Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Monet was perhaps the only great artist to create a landscape in order to paint it. The result was a garden that shimmered with flowers and water; a feast for the eyes.
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece. I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most is flowers. Always. My heart is forever in Giverny, perhaps I owe it to the flowers that I became a painter
It was thanks to a wedding that Claude Monet discovered the house at Giverny in the spring of 1883. His train made an unscheduled stop to let the wedding party on board and, enchanted by what he saw from the window, Monet disembarked.
Monet was a widower, in search of a home for his extended family: his lover, Alice Hoschedé, her six children, and his own two sons. Since setting out to become a painter he had been plagued by poverty and debt. And at forty-two he was still in financial difficulty; despite being acknowledged as a leader of the Impressionist painting movement, his reputation was confined to a small circle.
Giverny was then a small community of some three hundred inhabitants, nestled in the Seine valley, forty miles north-west of Paris. The low stone houses covered with faded pink or green stucco were bathed in a soft, luminous light that Monet found irresistable. He spotted the largest house in the village: Le Pressoir (The Cider Press House) and saw right away that it would make the perfect home for his ‘tribe’. There was a sizeable walled garden and an orchard, even a barn that could be used as a studio. He fell in love with it and the owner agreed to rent it to him. With a loan from his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, Monet signed the lease and the family moved in.
Monet’s first wife was Camille Doncieux, a beautiful young artists’ model, and he wrote of his great sorrow at her terrible illness and suffering following the birth of their second son. Before her death in 1879, however, he is widely presumed to have already started an affair with Alice Hoschedé. Monet had met Alice when her wealthy husband Ernest commissioned him to make paintings in the grounds of their lavish home, the Château de Rottembourg, and the two families became friends. But Ernest lost his fortune. For a while they all moved in together to a house in Vétheuil beside the Seine. Ernest found work in Paris and virtually abandoned his wife and children; Alice helped Monet to look after the children and nurse Camille through her terminal illness, thought to be cancer.
When Camille died at the age of thirty-two Monet was grief stricken, yet he felt compelled to lock the door and paint her on her deathbed. Forty years later he confessed to his friend Georges Clemenceau that
I found myself staring at the tragic countenance, automatically trying to identify the sequence, the proportion of light and shade in the colours that death had imposed on the immobile face. Shades of blue, yellow, grey…Even before the thought occurred to memorise the face that meant so much to me, my first involuntary reflex was to tremble at the shock of the colours. In spite of myself, my reflexes drew me into the unconscious operation that is the daily order of my life. Pity me, my friend.
As the relationship between Alice and Monet deepened they became highly possessive of one another. Her jealousy was such that, even though she had been a friend of Camille and had nursed her tenderly, she destroyed all Camille’s letters, and photographs of her too, except for one that had been hidden away. In turn, Monet was haunted by the possibility that Alice might return to Ernest, whose occasional visits in Monet’s absence caused him great agitation. But of the two poverty-stricken men, Alice preferred to be with Monet.
For ten years they lived out of wedlock, which distressed Alice mainly for religious reasons. Monet was not religious and shrugged off the scandal. But in 1892, a year after Ernest died, Monet and Alice were finally married ‘to make things more regular’.
There was, therefore, already a whiff of scandal about the family when they arrived at Giverny in 1883. They dressed, as one of the children later remembered, ‘rather haphazardly in loud colours, wearing hats…We were, in the eyes of the villagers, newcomers who were observed with distrust.’
From the first the villagers disliked Monet as he showed little interest in them or the local news. But Alice, despite her unmarried status, had an air of authority and respectability which quickly won them over.
When he was away on his travels Monet would write to her every day with accounts of his experiences and progress:
Dear Alice… Have no doubts, I think of you constantly. You can be sure of my love…
On a less congenial subject:
Alice, you say that making savings is all you think about. But you can’t seem to manage to. You have to manage though…Now take it from me that if my two and your six children are brought up simply with not too many frills they’ll be the better for it and more appreciative.
Their life at Giverny had a regular routine. Monet would rise at dawn, taking a cold bath in all weathers, followed by a glass of white wine. Meals were important: lunch was at 11.30, with an aperitif of homemade plum brandy, and dinner was at 7.00 sharp. He hated people to be late.
They were devoted to the children, calling themselves père and mère to them all, and the closeness of the family was a great blessing. Monet drew especially close to Blanche Hoschedé. The only one of the children interested in art, she began as Monet’s assistant, helping him cart his canvases and materials across the fields and painting by his side. Later she brought him companionship and solace in his old age.
With his passion for nature, Monet became an avid gardener. His enthusiasm was shared by his great friends, the writers Octave Mirbeau and Gustave Geffroy, the painter Gustave Caillebotte, and the politician Georges Clemenceau, who all swapped seeds, bulbs and cuttings. Monet built up a huge library of horticultural literature and experimented with cross-fertilising flowers.
After seven years as a tenant, Monet wrote to Durand-Ruel:
I shall have to ask you for quite a lot of money. I’m about to either purchase the house where I live or leave Giverny, which I would hate to do because I’m certain I’d never be able to find such a set up or such a beautiful landscape.
Once the deeds were signed Monet was free to restructure the garden. He wrote to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘I find it very hard to leave Giverny, especially now I’m arranging house and garden the way I want.’
Removing the yew and fir trees that cast too much shade, he installed a series of trellises on which roses and clematis climbed and tumbled, cascading above thirty-eight rectangular flower beds. Nicknamed ‘the paintboxes’ with their dense plantings of colours, these beds were reminiscent of the Dutch tulip fields that had been an early inspiration. While he retained the formal nature of the original clos normand enclosed garden, with its beds divided by alleys, he kept the planting within the beds informal. In this regard he was thought to be influenced by the English garden designers William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll who were popular at that time.
Monet spent most of his money on the house and garden. By 1913, as his income had rapidly increased, he was able to engage six gardeners. But he never relinquished control of it, holding daily inspections and supplying the head gardener with long and detailed instructions. The gardeners rose early to remove spent blooms and unsightly imperfections before Monet began work.
Towards the end of his life he said,
My garden is a slow work, pursued with love and I do not deny that I am proud of it. Forty years ago, when I established myself here, there was nothing but a farmhouse and, little by little, I enlarged and organised it…I dug, planted, weeded, myself; in the evenings the children watered.
‘As soon as you push on the small door on the main street of Giverny, you can believe…that you have stepped into paradise’, wrote Gustave Geffroy.
Invitations to Giverny were highly sought after. They were infrequent, as Monet explained to friends that while he was working he did not receive guests. ‘When I work, if I am interrupted, I lose all inspiration, I am lost…I am chasing a band of colour.’
Monet could usually be found in the garden, a ruddy, robust, weather-beaten man, cigarette planted firmly in his mouth, hands blackened with earth.
‘Lunch first’ he would tell his guests, who were about to enjoy great gastronomical pleasures. Marguerite, his cook of many years would whip up oxtail stews with frankfurters, chicken in a crayfish sauce, bouillabaisse from a recipe courtesy of Cézanne. There might even be Yorkshire pudding for which Monet had developed a liking (as well as marmalade) while staying at London’s Savoy. Monet wolfed down generous quantities of food, vintage wines and apple brandy, one guest observing that ‘he eats like four’. He was partial to game, the stronger tasting, the better. On one occasion Georges Clemenceau gave him a woodcock which he stuffed into his pocket. Discovering it several days later, he took it to the kitchen to be cooked, and devoured it with great pleasure.
Monet was not a conversationalist, once warning a guest: ‘Don’t try to make me talk. I have nothing interesting to say.’ In particular he loathed pretentious discussions about art. ‘Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.’ One friend noticed how in response to his friend Geffroy’s amiable questions about his work came some strange rumbles: ‘Rrrou…Rrrou…Rrrou’. But no one mistook this for a lack of intelligence. Moving from the dining room to the studio for coffee they would pass his well-stocked library. Monet enjoyed his books and read widely: Tolstoy, Hardy, Flaubert, Zola, Ibsen, through to the classics: Aristophanes, Dante, Tacitus, and nonfiction: Montaigne, the journal of Delacroix, Memoirs of Saint-Simon.
After coffee, his guests would enjoy the much anticipated tour of the garden. Monet would invite them when it was at its best. To the painter Caillebott he once urged: My dear friend, don’t forget to come Monday as agreed, all my irises will be in bloom.’
Monet had a great many friends, especially the artists he had known from his youth. His collection of art at Giverny was a testament to his closeness and his frequent kindnesses to them.
Of the Impressionists his best friend was Renoir. They had started out together as young ruffians in Paris, often painting side by side. He owned numerous portraits Renoir had painted of himself, his sons and his first wife Camille, during Renoir’s visits to their home at Argenteuil, including Madame Monet et son fils which Renoir had dashed off hurriedly after grabbing Monet’s palette one day in the garden. He hung these works on the walls in the house at Giverny but only after Alice had died.
One by one, he lost these friends. Manet was the first, having died the year Monet arrived in Giverny. Finally in 1919 came the terrible blow of Renoir’s death, making Monet the last living Impressionist. He wrote to a mutual friend:
You can imagine how sad the death of Renoir has been for me. He takes with him part of my life. In these past three days I’ve constantly been reliving our younger years of struggle and hope.
Monet’s staunchest supporter and friend in his later years was the statesman Georges Clemenceau. In some respects it was an unlikely friendship. Clemenceau was a former doctor and journalist who served as Prime Minister of France from 1906-1909 and again from 1917 to 1920. He was a force of nature, highly combative, who in his youth was said to have fought twenty-two duels with swords and pistols. A man of many interests, he was witty, sociable, cultured, bustling and charming.
By contrast, the taciturn Monet claimed to have only two interests, painting and gardening, and was so disinterested in politics he did not bother to cast his vote. He was at times volatile, insecure and prone to despair, leading his friend (always known as Tiger) to call him by a range of nicknames: ‘frightful old hedgehog’, ‘old biped’ and ‘poor old crustacean’. Yet they both had passionate natures, a deep love of gardening and an energy that belied their years.
They had known each other since their twenties but became close in their early fifties, following Clemenceau’s ecstatic review of Monet’s work in La Justice. He wrote that Monet possessed ‘the perfect eye.’ As they grew old, they became two of the most famous men in France.
In 1893 Monet had acquired a plot of land at the end of his property, between the railway line and an arm of the River Epte, containing a meadow and a pond. After much controversy (locals were up in arms) the council allowed him to redirect the river for his planned water garden.
Exotic waterlilies had been obtained from the celebrated botanist Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac. His cross-fertilised waterlilies in reds, blues yellows and pinks had caught Monet’s eye at the Paris World Fair in 1889, where they caused a sensation.
The pond was surrounded by willows to create vertical drama and graced with an arched bridge inspired by Japanese prints. From a trellis overhead two wisteria vines trailed elegantly over the bridge. One gardener was assigned solely to the water garden, dredging it for weeds and sludge from a flat-bottomed boat. He was also tasked with preventing damage to lily bulbs from water rats, removing spent blooms and wiping dust and railway soot from the lily pads.
It took me some time to understand my waterlilies. I cultivated them with no thought of painting them. A landscape does not percolate through your mind in a day…And then, suddenly I had the revelation of the magic of my pond. I took my palette…since that time I have had almost no other model.
He began painting the waterlily pond intensively from 1896. ‘I have always loved sky and water, leaves and flowers. I found them in abundance in my little pool.’ Small yet infinite, it was a place for contemplation, where Monet could observe the endlessly moving reflections of sunlight, flowers, mist and clouds. In August 1908 in he wrote to Geffroy of his waterlily paintings:
I am completely absorbed by my work. These works of water and reflections have become an obsession.
The subject is something secondary, what I want to reproduce is what lies between the subject and myself.
From his earliest days as an artist, Monet had been committed to painting landscapes en plein air. From Giverny he carted canvases by wheelbarrow or rowboat into the surrounding countryside to paint its haystacks and poplars, poppy fields and iris meadows. He also travelled widely in France and Europe in search of new motifs, away from home for up to six months at a time. He would return with a collection of canvases that had been painted in situ, to be completed in the studio with the help of copious notes and sketches.
Painting en plain air is not without hazards but as Monet described in a letter to Alice from Étretat in November 1985, it once nearly killed him. Hard at work, he had failed to heed the incoming tide or notice the huge oncoming wave that was to fling him against the cliff.
…My immediate thought was that I was done for as the water dragged me down. But in the end I managed to clamber out on hands and knees. Lord, what a state I was in! My boots and my coat were soaked through. The palette, which I had kept a grip on, had been knocked over my face and my beard was covered in blue and yellow, etc…
Seeing photographs of Monet painting, it is easy to assume that it was an effortless and serene process for him. But he described it as both a great joy and a great suffering. ‘This satanic painting tortures me,’ he wrote to Berthe Morisot. Trying to capture nature was frustratingly elusive, especially in changeable weather. In 1889 he wrote to Gustave Geffroy:
I am distressed, almost discouraged, and fatigued to the point of feeling slightly ill. What I am doing is no good, and in spite of your confidence I am very much afraid that my efforts will all lead to nothing…I am following Nature without being able to grasp her, and then there is the river that shrinks, swells again, green one day, then yellow, sometimes almost dry, and which tomorrow will be a torrent, after the terrible rain that is falling at the moment. In fact, I am very worried. Write to me; I have a great need of comfort.
In total frustration he once hurled his box of paints into the river and when he had calmed down was obliged to get a new one delivered from Paris. And he regularly slashed or burned canvases that would have fetched a fortune. He was so driven that he had no time for the trivialities of life such as a haircut – Giverny’s barber trimmed his hair for him beside the lily pond.
Monet’s fascination with the effects of changing light led him to switch canvases, sometimes working on as many as fourteen canvases in a single day, to be resumed on subsequent days. In October 1890 he wrote to Gustave Geffroy:
I’m hard at it working on a series of different grainstacks. But at this time of year the sun sets so fast that it’s impossible to keep up with it. The further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I’m looking for: instantaneity – the same light spread over everything.
Monet preferred a limited palette, rarely using earthy colours, and by 1886 he had banished black altogether.
In June 1912 he wrote to a friend:
I’m not a great painter. I only know that I do what I can before nature and that most often in order to succeed in conveying what I feel, I totally forget the most elementary rules of painting, if they exist, that is…
After he bought Le Pressoir in 1890, the majority of his paintings were done within a mile of his home. It was Monet’s French landscapes of Giverny, the wheat stacks, the rows of poplars beside the river, the early morning light or mist lingering over the Seine, that started to change the minds of critics. They dropped their complaints about his child-like sketchiness and grew sensitive to the mysterious qualities of the work. He was hailed as a ‘powerful poet of nature’ whose works ‘resonate with the mysterious sounds of the universe.’ The quintessential Frenchness of the landscapes showed, as one critic called it, ‘a rural France that is wholesome and fecund, reassuring and continuous.’ Such praise attracted the attention of collectors, and Monet began to become prosperous.
Over the years Monet improved the house with modern conveniences and decorated it in new colours. The external walls remained pink but the grey shutters were painted a vibrant green, which became known to the locals as Monet Green. The kitchen and library were blue, while the dining room was suffused in a soft lemony yellow and decorated with Japanese prints that Monet said he had bought in packets in Holland, for only a few francs. On the walls of his own rooms he surrounded himself with the works of his friends.
A second studio was built and the original barn, enlarged with a great bay window overlooking the garden, became a comfortable sitting room. His own works, unframed, were arranged on its walls in four rows.
Gustave Geffroy wrote:
This house is modest and yet sumptuous by the interior arrangement and the gardens which surround it. The person who conceived and arranged the wonderful familiar little world is not only a great artist in the creation of his paintings, but also in the surroundings he created for his own pleasure.
Geffroy described his first visit:
The studio-sitting room was full of life and youth… when I went there for the first time, young girls, young men, adolescents, the children and the step children of Madame Monet…The meal finished, we returned to the studio to have a coffee, crossing the blue sitting-room which contains Monet’s library. It is here that Madame Monet, surrounded by her children and Monet’s children, appeared in all her peaceful splendour, her eyes sparkling under a halo of powdered hair.
In 1903 Monet, having recently tripled the size of his water garden, began work on forty-eight canvases of waterlilies. They were scheduled for exhibition in 1908 at Durand-Ruel’s gallery.
The essence of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance alters at every moment.
The paintings were tranquil, but the artist was not. He was full of self-doubt and anguish whenever he failed to meet his own high standards. And after serious disagreements with Durand-Ruel the notoriously grumpy Monet threatened to withdraw altogether from the exhibition. Letters written almost daily from Alice to her daughter Germaine provide an insight into Monet’s emotional turmoil over several weeks in the spring of 1908.
My poor Monet is still extremely anxious about his work. Yesterday was a bad day for him. He destroyed three canvases and the sad thing is, things are often like this.
Eventually the exhibition was postponed for a year and Alice persuaded her husband to take a therapeutic trip to Venice with her. There is a photograph of them feeding pigeons in St Mark’s Square, Monet gazing solemnly at the camera with a bird perched on his head. They stayed for more than three months and Monet brought back a series of glorious paintings.
Back in Giverny, Alice’s letters to Germaine charted Monet’s final preparation for the waterlily exhibition, now rescheduled for May 1909. He was beset by persistent headaches, blurred vision and in a state of nervous exhaustion by the time the show opened on 6 May, when Alice wrote to Germaine:
Huge, enormous success for Monet. What a joy for me! What an unforgettable day!…A thousand kisses to you all, with all my joy.
The work broke new ground in that the entire canvas was overtaken by the surface of the water, eliminating the horizon line. One critic said: ‘Seeing only this water, one comes to think of it as the sky with the banks of waterlilies as flocks of clouds sailing through the imponderable air.’
Monet resisted comments about growing degrees of abstraction in his work and at the mention of Cubism and Picasso he said, ‘I’ve seen reproductions in the reviews, and it doesn’t do anything for me…I don’t want to see it, it would make me angry.’ Yet as a young man newly arrived in Paris from Spain, Picasso had been dazzled by the works of Monet.
As he grew prosperous, Monet indulged his passion for fast cars. In 1901 he bought the first of a fleet of motorcars: a gleaming Panhard-Levassor which was then the fastest car available. Monet and his chauffeur would roar around the lanes of Giverny. This resulted in a fine for Monet, and prompted the mayor to impose a speed limit: no car in the village should exceed the speed of a trotting horse.
He could also now afford to build a sizeable art collection, and bought works of his great predecessors: Delacroix, Boudin and Corot. But he loved the paintings of his friends Renoir and Cézanne best. He eventually owned fourteen Cézannes and described himself in relation to his friend as a ‘pygmy at the foot of a giant.’ The regard was mutual, with Cezanne saying of Monet, ‘Fuck, he’s the best!’
Monet bought from his friends’ dealers rather than from them directly and was particularly keen to acquire Renoir’s La Mosquée. Fête arabe, paying Paul Durand-Ruel what was then an enormous sum of 10,000 francs. He preferred to be discreet about these acquisitions but was willing to lend his famous name if it could be of benefit: for instance when Alfred Sisley’s paintings were auctioned after his death to finance his struggling children. He also paid a record price for Cézanne’s Neige fondante à Fontainbleau at a public auction which helped to boost prices for his friend’s work.
He could now dress Alice in gowns designed by Worth and owned four river boats. But wealth and fame did not alter him greatly. A friend who visited the theatre with him in Paris, watched him amongst the glittery Parisians as all eyes turned to Monet: squat, solid and quiet with the compelling presence of a great man. He remained himself, as Octave Mirbeau, wrote:
…I love this man, who could now give in to all of the ambitions, vanities, and desires that his celebrity could enable; I love to see him, during a break in his work, with his sleeves rolled up, his hands soiled with compost, his face tanned by the sun, happy to sow seeds in his garden…
Attracted by Monet’s growing reputation, artists had begun making the pilgrimage to Giverny from all over the world, to admire the garden that had been composed like a painting and hoping to meet the elusive painter who had created it. At first Monet welcomed visitors but they came in such droves that he was overwhelmed and stayed firmly behind his garden wall, hard at work. But he did occasionally meet with the little colony of artists, mainly American, that had established a salon in the dining room of Giverny’s Baudy Hotel. Its walls were – and still are – decorated with paintings that had been offered in lieu of payment by the poverty-stricken artists.
The triumph of the 1909 exhibition was soon followed by great sadness. Alice was diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, from which she died in May 1911.
My beloved wife is about to die. It is only a matter of hours now. I can’t tell you what I’ve been going through this last fortnight. My strength and courage are giving out.
In his grief and loneliness Monet stopped painting.
On 7 September 1911 he wrote:
I so need cheering up. I’ve had some very sad months consoling myself with my dear wife’s letters, all of which I reread, going back over most of our life together. Otherwise I haven’t been able to find an interest in anything.
Monet’s eyesight was deteriorating. In 1912 he wrote, ‘Three days ago I realised with terror that I didn’t see any more with my right eye.’ And that same year, his son Jean suffered a stroke, dying in 1914 at the age of forty-six. Jean had been the child of Monet’s struggling youth, and resembled his beloved first wife, Camille. ‘What torture for me to witness his decline’, Monet wrote to a friend.
Having been at the height of his powers just ten years previously, Monet descended into depression and idleness. Blanche, whom Clemenceau called the Blue Angel, moved back into Le Pressoir to care for him. Clemenceau was worried about his friend. In April 1914, ignoring imminent elections and a world teetering on the edge of war, he left Paris for Giverny, in an attempt to coax Monet out of his despair, and urged him to remember
…the old Rembrandt whom you know from the Louvre…He clings on to his palette, determined to battle through to the end despite his terrible ordeal. There is your example.
Clemenceau’s intercession and Blanche’s tender ministrations helped Monet regain his footing and his sense of purpose.
Back in 1897 Monet had spoken of a vision of
a circular room, whose walls down to the skirting would be entirely occupied by a horizon of water dotted with vegetation…with a dreamlike delicacy.
At the age of seventy-four, he finally embarked on that ambitious project. ‘I feel I am undertaking something very important’, he announced. Perhaps he had been spurred on by the fast-changing fashions in art that might leave him high and dry, an anachronism in his lifetime.
The new paintings were so vast that he had a huge new studio built to accommodate them.
Despite his failing eyesight and the distress and privations of the First World War, Monet persevered. Clemenceau described him as a man ‘madly striving for the realisation of the impossible.’ He wrote in 1915:
I resume work, which is the only way to avoid thinking of these troubled times. All the same, I sometimes feel ashamed that I’m devoting myself to artistic pursuits when so many of our people are suffering and dying for us. It’s true that fretting never did any good. So I am pursuing my idea of the Grande Décoration. It’s a big undertaking, particularly for someone my age, but it’s the project I’ve had in mind for some time. And now, water, waterlilies and plants, spread over a huge surface.
As Monet focused on light shimmering on water, soldiers were pouring through Giverny to and from the nearby battle front. He was within earshot of the rumbling artillery but stubbornly refused to leave his home.
A mad panic has swept our area. As for myself, I’m staying here regardless. And if those savages insist on killing me, they’ll have to do it in the midst of my paintings, in front of my life’s work.
On 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice, he wrote to Clemenceau:
I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels that I want to sign on Victory day, and am going to ask you to offer them to the State…It’s not much, but it is the only way I have of taking part in the victory.
Clemenceau later persuaded him to increase the gift to the whole of his decorative series. After the donation had become official Monet was unable to part with the panels or leave them alone, obsessively reworking and even destroying some of them, to Clemenceau’s consternation.
Monet had been tormented by intermittent blurry vision and colour distortion caused by cataracts. His assistant placed the paint on his palette in a specific order so that he would know which colour was where. Paintings of his rose garden from this time, with their loss of detail and striking colour imbalances, demonstrate his difficulties. Clemenceau sought to comfort him, saying that cataracts were ‘not as bad as prostate trouble’, and gently encouraged him to undergo surgery. Monet had tried other treatments but by 1923 he could no longer avoid cataract removal (with a local anaesthetic of cocaine in the eye). He was a terrible patient, vomiting during the procedure and unable to keep still when required to rest afterwards for ten days with bandages on his eyes. After three such ordeals his eyesight did improve but he was left with distorted colour perception, particularly in the area of red and pink. This was corrected in 1924 to a large extent by special glasses.
By April 1926 Monet’s strength was failing. Clemenceau told a friend that the Grande Décoration panels were finished and Monet would not be touching them again. ‘But it is beyond his powers to separate himself from them.’ The paintings remained in the studio until after his death.
Monet was in the final stages of lung cancer when his disease was diagnosed, but this was not revealed to him. Clemenceau said, ‘I knew he was lost and I came every Sunday, to distract him as much as I could from his pain. To tell the truth, he suffered very little.’ His condition deteriorated in the final two weeks. On 5 December 1926, hearing that his friend was in a bad way and asking for him, Clemenceau rushed to Giverny and ran up the stairs. He was holding his hand when Monet quietly died.
Monet had asked to be buried beside Alice in Giverny’s cemetery, in a non-religious funeral without speeches:
Bury me as if I were just a local man…Above all, remember that I want neither flowers nor wreaths… It would be a sacrilege to plunder the flowers of my garden for an occasion such as this.
On the day of the funeral, Clemenceau removed a black shroud from the coffin and replaced it with a flowered fabric that he found in the house, saying, ‘Black is not a colour. No black for Monet!’
In strict accordance with Monet’s wishes, Clemenceau put into action the plans to install his donated paintings in two specially designed rooms at the Orangerie des Tuileries. There were eight of them, each measuring 2 metres high and 91 metres in length, great stretches of canvas with shimmering layers of pigment. Paintings of dawn light on the eastern wall and of night on the western wall suggest the cycle of nature, light and darkness, life and death.
Monet had given the nation a monument to peace, to pay homage to the thousands of young men who had died in the trenches. These paintings are regarded as being among the greatest achievements in the history of art. When Clemenceau finally saw them, surrounding the viewer just as Monet had envisaged, his eyes filled with tears.
Reverie by Debussy Pianist: F.J. Thiollier
Claude Monet and Claude Debussy met at the poet Stephane Mallarmé’s ‘Mardistes’, a gathering of artists and intellectuals who met on Tuesdays at Mallarmé’s Paris home to discuss art and philosophy. Monet, Renoir, Manet and Degas mixed with writers and poets such as Paul Verlaine, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Valéry. Rodin would pop in from time to time too.
Here Monet introduced Debussy to his old friend James Whistler, whose misty series of night scenes, ‘Nocturnes’, inspired Debussy’s orchestral version, ‘Nocturnes.’ Like Whistler’s paintings, this music blurs the edges, its harmonies imbuing a sensual atmosphere.
Although Debussy resented being called an impressionist, his dream-like, wandering melodies seem to musically match the paintings of the Impressionists, particularly those of Monet. What counted for both men was ambiguity and suggestion, rather than precision and clarity, and Debussy became known as a ‘painter in sound’.
Monet was admired by many writers but perhaps most enthusiastically by Marcel Proust, who believed Monet was the greatest living French painter of his time. He longed to visit Giverny and hoped to write a book about the garden but despite the efforts of mutual friends to arrange a meeting, this never happened.
Proust had to make do with pilgrimages to places painted by Monet in Normandy ‘as though these were shrines’. He exalted great artists because they he believed they revealed a world that was fresh and alive, not blunted and deadened by habit. Proust saw Monet as a kindred spirit, believing they were both trying capture fragmentary moments of time and its effects. Both felt that the places and objects not only belonged to ‘the world of space’ but were also ‘contiguous impressions’ experienced by the person who had seen them at various points of their lives, so that ‘houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years,’ as Proust described it.
In a series of essays, Proust worked on his ideas about Monet, comparing Giverny to a painting, ‘not so much a garden of flowers as of colours and tones, less of an old-fashioned flower garden than a colour garden.’ He wrote that Monet makes us fall in love with his landscape,
islet-dotted rivers during those motionless hours of afternoon when the river is blue and white with sky and clouds, and green with trees and lawns, and pink with sunbeams already sloping on tree-trunks, and splashed with scarlet in the shadow of the garden hedges.
In his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Proust used elements of Monet’s life, his appearance and his Impressionist technique for his artist character Elstir. Like the tough and burly Monet, Elstir is described as ‘a man of large stature, very muscular, with regular features and a grizzled beard;’ he is influenced by Japanese artists, and as he grows older, figures disappear from his paintings. Referring to Monet’s series (haystacks, poplars, Rouen Cathedral, Waterlilies) his character works on different versions at the same time each day so that his pictures ‘told one to the very minute what time of day it was, thanks to the precise angle of the setting sun and the fleeting fidelity of the shadows.’ Elstir ‘Dissolves houses, carts, people in some broad effect of light’. Proust describes this painting technique as a synthesis of intellect and sensation:
Elstir sought to wrest from what he had just felt what he already knew; he had often been at pains to break up that medley of impressions which we call vision…He abstracts such buildings from the global impression in which they’re included, brings them out of the light in which they’re somehow dissolved and scrutinises their intrinsic merit.
Elstir is a fairly minor character in Proust’s vast tapestry, but his art and ideas influence the protagonist Marcel more deeply than the writers he meets. He beseeches Marcel to,
Find beauty where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, in the profundities of ‘still life.’
There is no evidence that Monet reciprocated Proust’s regard or read his work. He outlived Proust by four years, although Proust was thirty-one years his junior.
Le Pressoir in Giverny, beautifully restored and maintained, has been open to the public since 1980. I visited it with my sister in springtime. We wandered through the clos normand, massed with tulips, irises, poppies, daisies, clematis, pansies, day lilies, wall flowers, phlox, nasturtiums – to name a few. I met an American artist dressed in romantic costume who agreed to pose for me. She told me that if a request is made some months prior to a visit, artists may be granted access to the gardens after hours.
In the water garden the lilies were not in flower but wisteria was blossoming over the famous little bridge. We stood where Monet had stood and gazed through willow fronds at waterlily pads floating between reflected clouds. We were silent, lost in a Monet reverie.
A few days later we were drawn irresistibly to return. Already a team of gardeners was in the process of replacing the magnificent pink glowing tulips, interspersed with forget-me-nots that were just past their best.
The house is a delight. We especially enjoyed the blue tiled kitchen and the dining room which is suffused with a soft lemony yellow – walls, beams, furniture, and even radiators. Ceramics and glassware strike an occasional blue or turquoise note on its sideboards and shelves. And on the walls are Monet’s elegant Japanese prints.
From his bedroom upstairs Monet had a view of his garden. There, in his bathroom and in the comfortable studio/living room, facsimiles of his collection of paintings give a semblance of the glorious art he owned.
We had recently visited Thomas Hardy’s house in Dorset, Max Gate, and the contrast between the homes of these two contemporaries was striking – one gloomy and the other full of light and joyous colour. But this is perhaps not surprising as one lived in the world of words and the mind, the other in the visual world.
We enjoyed lunch (and a memorable tarte tatin) just outside le Pressoir, and strolled through the peaceful village that is closed to traffic. Many of its houses are painted in the same colours as Monet’s house and flowers and spill riotously out of every conceivable patch of earth. Some buildings have signs that document their significance in Monet’s time. The pink and white building with its sign Le Coin des Artistes in my photograph was one of several café/grocer shops that served as a meeting place for locals and also artists. Here, one could buy provisions and hear the latest village news, or play billiards, and after a hard day’s work in the fields, the farmers would come in to catch up over a glass of local wine. Le Coin des Artistes is now a bed and breakfast.
We walked to Monet’s simple grave inscribed with the words regrette de tous (will be missed by all). And as twilight fell we dined in the gardens of the Restaurant Baudy, where Monet used to spend time with the many visiting artists who stayed here. It is little changed as the inn is still owned by the same family.
The influence of Monet’s garden can be seen radiating out from Le Pressoir. Visitors emerge from its shop clutching packets of seeds, and throughout Giverny and beyond, countless glorious flower gardens have been cultivated with pride.
The garden has been a magnet, beginning in Monet’s lifetime to the present. In 1951, Ellen Johnson, a scholar of contemporary art was shown around it by Monet’s stepson. She arrived like us in the spring. The waterlilies were yet to bloom but the wisteria was out, its branches of blossoms hanging from the bridge.
I felt, as anyone must when one stands in that place, totally enveloped in Monet’s glowing paintings. Strange, the power a garden has to hold and evoke such a presence, somewhat the way a house can retain and reflect not only the behavior toward it of its former inhabitants, but their very character, how they lived their lives.
In Paris we visited the Orangerie for the immersive experience of Monet’s enormous final masterpiece. Like Clemenceau, we had tears in our eyes.
The Monet Foundation website where you can book tickets to visit the gardens.
Giverny.org features information about local accommodation, how to get there, tours of the garden, maps, lists of the flowers and plants in the garden and so much more.
Take a virtual visit of the Le Pressoir.
Live footage here of Monet talking to a man and painting en plein air in his garden.
A Short film about the role of Monet’s garden in his life and art, produced by the Royal Academy of Arts.
The trailer for I Claude Monet, (2017) a film directed by Phil Grabsky, that uses Monet’s letters and other writings to reveal his world.
And a review of the film.
The Musée de l’Orangerie website.
A day trip to Giverny available from Paris.
Gerdts, William H. Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony, Abbeville Press, 1993
King, Ross. Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, Bloomsbury Circus, 2016
Leca, Benedict (Ed). Monet in Giverny: Landscapes of Reflection, Cincinnati Art Museum, 2012
Marlowe, Lara, ‘The Paintings Claude Monet Kept Secret for Himself, The Irish Times, 1st November, 2017
Meyers, Jeffrey. ‘Monet in Zola and Proust’, The New Criterion, Vol 39, No. 1, September 2020
Monet’s Garden: The Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, National Gallery of Victoria, (Catalogue) 2013
Nayeri, Farah, ‘A Glimpse inside Claude Monet’s private Art World’, The New York Times, 8 September, 2017
Wildenstein, Daniel. Monet: The Triumphs of Impressionism, Taschen, 2016