]…a vagabond…incorrigible from birth. They could never make me conform to a single rule, even in my early childhood. I learned what little I know on my own. School always felt like a prison and I could never find the will to stay there, even four hours a day, when the sun was so inviting, the sea so beautiful and it felt so good to run along the cliffs or splash in the water. I lived this healthy but disorderly life, to the great despair of my father, until I was 14 or 15…My studies ended at this point…They hadn’t been too unbearable…I used to entertain myself by whimsically drawing in my notebooks the distorted likenesses of my teachers whom I rendered in a most disrespectful manner. It didn’t take me long to guess I had talent…The great demand for my drawings and my mother’s lack of generosity in giving me an allowance lead me to do something audacious, something that would surely scandalize my family. I began charging money for my portraits…10 to 20 francs each…Soon I was a celebrity in town. My caricatures were insolently displayed in the store window of the only picture framer who did business in Le Havre, in rows of five or six on golden rods, show-cased like great works of art…and when I saw strollers in the street gathering in crowds, admiring and pointing to them, I almost burst with pride. The only thing that spoiled it was these disgusting seascapes that I would frequently find hanging above my own work in the same shop window, the little paintings of Eugène Boudin, so sincere, his skies and his waters so exact…as in nature. The honesty of it seemed to me highly suspect. [They] engendered in me such appalling disgust that, without even knowing the man, I took a sudden dislike to him. Frequently the picture framer would say, ‘You should get to know Monsieur Boudin,’ but I resisted. I was vain and pretentious. What could such a ridiculous man possibly have to teach me? However, one day it was bound to happen, Boudin and I crossed paths…the picture framer without asking me introduced us, ‘Monsieur Boudin, here is the young man who sells so well.’ Boudin imediately approached me and said ‘I always look at your sketches with pleasure…You’re talented. It’s obvious. But I hope you’re not going to stop there. Study, learn to see landscapes, to draw them. It’s so beautiful, the sea, the heavens, animals, people, trees. just as nature made them with their own special character, in the light, in the air, the way they really are.’ Boudin undertook my education with inexhaustible kindness. My eyes eventually opened and I truly understood nature. I learned at the same time to love her. I analyzed her with pencil in her various forms. I studied her in her different colorations. Six months later I announced brusquely to my father that I wanted to be a painter and that I was going to Paris to study, in spite of the protestations of my mother who was seriously worried about my involvement with a man so poorly regarded as Boudin and saw me lost in life because of him…[Almost seven years later] I had gotten to know Berthold Jongkind…He looked at my sketches, invited me to come work with him, explained to me the how and why of his technique and completed the instruction I had already gotten from Boudin. From then on he was my true master and it is to him that I owe the definitive education of my eye”

Claude Monet in early to late adolescence is a magnificent character study in displaced and sublimated anger. One of his biographers, describing a portrait of him by Déodat de Séverac, provides a glimpse of the underlying turmoil. His face is remote, almost dismissive. His mouth conveys skepticism. The long, abundant hair pulled back is that of a young hunter, eyes searching intently for meaning.

Young Monet resembles Antoine Doinel

In his high school art class, Monet was notoriously undisciplined. He was exhuberent and clever but also seemed lost and distracted. When required to do formal drawing exercises such as copying likenesses of the gods Juno or Agrippa, or the poet Dante, he took mischievous delight in sketching charicatures of the original figure. A mouth would be transformed into a bird. The chin became a wooden shoe. The eye became a convertible open-air carriage.

Imagine Monet’s conservative art teacher, Jacques-François Ochard, catching him composing an unidentified dandy with an exaggerated nose in a melon hat that may well have been an allusion to Ochard.

Jacques Francois Ochard with exaggerated nose

Infuriated, he snatches the drawing from Monet, holds it up to the rest of the class.”Today, Monet you have attained what few of us could ever hope for. You have ascended to the heights of pure, undisciplined absurdity. Get out!” And out the boy went with a smirk on his face, delighting in the laughter of his classmates.

In what may be his most revealing caricature, Le Peintre au Chapeau Pointu, the young Monet portrays himself as a half-serious dauber, a vagabond, paint box in hand, eager to travel.

Le peintre au chapeau pointu

Among his other clever charicatures, one is struck by the resemblance of the pronounced aquiline noses of some of them to that of Monet’s father.

Caricature 1 Caricature 2

Caricature 4 Caricature 3

Monet’s Father Adolph


When the young vagabond managed to escape his art class…

…he roamed the wharves of Le Havre stacked with cases of exotic merchandise that hinted of strange foreign seas…

Le havre 1 Le havre 2

At the time, Le Havre was predominantly a city of wholesale merchants and ship owners who traded with Martinique, Guadeloupe, Africa and the Americas.

Ship owners

The rebellious teenager hiked the majestic cliffs of Étretat…

Cliffs 1

…found comfort by the seashore…


…and along the Seine estuary.

Seine estuary

Monet had an almost magical love of the sea. He once said: “I would wish to be by or on the sea and when I die, I would want to be entombed in a buoy.”

Monet brings to mind another angry young man in Franςois Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows. Antoine Doinel was sent to reform school for a minor theft that had finally given his mother the reason she needed to abandon him. Near the end of the film he escapes from reform school and runs several miles through country villages.

running to the sea 3 running to the sea 2

He finally comes to rest by the seashore. His face is tense with fear. His eyes have the searching, anxious look of Monet’s in de Séverac’s portrait. Two distressed, angry young men separated by 100 years of historical time, ineluctably drawn to the sea.

Antoine cropped by the sea

Why had Monet been so rebellious? The sixty year-old man who described himself as incorrigible from birth and unwilling to conform to a single rule in early childhood was surely hinting at family conflicts that had existed during the very early years of his life and continued as he grew older. By the time Monet was five years old, his father Adolph had failed in his grocery business in Paris. Adolph was forced to move the family – his wife Louise Justine, Claude’s nine year-old brother Léon and young Claude – back to Le Havre where he joined his brother-in-law Lecadre in his thriving marine supply business. In a bourgeois family that placed great value on financial success, Lecadre was clearly the better business man. He had not relied solely upon over-the-counter transactions but had taken the initiative to win marine supply contracts from the ship owners in Le Havre. Adolph Monet’s weakness in business appears to have been a source of family conflict. Monet’s biographers provide a strong hint of how this conflict was perpetuated by Léon and Claude as they grew older.

Long after their father died, Claude’s efforts to have a friendship with Léon were often frustrated. When Léon, who had become a chemist, reneged on his promise to provide an apprenticeship for Monet’s oldest son Jean, Monet finished by ignoring him completely. Like his parents, Léon Monet had a deeply ingrained, bourgeois sensibility and a rigid sense of propriety that were anathema to his younger brother. Long before their quarrel over Jean’s apprenticeship, Monet had been living with Alice Hoschedé whose husband Ernest had earlier commissioned a series of landscapes of their country estate at Montgeron. By then Camille was dead and Ernest Hoschedé had gone bankrupt, leaving his wife with Monet and the children from each marriage in what was publicly perceived to be a scandalous ménage. Monet and Alice Hoschedé eventually married after Ernest died. However before their marriage, Léon Monet’s concern for respectability was so intense that he would only agree to see his brother alone or with his sons Jean and Michel from his marriage to Camille, never with Alice Hoschedé. Léon had internalized the obsessive concern for respectability of his father. Claude had rebelled. The two brothers had responded in entirely different ways to the expectations of their parents alluded to by Monet in the Thiébault-Sisson interview. What’s so striking about Léon Monet’s refusal to see his brother in the presence of Alice Hoschedé is his one-sided response, as though he were mimicking his father, the father who had much earlier refused to acknowledge Camille, who appears to have also pressured his sons, especially his rebellious youngest son, to strive for the financial success he had failed to achieve in Paris.

Leon’s resentment of Claude and the anxiety that fueled his need to conform to this father’s wishes are hinted at in this portrait of him by his younger brother.

Portrait de Leon Monet

But what of the emotional impact of Monet’s mother? Louise Justine Monet died in 1857 when Claude was 17 years old. Was the boy’s rebellion also a reaction to the loss of his mother? Monet delighted in disrupting his art classes, in drawing the distorted likenesses of his teachers and later scandalizing his family by charging 10 to 20 francs for his caricatures. He almost “burst with pride” when people stopped at the picture framer’s store window to admire his drawings, so “insolently displayed.” Did Claude’s rebellion hide his grief over the loss of Louise Justine whose youngest son had the same nose, black hair, dark brown eyes and rich olive skin as his Lyonnaise mother?

Monet's Mother Louise Justine Monet resemblance to Louise Justine

Could Louise Justine have been more attuned to her youngest son during the first few years of his life because of their strong physical resemblance and more disapproving as he grew older and pulled away from her? The youngest son who by virtue of his genetic temperament was less disciplined, more imaginative and more creative than his older brother.

Whatever the answers to these questions, Claude Monet found a formidable family ally in his aunt Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre, an ally who could have been just as dangerous to him as she was helpful. In this business-oriented family, Madame Lecadre had artistic aspirations of her own. She had made a studio out of her attic, painted and sketched, and patronized some of the local artists. She was childless, extremely fond of her nephew and became determined that her “lamb” should develop as an artist and escape the prosaic world of trade and commerce. Madame Lecadre was a force to be reckoned with in the Monet family. From the start, she encouraged her nephew to save his earnings from the sale of his caricatures and kept the profits for him. She indulged his artistic flirtation with the disreputable Eugène Boudin, dismissing it at first as nothing more than misguided adolescent behavior. A few years later, she was instrumental in persuading Monet’s father to let him leave for Paris to see the Salon and visit her artist friend, Armand Gautier. When Monet remained in Paris and lived on his savings against his father’s wishes, she interceded with him on his behalf. When he later refused to enroll in the traditional Beaux-Arts school, once more against his father’s wishes, she supplemented his savings with her own money and when his savings eventually ran out, she continued to support him. However, by the time Monet was 23 years old, her patience had worn thin. She felt betrayed by her ungrateful nephew and had become embittered by his deepened involvement with Boudin and his new involvement with Berthold Jongkind. She wrote to her friend Armand Gautier: “His sketches are always rough drafts. When he decides to finish something, to make a complete picture, the sketches turn into dreadful daubs. He preens himself when he looks at them and even finds imbeciles to compliment him on them. He pays no attention to what I say. I am not up to his level. Now I have retired into the most profound silence.”

Monet's Aunte Leccadre

Years later, Monet would say of his aunt Lecadre, “She painted like the fashionable young women of the time.” Although this generous, well-intentioned woman was stronger and more assertive than Monet’s mother, she did not understand him any better and saw him as the narcissistic embodiment of her own artistic aspirations. One wonders how far beyond caricatures Monet would have gone, torn as he was between a rigid, withholding mother and her weak husband and an indulgent, narcissistic aunt, had it not been for the stabilizing influences of Boudin and Jongkind.

Why did Monet react with such appalling disgust to the sincere little paintings of Eugène Boudin?

His fishermen at Trouville…

Fishermen at Trouville

…the fishermen’s wives…

Fishermen's wives at Seaside

…a portrait of a little girl.

Portrait of a Little Girl

They had triggered an intense response in the confused teenager that one senses the mature, seasoned man in his sixties could not fully explain to the journalist Thiébault-Sisson. It took the teenager six months to accept Boudin’s frequent offers to teach him to paint en plein air. On one of their outings, Boudin explained to him, “Everything painted directly and on the spot always has a strength, vigor and vivacity of touch that can never be acquired in a studio.”

Bathers near Fecamp

For the young Monet, accustomed as he was to hearing of the importance of style in the academic school, this was a revelation. He slowly began to see in l‘instantanéité of Boudin’s technique a way to seize and keep the pure, direct experience of light, sky and sea and master the unconscious feelings they stirred in him; feelings from a much earlier time when his mother was much more attuned to the child who looked so much like her; a time irretrievably lost as he grew older and she became more rigid and less approving of him. Monet first responded with anger to the beauty, so sincere and so exact, of Boudin’s seascapes because he was too young and undisciplined to deal with the pain they rekindled from his earlier loss of Louise Justine. It was Boudin who first showed him how to harness his artistic genius and sublimate his libidinal energy more fully to compensate for the loss. Boudin was well placed to be a nurturing father. He was twice Monet’s age; a shy, modest man who had proven his artistic dedication years earlier when he sold his partnership in the framer’s shop to buy himself out of five years of naval service. Five years was too long a time to be deprived of the pursuit of his art.

Eugène Boudin

Boudin at work

Monet had heard this story from the shop owner. For the confused adolescent, the quiet strength and certainty of Boudin must have stood in marked contrast to the weakness of his father.

Berthold Jongkind also stood in marked contrast to Eugène Boudin. Jongkind was an alcoholic who had almost ruined his artistic career. He had been able to continue painting with the help of an older woman, Madame Fesser, who became his constant and dedicated companion. Jongkind had a profound influence on Monet’s artistic developent. Where Boudin emphasized literal accuracy at a given moment, instantanéité, Jongkind was preoccupied with gradations, nuances of color and reflections.

In a winter scene…

Winter Scene

…the railroad dock at Honfleur.

Railroad dock at Honfleur

…leaving the port of Honfleur…

Sortie du port d'Honfleur

He believed in the importance of subjective experience in artistic expression. This had an invigorating effect on the young Monet. Jongkind showed him he could impose himself on a motif, respond emotionally to delicate changes in atmosphere and tone and thus give even fuller expression to his unconscious feelings as in his landscapes of Holland.

Holland Landscape

It was Jongkind who decisively launched Monet upon his life-long pursuit of les conditions atmosphériques. One wonders how deeply the young Monet was also moved by the man himself; the Jongkind who was so decisive when wielding a paint brush and whose hand shook without the brush, who needed the constant nurturing and inexhaustible patience of Madame Fesser to survive.

Berthold Jongkind

Picture of Jongkind

Could Jongkind have touched a deeply repressed need in Monet for nurturing and support, a need that would become more visible in his relationship with Camille?

Monet’s Repetition of Earlier Emotional Experiences in his Relationship with Camille Doncieux

Monet met Camille when he was in his mid-twenties. From the little we know of her, she was a street smart, 19 year-old who lived with her parents and younger sister in les Batignolles and modeled occasionally for artists. Could Monet have first laid eyes on her as she waited tables and served drinks to the tradesmen, laborers and painters who frequented le Café Guerbois?

A lithograph of the Guerbois by Manet

Lithograph of le Guerbois by Manet

Imagine a scene that Êmile Zola’s might have written in his novel, The Masterpiece. Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille seated at a large, oak table. Wine glasses, beer mugs and plates filled with half-eaten sandwiches litter the table. Paint boxes, canvases, easels and other artist paraphernalia lie heaped on the floor around their chairs. Claude spots Camille, a strikingly lovely girl serving beer to gruff laborers who ogle her. She ignores them, sees Monet staring at her, glances at him dismissively. But she overhears him fulminating at the table.

“Beaux Arts painters!” he growls. “They’re like innkeepers who make soup on Sunday. Add water to old broth from the week before and, voila, pale nudes in fake half-lights, like dishwater!” Renoir and the others breakout in laughter.

“At least they use live live models,” Renoir answers dryly.

“And the half-light makes them look better, even if their perfume leaves something to be desired,” Sisely chimes in with a pronounced English accent.

“Seems Monet’s in need of another dose of open-air painting,” Bazille adds with a feigned aristocratic air.

“You’re absolutely right!” Renoir tells Bazille. “A nude couldn’t possibly hide her imperfections in the natural light of Fontainebleau. And, no doubt she’d smell a lot better in the open air.” They break out in laughter.

Monet can’t keep his eyes off Camille. Later he finds her card pinned to a wall along with the names of women who, in addition to modeling, often provide supplementary services for painters: Zoé Pidéfer, 7 Rue Campagne-Première, Flore Beauchamp, 32 Rue de Laval, Camille Doncieux, 17 Boulevard des Batingnolles.

How did he persuade her to model for him? Did they bargain over the price? The street smart Camille would certainly have known how to deal with the likes of Monet and other artists who approached her. How might Zola have written the exchange between them?

Camille finds Claude waiting for her after she’s worked a long shift at the Guerbois.

“I found your card,” he tells her. “I want you to pose for me.”

“Partially or fully naked?” she answers. “Fully will cost you more.”

“With your clothes on. I want to do a portrait for the Salon, a woman in a green dress.”

“The Salon? You’re joking.”

“It’s no joke!” he answers irritated.

“You can’t afford me?’

“I’ll pay ten francs a sitting.”

“Ten francs! Now there’s a princely sum. You can barely pay for your own room and board.”

“Twenty francs.”

“To pose, nothing more.” Claude nods. Camille breaks up in laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

“Your paying me to keep my clothes on.”

What happened between them as he painted her? Perhaps something akin to what Stephen Sondheim created between George and Dot in Sunday in the Park with George.

Claude stands by his easel studying an earlier drawing of Camille, pins it to the edge of a large canvas. Camille is behind a dressing screen.

“Such an elegant dress,” she exclaims. “But wouldn’t it be better if you painted me as a naked courtesan in bed with a pillow under her ass?”

“Hurry so I can capture the light,” Claude answers brusquely. Camille moves from behind the dressing screen wearing an elegant green dress.

“Why did we have to start so early?”

“The light,” Monet mumbles, as he positions her under a skylight, then moves back to his canvas.

“This dress makes me sweat.

“Raise your head. ”

“It makes my tits itch.”

“Concentrate, hold the pose.”

“You know, they gossip about you at the Guerbois.”

“Hold still and stand up straight.”

“They say you’re very strange.”

“Stop moving your arms and head!” He approaches Camille, positions her head directly under a stream of light from the skylight.

Soon the light begins to fade. Claude sighs.

“Enough for today,” Camille moves to the canvas. He searches her face expectantly.

“That’s how you see me.”

“Yes, elegant in the light.” Camille senses he wants to take her in his arms but he stops himself.


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

Dame a La Robe Verte

It didn’t take Camille long to fall in love with Claude.

The thirteen years he spent with Camille until she died were dominated by the single-minded, unwavering pursuit of his painting and plagued by a constant lack of money, often so acute they barely had enough to eat. Through all of their hardships and in spite of the fact that Camille was physically fragile, it never once occurred to Monet to support them with money he could have earned from drawing more caricatures.

On at least two occasions Monet abandoned Camille. The first time was in the Spring of 1867. Monet was deeply disappointed by the third Salon’s rejection of his painting, Women in the Garden.

Women in the Garden

Camille was almost six months pregnant with their first child. They were unmarried. There was no money Monet knew that if he returned to his father’s home he’d be given food and lodging and he could continue painting. But his father adamantly refused to acknowledge Camille. Monet managed to sell two small paintings to art dealers in Paris. He gave Camille the money, found her a room in les Bagtignolles and returned to Le Havre to paint leaving her in the care of his friend Frédéric Bazille who had often sent them money in the past. Monet left for Le Havre secure in the knowledge he could depend on the compassionate Bazille to tend to Camille.

Compassionate Bazille

During this period Monet captured his father and another woman, most likely his Aunt Jeanne-Marguerite, watching the regatta with another couple from the terrace of their summer home in Saint Adresse. One wonders how he managed to reconcile the easy affluence and sumptuous bourgeois comfort conveyed in the picture with the extreme poverty of Camille’s life in Paris.

Sainte Adresse last shot

What must Monet have been feeling as he painted his father and aunt on the terrace? Could he have overheard them speaking of the mess he’d gotten himself into with that street girl from Paris? How might Zola have written the scene?

      “Never finished his baccalauréat,” Adolpe grumbles. “Too good to work in the family business. Apart from those silly 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 this whore he’s made pregnant, will it ever end!?”

      “You’ve been so hard on him,” Jeanne-Marguerite answers, “especially since the death of his mother, lost to both of you.” Adophe softens for a moment but his face hardens.

      “If he were disciplined like his brother.”

      “He has talent, unlike his brother.”

    “Talent?! Those daubs he puts on his canvasses? And he calls it art. He’s a spoiled, good-for-nothing dilettante who’s never done a real day’s work in his life. Well I’m finished 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.”

What must Monet have been feeling years later when he painted this portrait of his father?

Portrait d'Adolphe Monet

The second time Monet abandoned Camille was in 1870 at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. By then their first son Jean was three years old. Monet resented the war. Like many of his compatriots, he believed it to be another imperialist attempt to gain power. More importantly, it disrupted the budding impressionist movement. Renoir and Bazille joined regiments. Jongkind had returned to Holland. Boudin went to Brussels with Diaz. Monet learned that Daubigny was in London and Sisley and Pissarro were on their way there. He had to join them. He hastily made arrangements for Camille. He married her so she could at least have the benefit of his name if anything happened to him. He left her and Jean in the care of an innkeeper, la Mère Toutain, and extracted a promise from the wife of one of his patrons, Madame Gaudibert, that she would help them if necessary. Again Monet abandoned Camille, secure in the knowledge that compassionate friends would tend to her needs. Just before leaving, he painted her on the beach at Trouville. One is struck by how he blends Camille into the surrounding landscape.

Monet's painting of Camille on the beach at Trouville

The most revealing aspect of Monet’s neglect of Camille is in how he went about it. During her pregnancy, he was too distracted to be with her and compelled to beg close friends, especially Fredéric Bazille, to help him with his poor, sweet, helpless burden. Monet’s letters to Bazille are filled with pleas and imprecations, as if they were written by a parent unable to cope with a burdensome child. In June 1867, when Camille was eight months pregnant: “Before I left Paris I sold a small seascape to Codart and one of my Paris views to Latouche. It was a great relief and a joy to me as I was able to be of some help to poor Camille…Send whatever you can, the more the better.” In late June, 1867: “What a painful situation! Camille is a very sweet, very good child and has been so reasonable. I have a prayer to make. Camille is due to lie in on July 25. It is essential I get to Paris and stay ten days or so. I shall need money for lots of things. Try to send me something, even if only 100 or 150 francs. Think of it. Don’t forget it for I shall be in a pretty desperate state without it.” In early July, after not hearing from Bazille: “It is cruel of you not to have written. I am worried about Camille who hasn’t a blessed sou. Every day I am dreadfully afraid she’ll have to take to her bed. What a position to be in, the poor creature! I do beg you my dear friend to get me out of here. My inquiétude is as plain as daylight to everyone in the house. I must leave in a week at the latest. I should be horribly unhappy if Camille was brought to bed without any of the necessities, without a mid-wife, a nurse, without care, even without anything to wrap the little one in. And at all cost I must be there. Think of me and forgive the excessive eagerness with which I appeal to you in my bad moments.” In another letter which quickly followed: “Think of me. This is my prayer to you. I simply must have money. After this I will leave you in peace but the child must not come into the world miserably. It must have what it needs. And I only have you to count on. I am in a constant state of worry and your reply alone can calm me.”

Portrait of Monet by Emile Duran 1867

Monet was not there when Camille gave birth to Jean. He never stopped painting and almost blinded himself from sunstroke.

The regatta at Sainte Adresse, fisherman on the beach…

Regatta at Saine Adresse Beach at Sainte Adresse

…the beach at low tide, a fisherman’s cabin…

The beach at low tide Fisherman's cabin at Sainte Adresse

…his aunt in a garden.

Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre dans un jardin a Sainte Adresse

Jeanne-Marguerite again came to the rescue. She paid Claude’s fare to Paris. He ran to Camille and the baby – a beautiful, healthy boy. Later he showed Bazille the results of his work. Bazille was astounded and wrote his parents, “Monet has just dropped in on me from the blue with a bunch of magnificent paintings. He’ll be sleeping here until the end of the month. With Renoir, that makes two hard-up painters I’m housing. It’s a real workhouse. I’m delighted there’s enough room and they’re both in excellent spirits.”

One wonders how often throughout their working lives Monet and Renoir had occasion to be in excellent spirits.

Monet                                            Renoir

Monet Renoir

Monet’s beautiful Sainte Adresse paintings surely redeemed him in his own eyes and helped him to rationalize his treatment of Camille. But why had he abandoned her so completely? He could have been with her through her pregnancy and drawn more caricatures to be sold at decent prices, a temporary distraction from his real work. Could Monet have also been unconsciously repeating in his neglect of Camille and pleas to Bazille a much earlier drama, that of a distraught mother unable to cope with a needy child, desperately pleading with her husband to help her?

A strong hint of the emotional impact of Monet’s early childhood can be found in Le Déjeuner which is arguably the deepest personal statement he was ever to make about his early relationship with his mother. He painted Le Déjeuner in 1868. After obtaining a modest allowance from his benefactor Gaudibert, he rented a small cottage in Étretat and settled in with Camille and Jean who was then one year old. The cottage was nestled on a hill that slopes down to the sea, a wide stretch of pasture to one side.

Monet cottage in Etretat

Imagine Camille sitting by the fireplace lit by a cozy fire, Jean at her feet chewing on a slice of apple. Claude sits opposite Camille smoking a pipe, reading the paper as in this portrait of him by Renoir.

Portrait of Monet by Renoi reading paper

Camille writes a letter to her parents in Paris.

      “It’s beautiful here, especially in winter, different than the sheltered countryside of Ville d’Avray. No garden but we have a pasture by the cottage with a big fence where birds come to perch. It snowed last night and sometimes a mysterious magpie wakes us in the morning with loud, clacking sounds, as if he were saying, ‘Don’t waste the day!’ This morning, Claude caught him on a fence by our cottage.”

La Pie effet to neige

Camille smiles at Jean, glances at Claude puffing contentedly as he reads, and continues writing.

      “It’s no-frills plain and simple here with few distractions. What a blessing to be away from the noise and stink of the Batignolles. For the first time I feel safe, as if I belong, here with Claude and our beautiful boy.”

It was a brief moment of respite from landlords and creditors and perhaps the happiest time of Monet’s life. He wrote to Bazille, “I am surrounded here by everything I love…In the evening I come back to a good fire and a loving little family in my cozy cottage. I wish you could see your godson now, how charming he is. It is fascinating to watch this little being grow up. I am very happy to have him. I shall put him in a picture for the Salon with other figures around naturally, an interior with baby and two women. I want to do them in a really outstanding way.” In the same letter to Bazille, “…the further I get, the more I regret how little I know…the more I notice that one never gives frank expression to what one feels. It’s strange. That’s why I’m doubly happy to be here.”

Such a happy, relaxed state of mind is conducive to the frank expression of deeper feelings.

Le Dejeuner

In the luncheon scene Monet is absent but his place has been set at the table along with a copy of Le Figaro, as if he is expected to arrive momentarily. Little Jean is seated next to Camille who tends to her son without much pleasure and a clear hint of ambivalence in her face. Another identical Camille, distant, detached, is leaning against the window and gazes sadly at the two of them without really being there. The maid who has just served the luncheon is leaving the room and casts a sad, disparaging eye on the two women. Although Monet is manifestly absent, he may well be there in the guise of his son. And the facial expressions of the two Camilles convey a poignant sense of how the little boy Claude may have experienced his real mother, alternately distant, distraught, too depressed to cope with his emotional needs, and caring, responsible but still unable to spontaneously enjoy him. The disapproving maid suggests Monet’s aunt Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre who had often disagreed with his father and on more than a few occasions had helped him put food on his table. There is no father in the picture, just a little boy alone, surrounded by troubled, unhappy women.

How often do people who’ve been emotionally deprived in their early lives, people much less talented than Monet, express the need to be alone? They show little desire for close personal bonds or emotional intimacy because the price is too high. Isolation is the consequence of a seemingly constitutional inability to trust. One of the most striking aspects of Monet’s work is the lack of precise attention to human figures as if he had no interest in their intimate details. Even Le Déjeuner misses the exquisite subtleties of facial expression and elaborate physical gestures Cézanne would surely have brought to the picture. It’s human subjects are without the rich, vibrant, delicious skin tones Renoir would certainly have created. The food on the table – the crusty bread, the ripe, juicy grapes, the subtle differences in tone of the oil, vinegar and wine – compete with the human figures for the attention of the observer. In Monet’s paintings, libido never flows to human figures. It always flows elsewhere. In most of his work, he applies a distanced scanning appropriate to landscapes. No better illustration of this can be found than by comparing how Monet and Renoir, side by side, painted La Grenouillère, a popular, risqué resort a short distance from Paris that included a spa, boating establishment and floating café. Monet wrote in 1869, “I do have a dream, a painting, the baths of La Grenouillère, for which I have made some bad sketches, but it is only a dream. Renoir, who has just spent two months here, also wants to do this painting.”

What a contrast the two paintings make! Renoir’s figures in the foreground are crisp, vibrant and stand out against the water, the adjacent barge and landscape.

La Grenouillère by Renoir
La Grenouilere by Renoir
In contrast, Monet’s figures blend dreamily into the water and almost merge with the landscape.
La Grenouillère by Monet
La Grenouilere by Monet
The only time Monet ever showed sustained interest in human figures was as an angry teenager. His clever caricatures helped him at once to displace and sublimate his anger and cry out with an imperial demand for the attention he so desperately craved from those he loved who had failed to understand him. There was safety in such a demand because it covered the shame of feeling flawed in some deep way because his early caregivers were unable to mirror, validate and empathize with his true self. Monet’s distancing behavior occurred time and time again with the one person in his adult life that he loved and feared most. Time and time again he avoided getting too close to Camille. Their 13 troubled years together were replete with separations and distractions.
In 1867, he left her pregnant with their first child in the Batignolles. In 1870, he left her again for England during the Franco-Prussian War. In 1872, after they had settled in Argenteuil, he frequently stayed in Paris where he rented studios, always obsessively consumed with his painting.
Monet pensive
What must Camille have been feeling in Argenteuil only eight miles from Paris? Some hints of her sadness and resignation are provided in these portraits of her by Renoir completed not long before she died.
A sad Camile 1877 3 years before her death Camille sad several years before she died
Camille perhaps posing for Monet
Monet’s greatest distraction from Camille came in 1876 when he accepted a commission from a wealthy store owner Ernest Hoschedé to paint the grounds surrounding his country estate at Montgeron. It came in the person of Alice, Hoschedé’s elegant, seductive and unhappy wife.
Unlike Monet’s father, Ernest Hoschedé had a fine artistic sensibility and a genuine appreciation of the new impressionist art. Like Monet’s father, he was a poor businessman who eventually went bankrupt. Alice Hoschedé was an unhappy woman. She was worried by her husband’s consuming interest in les beaux arts at the neglect of his business and stressed by the demands of her children. She was also glamorous, flirtatious and liked to please. Monet instantly felt an intense physical attraction to her and she became his mistress. Alice would try to keep a strong hold on him in the years to come, in many respects like that of a jealous, demanding mother. Camille joined Monet briefly at Montgeron and was apparently relieved to return to Paris in the Winter of 1876. Alice Hoschedé eventually left her husband. In August 1877, Ernest Hoschedé was declared bankrupt. Four days later, Alice gave birth to a boy, Jean Hoschedé, who was fathered by Monet. In 1878, after the sale and dispersal of the Montgeron estate, Alice and her children joined Monet, Camille and Jean in their little house in Vétheuil.
Camille was pregnant, sick and growing weaker. Ernest Hoschedé alsotook refuge with them for a time and gave lessons to the children. In March 1878, Camille gave birth to Michel.Six months later she was dead at barely 30 years of age.
What must Camille have been feeling after the birth of Michel? Did she spend her mornings by the window nursing him as she watched her eldest son Jean and Blanche Hoschedé play in the garden? Jean and Blanche would marry many years after she died.
Monet cottage in Vetheuil

On other afternoons did she watch Jean playing on his hobby horse in the garden?

Jean on his hobby horse

Did she ever gaze at the church in Vétheuil, its eaves and spire clear and beautiful in the morning sunlight, and listen to the bells ring the morning Angelus?

Church 2

Through all of it Monet never stopped painting.

Monet around the death of Camille

After her death, some of the smaller Paris newspapers began to ridicule and mock the ménage à trois at Vétheuil. They accused Hoschedé of living at Monet‘s beck and call. Hoschedéargued with Monet and eventually moved to Paris to live with his mother. But Monet needed financial support. As always, he would do anything to paint no matter what the cost. In November, 1879 he asked Hoschedé to return to Vétheuil to stifle “…such absurd noises that only your presence would have a very good effect.” Monet eventually told Hoschedé that if he wanted Alice back, he would have to pay him the sum of 3,086 francs. Hoschedé refused.

Afew years later, after his work began to sell Monet no longer needed Ernest Hoschedé. It was also becoming harder for him to take the endless pressure for attention from Alice that had so excited and drawn him to her when they first met. Again, Monet distanced himself. In 1883, after settling Alice and the children in the spacious manor house that he rented at Giverny, he was off on a series of painting trips to Bordighera, Cap Martin, Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, Belle Isle and La Creuse. These trips kept him from Giverny for most of the next seven years.

In 1890, Monet purchased the manor house and surrounding property. He and Alice and the children could at last settle into a secure, comfortable family life. Ernest Hoschedé died in March 1891 and was buried at Giverny. Monet and Alice married in 1892. They lived together for the next 19 years during which Alice faithfully supervised the household, tended to Monet’s creature comforts and looked after the children, leaving Monet free to pursue his artistic vision in a life of bourgeois comfort and security he had never known with Camille.


Yet even with financial security, a life of abundance, a second devoted wife and loving children, Monet’s defensive temperament, his habitual compulsion to keep himself at a distance, makes him such a fugitive celebrity – like one of the ephemeral figures in his landscapes – that it’s barely possible to fathom who the man really was.

There are only a few hints of what motivated Monet to stay with Camille and not abandon her completely. When they first met, she was young, frivolous and irresponsible. After she was pregnant, Bazille complained to him that she was not worth the trouble to support, but Monet responded: “When I see the manner and behavior of the mother, I shall be able to decide what I must do.” As Camille progressed in her pregnancy, he wrote Bazille, “…she is so kind, a really good girl and she has seen sense and in so doing has made me even sadder…”

Monet was deeply moved by Camille’s response to motherhood. Like Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, it became more difficult for him to keep his distorted view of her as a street girl, a mere sexual object. Camille gradually blossomed into a caring, nurturing mother captured in these portraits of her and Jean, the first two by Renoir, the last by Monet.

Camille and Jean by Renoir 1 Camille and Jean by Renoir 2

Camille strolling with Jean by Monet 3

Monet’s mother had been too distraught to be fully available to him. His aunt Lecadre had only been conditionally available. Alice was such a seductive mélange of the two that Monet could let himself be seduced because it was easy to keep her emotionally at bay. Camille was not so easy because she was always available to both her child and her husband. Monet was terrified at the prospect of such intimacy. Like Oedipus in the passionate embrace of Jocasta, he blinded himself rather than ever again risk the unbearable pain of much earlier deprivations. Monet created a safe buffer zone for himself with Camille by repeating with her what he had learned from his mother. Throughout his long, prolific life the only way he would ever show the full depth of his need for these two women was in the fervid pursuit of his art.

Monet’s Reparation of Earlier Losses in His Creation of the Series

The Cathedrals

Monet began work on one of his most important paintings, Vétheuil dans le Brouillard, in the autumn of 1879 just after Camille died. He painted the church at Vétheuil surrounded by fog, bathed in a rainbow of colors created by the first rays of the morning sun. He considered the painting unfinished and believed it would reveal a great deal about the author and his dream. He was mainly concerned in the motif with capturing the changing appearance of the sun’s light as it penetrates the mist and begins to caress the corpus of the church, as if to bring it more fully to life.

Church final

The painting has much in common with Camile on her Death Bed. In the death portrait, Monet captured the blue, yellow and gray death tones of Camille’s face and felt trapped like “an animal turning a millstone.” Was he also striving for something other than a cadaverous effect when he added lines of pink to the blue gray striations?

Death portrait 1 Death portrait 3

Was the man who believed an artist always carries his picture in his head before painting it also striving in some way to make up for his neglect of Camille? Could he have felt like Zampano in Fellin’s La Strada, devastated by the death of Gelsomina, the sincere, trusting peasant girl who had followed him everywhere as Camille had done with Claude?

Gelsomina 1 Gelsomina 3

Did Monet ever visit Camille’s grave while he worked on Vétheuil dans le Brouillard?

Camille's grave at Vetheuil 2 Camille's grave stone

He never felt Vétheuil dans le Brouillard was finished. He struggled to complete something he had started in Camille’s death portrait but couldn’t achieve; adding bit by bit the energy of the morning sun. He came closer to accomplishing this goal with the church, but never close enough; the illusive goal he had unconsciously and hopelessly fought for in the death portrait: To keep Camille from dying.

Church 13 endormie Church final Church 9 se reveilant
What Monet began in Vétheuil dans le Brouillard, he brought to spectacular fruition in The Cathedrals. Perhaps the most eloquent description of his achievement comes from his old compatriot, Georges Clemenceau.

“The marvel of Monet’s way of sensing things is that he sees the stone vibrate and gives it to us vibrating, bathed in luminous waves which collide and break up into flashing sparkles…Now the stone itself lives, one senses it molting its former life as it turns to its next…

Flashing Sparkles

…these gray cathedrals…of purple…of azure buffeted by gold…

Gray, purple, azure, buffeted by gold

…these white cathedrals of fiery portals streaming with green, red or blue flames…

white, streaming red, green blue flames

…and these rainbow cathedrals which seem to be seen through a rotating prism…

rainbow seen through rotating prism

…and these blue cathedrals which are rose…

Blue which are rose

…suddenly give you a durable vision not of twenty, but of a hundred, a thousand, a million states of eternal cathedral in the endless cycle of sunlight. It amounts to life itself; as much as sensing it can be granted us, in its most living reality.”

A glimpse at Monet’s state of mind when he worked on The Cathedrals suggests another emotional influence that drove him. It comes from his son Jean Hoschedé whom he fathered with Alice at Mongeron. Jean seemed to be reading his father’s mind when he observed, “The cathedral was splendid yesterday, so colored, flooded with sunlight, and here in this gray, inverted weather, it is somber, sad; its contours seem worn by the years. More than ever, it appears large and unfathomable. The ringing of the bells in this instant enhances its imposing mass and the greatness of its past. But how make the ringing heard on the canvas, how express the emotion it provokes?” Could the emotion that the ringing provoked in Monet have came from a much earlier time, from the many hours he must have spent listening to his mother, an accomplished cantatrice, who was remembered for the great beauty of her singing voice?

The Poplars

In 1890, Monet first noticed a magnificent stand of poplars growing along the Epte river not far from Giverny. After he had begun work on the paintings, he learned the trees were to be cut and sold at auction. Monet promptly found the most likely buyer and agreed to pay him the difference between the amount he had planned to bid and the amount he would have to pay if he kept bidding, on condition that the trees be left standing until he completed his series of paintings. What drove Monet to act in such a proprietary manner?

Again, Jean Hoschedé hints at his father’s motive. “The poplars along the Epte,” he noted, as if speaking for his father, “were very beautiful yesterday in the wind which made their branches undulate and lifted up their leaves…

wind made branches undulate, lifted up their leaves

…but today they are fixed, half asleep…beautiful in their peacefulness and immobility.”

half asleep in overcast weather

Monet spent day after day on his bateau atelier struggling to capture the poplars…

Bateau atelier 2

…undulating against a blue sky…

poplars sinuous and alive

…ephemeral in the haze…

ephemeral in the haze

…half asleep at dawn…

half asleep at dawn

…and golden in the sunlight.

poplars golden in the sun

Does Monet’s proprietary arrangement with the woodcutter, driven by his obsession to capture the poplars at every moment as they twisted and turned and slept, suggest a very early enchantment with the subtle, sinuous movements of his pretty, dark haired mother?

The Grain Stacks

If Vétheuil dans le Brouillard and The Cathedrals gave visual expression to Monet’s desire to keep Camille alive, and if The Poplars gave displaced expression to his screen memories and early fantasies of his mother, what do the Grain Stacks and Nymphéas reveal about the deeper yearnings of his hidden self?

The Grain Stacks, more than any of the other series may hint at Monet’s unconscious yearning for the very early nurturing he got from his mother Louise-Justine. Monet surely knew that grain stacks in Normandy at that time were carefully built, thatched structures designed much like houses to keep the rain out. The type of wheat grown then was more easily removed from the stalks after a long period of drying. Grain stacks were much more valuable than ordinary haystacks and were literally treated as the wealth of their owners. The sun was an indispensable aid to the farmers in their task of removing the wheat from its stalks so they could eventually nourish themselves and their families. Did the parallel between the Normandy farmers’ need for nourishment and that of a small child strike a deep chord in Monet?

What must he have been feeling as he worked tenaciously, day after day, to capture the grain stacks?

Aglow in the morning sun…

Aglow in the morning sun

…as if bursting with nourishment…

Bursting with nourishment

…resting peacefully in late afternoon…


…asleep in the twilight.

Safe and secure at twilight

When he worked on The Grain Stacks, Monet became obsessed with replicating as exactly as possible a multitude of specific, short-lived light effects. He was driven to arrest the fugitive quality of color and its flickering inconstancy. He once went so far as to paint as many as 50 canvases of one grain stack. He admitted that he often got carried away and it was difficult for him to stop in time. He nevertheless insisted: “This is my great strength, it’s the only strength I have.” Could Monet have been unconsciously expressing in his series of grain stacks an intense, almost ravenous hunger for the moments of early warmth and unconditional acceptance he once got from his mother, the mother in Le Déjeuner who was less able to give him the emotional nourishment he needed as he grew older?

This little boy brings to mind another little boy, Ingemar, in Lasse Halström’s film, My Life as a Dog. At the beginning of the film, Ingemar lies on the beach with his mother who bursts out laughing when he gesticulates happily and flips over on his back like a seal.

on beach with mom 3 a mother who took such pleasure in being with him

A mother who delights in playing with and taking pictures of her little boy with his dog Sickan whom he loves as much as his mother

play even when I upset her she laughs with me a mother who to take pictures of her little boy and his dog Sickan Ingemar who loved Sickan as much as his mother

After his mother dies of tuberculosis, Ingemar comforts himself with these memories. “She has just the right sense of humor,” he murmurs to himself.

The spontaneous, joyful responses Ingemar got from his mother left him open to receiving empathy from others. After she dies, Ingemar is sent to live with his aunt and uncle. In school he meets Saga who steals the ball from him in a soccer game.

saga steals the ball from Ingemar

The other boys on the team respect Saga.

other boys on the team in awe of Saga

Ingemar and Saga become friends, practice boxing together. She can’t resist hugging him as they box.

Saga can't resist hugging Ingemar as they box

Later in the story, Saga tells Ingemar she may get kicked off the soccer team because she can no longer hide her budding breasts and shows them to Ingemar.

Here see for yourself as she shows Ingemar little breats

She invites him to feel them.

Invites him to feel them

At the end of the story, we leave Ingemar and Saga curled up on the sofa asleep while listening to the victory of Ingemar Johansson over Floyd Patterson on the radio.

They fall asleep listing to the Ingemar Johansson - Floyd Patterson fight

Monet never got the emotional nourishment, validation and empathy Ingemar received from his mother that prepared him to accept this kind of nourishment in later life.

The Nymphéas

What do The Nymphéas reveal about the deeper emotional yearnings of Monet? He once explained that he wished to create…

…the illusion of a whole without end…


…of water without horizon and without banks…


…where nerves over-strained by work would be relaxed following the restful example of the still waters…


…It would offer an asylum of peaceful meditation in the center of a flowery aquarium to whoever experienced it…


Was Monet unconsciously expressing in The Nymphéas an obsessive desire to experience the irretrievable bliss of a very early emotional attachment to his mother?

He spent the last 30 years of his life changing, improving and constantly perfecting his renderings of The Nymphéas.

Yet like a possessive lover, it pained him to give them up.

Vieux jalou

He always waited until his canvases were sold before signing them and then had to force himself.

Monet studio 3

He stubbornly resisted the pleas of his old friend Clemenceau to turn over The Nymphéas, purchased at very high prices by the state, to be installed in Le Musée de l’Orangerie specially designed for them in Paris.

Monet au repos

Clemenceau had to threaten to withdraw his friendship before Monet capitulated.

Vieux combattant

Monet finally had to sign his work, performing a last onerous task that thoroughly disgusted him.

Monet in his studio 1923

The Nymphéas were eventually installed on the ground floor of L’Orangerie in 1927, exactly as Monet had wished them to be.

Nympheas 1

Nympheas 3

Nympheas 4

Life at Giverny

Monet’s family paid dearly for his unbridled devotion to his art. Jean Hoschedé describes times when his father became so frustrated and enraged, he sulked for days at a time.

There were periods in which life was laborious and painful, not only for my mother but for the whole family. Monet’s discouragement was triggered either by dissatisfaction with his work or by a change in the weather that thwarted or interrupted it. Sometimes he would be overcome with fits of rage and destroy his canvases, as if to punish himself. He then retreated, sulking and somewhat ashamed, to his bed and we wouldn’t see him for a day or two. During this time a silence pervaded the household…at the dinner table, no one moved or spoke and all you could hear was the clinking of the forks against the plates…

Dinner table in manor house

…And when he reappeared, usually at the urging of my mother, little by little his malaise abated and everything returned to normal. Afterward, he was constantly in his gardens, his great consolation.”

And what a consolation it was. With the help of six full time gardeners, Monet set out to create not just a garden but a magnificent palette of colors for every season.

In the Spring, a Japanese Cherry Tree, Forget Me Nots, Pansies…

April Japanese Cherry Tree April Forget Me Nots April Pansies

…Tulips, Irises and Dahlias.

April Tulips Irises in full splendor Rose Dahlias

In the Summer, roses, zinnias and delphiniums…

June Roses July Zinnias May Delphinium

…clementis, wisteria and rhododendrons.

June Clematis May Wisterias May Rhododendron

In the Fall, asters, nasturtiums and rudebeckia.

September Asters September Nasturtiums capeting la grande allee September Rudebeckia

Imagine Monet, his heart bursting with joy, taking in the cornucopia of Autumn colors from the manor house…

A last profusion of Autumn Colors 2 A last profusion of Autumn Colors 3

…and the banks of the water lily pond.

A last profusion of Autumn Colors 1 A last profusion of Autumn Colors 4

Monet’s intense fascination and proprietary feeling for his exquisite garden were expressed dramatically on at least one occasion.

One day a neighbor, Raymond Koechlin, saw Monet at 80 years of age in his garden, his face distorted with grief, eyes staring intently, clothes in disarray, pacing back and forth.

“My poor Monet, what’s the matter?” Koechlin asked. “Are you frightened? Speak to me. What’s bothering you?”

“Nothing, nothing, nothing, I tell you,” Monet shot back, then cried out, “Well here it is. It’s hideous! There was a storm yesterday. Two trees in my garden are dead. do you hear? Two trees! Well that does it! It’s no longer my garden.”

Was Monet’s fury covering the anguish of the little boy whose beautiful mother was lost to him many years earlier, the little boy alive deep inside the old man…

Regarrdant toujours ailleur

…who consoled himself as the proud, possessive master of his garden?

Chef de son jardin

Monet also consoled himself by painting portraits of his beautiful step-daughther Suzanne Hoschedé who reminded him of Camille…

…strolling in the garden…

Suzanne la belle qui lui rapelle de Camille

…reading as her sister Blanche paints her portrait.

Suzanne lisant et Blanche peignant

Monet objected to Suzanne’s marriage to the American painter Theodore Earl Butler but relented grudgingly after learning of the wealth of Butler’s family. Imagine what the jealous paterfamilias must have been feeling, arm in arm with Alice, during the wedding procession of his lovely Suzanne and Butler.

Wedding procession of Suzanne Hoschede and Theodore Butler

It also comes as no surprise to learn that Suzanne was the only model that Alice – the jealous, possessive Alice who destroyed all of Camille’s letters – ever allowed Monet to work with after the death of Camille.

Monet suffered grave personal losses during his years at Giverny: the death of Suzanne in 1899; the death of Alice in 1911; the death of his eldest son Jean in 1914; and the temporary loss of his sight from cataracts in the early twenties. He always recovered from each loss and the work inexorably continued. After Alice died, his friend Gustave Geffroy remarked that Monet would pull himself together because he hadn’t yet “…finished expressing himself.”

Monet’s genius commanded the devotion of family and friends alike who did much to ease the pain of his losses. He received the loving care of his stepdaughter Blanche who had a remarkable physical resemblance to her mother and had married Monet’s son Jean.

Alice et Blanche

After Jean’s death, Blanche became Monet’s constant companion, encouraging him to work, looking after the house and receiving his friends. In most respects Blanche, whom he called “son ange gardien,” took on the role of her mother.

Life at Giverny revolved completely around Monet and his work. Up at the crack of dawn, a cold bath followed by a hearty English breakfast of eggs, sausage, crusty bread and coffee. Then outdoors with son ange gardien behind him pushing a cart filled with canvasses. When he found a motif, Monet would snatch one of the canvases, then another with the changing light, then another, obsessed with capturing every nuance of les conditions atmosphériques.

They returned to the manor house at 11:30 sharp for a copious lunch that always had to be served on time. Only at lunch were guests received at Giverny. Supper would always be eaten in early evening, then off to bed for a good night’s rest, then up for work at dawn.

Three years before his death Monet underwent cataract surgery. His old friend Clemenceau, a physician by training, recommended the surgeon. Another friend, André Barbier, helped him find the corrective glasses he needed after the operation. Before the operation while his eyes were affected by the cataracts, Monet’s Nymphéas took on a reddish tone. Ever the perfectionist, after the surgery with the aid of his corrective lenses, he added more blue to these paintings. He worked obsessively on The Nymphéas, finishing, retouching, striving for an illusive goal he never quite managed to achieve, almost until the day he died at 86 years of age. Monet’s death interrupted his work.

Monet's Death Interrupted the Work

The tragedy of Claude Monet is that he never healed in later life from the early emotional loss of his mother and the failure of his father to give him the encouragement and validation he received from Boudin and Jongkind. In adult life, he was too hurt to ever fully claim the compensatory love that Camille could offer. He might have created a rich, intimate family life with her much like the one we know Ingmar and Saga will have in My Life as a Dog; a life filled with trust, sharing and a balance of work, procreation and pleasurable distractions. If he had, would Monet have achieved as much as he did in rendering “les conditions atmosphériques” that consumed most of his energy?

Monet paid a great personal price for the way he lived. He spent his youth and middle years as a driven, solitary figure, always at a distance from those he loved. As a weary, obsessed old man, he became disgusted in a thousand different ways with his own limitations poignantly expressed in this self-portrait.

Old Monet self portrait

The self-disgust covered his increased desperation as he moved closer to death. Monet knew he could never take pleasure in completing and signing even the best of his work because he ultimately realized that the task he had set himself could never be achieved in reality.

His grave stone is surrounded by flowers…

Tombstone 1

…in a small corner of Giverny.

Suirrounded by flowers

As he moved closer to death did he ever think of Camille buried in Vétheuil?

Camille's grave stone

Did the memories of Camille that he must surely have carried in his head come to him as dream images when he slept?

Camille à la Japonaise when they first became lovers…

Camille seductrice 1866

…a lazy moment in the garden with Camille…

Resting in the garden with Camille

…Camille sewing contentedly behind him as he worked…

Camille behind Claude watching him paint

…proudly finishing a tapestry in the garden…

Camille working her tapesterie in the garden

…gazing serenely out a window surrounded by flowers…

Camille heureuse a la fenetre entouree de fleurs

…strolling by gladioli in Argenteuil…

Camille among he gladioli

…reading in the sun …

Camille dans la prarie

…posing with Jean and his nanny.

Camille au jardin avec Jean et sa bonne

…about to serve lunch as Jean plays by the table…

Camille and Jean lunch

…Jean and Michel…

Portrait de Jean en bonnet Michel Monet le bebe

…and perhaps a very young Monet with Camille and their two boys, in the shade of a saule pleurer by the waterlilie pond.

Resting under a saule pleurer by the waterlile pond


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