The death of Claude Monet’s first wife, Camille, at the age of 32, prompted the artist to rush to a canvas and paint her. In life, she had acted as a muse and a model, sometimes depicted multiple times in different costumes and poses in the artist’s early Impressionist masterpieces. Virginia Woolf once wistfully wrote that death would be the one experience she would not be able to observe, but in this last painting of Camille, done in 1879, Monet gave us a facsimile of the despair one feels watching a loved one ebb away. This master painter of scenes of water used the imagery of a cold, grey river in what his biographer Jackie Wullschläger describes as a “torrent of brushstrokes (that) submerges and sweeps away Camille’s body”.
Off canvas, a complex emotional drama was playing out. Monet was grieving his wife and filled with foreboding at the prospect of bringing up his children alone. But, he had fallen in love with Alice Hoschedé, the wife of a spendthrift textile businessman who had bankrupted himself—in large part buying Monet’s art. To economise, the two families had taken a residence together away from Paris. Alice had doubled as mother to her own brood of children and Monet’s while acting as palliative nurse to Camille.
Wullschläger’s biography, Monet: The Restless Vision—incredibly the first in English of the French Impressionist artist whose work was so pivotal in transforming the world’s views of art—puts Monet’s relationships with these two women at the centre of the narrative. Wullschläger navigates the artist’s convoluted private life and the growing public prominence of his art with equal flair.
Reading a biography set in the mid-19th century through the first two decades of the 20th century, a period bookended by the end of the industrial revolution and the rapid economic growth that followed until World War I, is a reminder of what an important time this was. Monet, born in 1840, went as a young soldier in his 20s to Algeria, then recently colonised by France, and later moved with his family as a refugee at 30 to England to escape being drafted in the Franco-Prussian War. As a young artist, Monet had to move home to escape creditors, sometimes slashing his canvases as he fled so they could not be seized and sold. At the end of his life, the once impoverished artist was wealthy and had six gardeners to look after his huge garden, which was also backdrop for his iconic Water Lilies series. This sanctuary from World War I and his closest friend being the influential French politician and former and future premier Georges Clemenceau did not, however, protect Monet from the agony of seeing a son drafted in that war.
Monet’s battles as an artist seeking to change the world’s view of art were epic. Taken to the Louvre by friends eager to introduce him to the old masters of painting, he let himself out of a window and painted vistas of Paris instead—literally, as Wullschläger elegantly observes, turning his back on the past. His Impressionist paintings liberated art from giant, often dark canvases of Biblical scenes and realism. Instead, Monet gave us a happier version of a world of almost tropical sunlight and idiosyncratic reflections on water, new settings of picnics and parks and of the new bourgeoisie revelling in having time for leisure. For their innovation of rapid brushstrokes and capturing scenes as they appeared to them, Monet and other Impressionist painters were ostracised and pilloried, however. His work was rejected by the great art shows of mid-19th century Paris and memorably ridiculed by a Le Figaro reviewer after the first Impressionist show: “They take canvas, paint and brushes, throw some colour at random and sign the result.”
Knocked down time and again, Monet’s strength of character allowed him to chart his own course in works such as the famous Luncheon On The Grass (1866), that stretches across a couple of panels and draws thousands daily to Paris’ Musée d’Orsay today. The colours are so vivid, the painting so like an optical illusion that a viewer might mistakenly reach for the bottle of wine in the foreground. To call it the painting of a picnic or later works such as Impression Sunrise (1872) the rendering of the port in Le Havre, Monet’s birthplace, is akin to describing Versailles as a country home. Monet helped us see light—and indeed painting—differently. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first independent exhibition of Impressionist artists such as Renoir, Degas and Monet. The Musée d’Orsay will bring together 130 Impressionist works to honour that French Revolution in art with an exhibition that begins next month and ends in mid-July.
After Camille’s death, Monet, who admirably never painted a nude, turned to churches and haystacks and cityscapes while being faithful to his obsession with the effects of light. Wullschläger perceptively observes that churches became the subject of Monet’s paintings when Alice became a part of his life. “From what we know of Camille, she was a material girl, bringing to Monet’s art the pleasures of costume, pose, a garden or a beach. Alice, though no less worldly, was a devout believer and her mystical aspect complemented Monet, resistant to metaphysical speculation…his paintings became more concerned with transience.”
Monet’s earnings in 1891 would cross 100,000 francs a year, a huge amount at the time. The critics by then were rapturous, one observing that “to paint landscape in 1889 without knowing Monet by heart would be to betray a lack of education”. Monet marked the beginning of the 20th century by charting an altogether new course, what interior designers might today glibly refer to as “taking the outside inside”. His Water Lilies series in that first decade of the 20th century was inspired by the pond of his garden in Giverny. As he explained, “The basic element …is the mirror of water… the passing cloud, the fresh breeze, the sudden fierce gust of wind, the fading or suddenly refulgent light…create changes in colour and alter the surface of the water.” Monet said it was “exceedingly hard work” to “catch the fleeting minute, or at least its feeling… A man could devote his entire life to such work.” In one of many deft brushstrokes of her own, Wullschläger says, “For nearly a quarter of a century, Monet did.”
Monet’s grief after the death of Alice in 1911 is so well described that reading about it feels like sitting in on a therapy session. Then his stepdaughter, Blanche, who as an adoring 10-year-old had followed him around helping carry his painting paraphernalia, returned to live with him. Blanche shouldered more serious burdens, even slashing canvases Monet was dissatisfied with at his instruction. Blanche’s care allowed Monet to pick himself up and to keep on working. A visitor in those years described him as a youthful Santa. Despite problems with cataracts and other eye ailments, he worked till his death a decade and a half later.
Wullschläger’s descriptions of Monet’s masterpieces are imaginative, empathetic analyses marked by a march of powerful adjectives, a hallmark of her seemingly 3D arts reviews as chief visual arts critic for the Financial Times. (We were colleagues and friends when I worked on the FT Weekend in the mid-2000s) Of the Water Lilies series, she is both magisterial and matter of fact: “The paintings were in this sense paradoxical: they pushed Impressionism towards abstraction, but as representations they made a particular place, the Giverny pond (of Monet’s garden at home) iconic.”
Monet: A Restless Vision belongs on a shelf with the great biographies of the past few decades because it paints Monet the man in sometimes painful but often heroic detail alongside a triumphal celebration of what he did for art.
Wullschläger’s achievement is all the more remarkable because so much of the research was done in French with less than ample source material. Monet destroyed Alice’s letters, for instance, and a descendant who had her journal allowed Wullschläger to read it but not take notes. (Another relative stepped in to recite parts of it by memory.)
As I finished this docudrama of a biography that is as lavishly illustrated as it is well-written, I was reminded of the late Joan Didion’s account of taking her seven-year-old daughter to the Art Institute of Chicago 50 years ago. Entranced by a huge George O’Keefe painting, Didion’s daughter breathlessly asked to meet the artist. Yet, Wullschläger’s genius is such that, a century after Monet’s death, we share his triumphs and tragedies and gain a fresh appreciation of how central he was to modern art. It is akin to meeting Monet.
Rahul Jacob was travel, food and drink editor of the FT Weekend between 2003 and 2010.