For over a century, the British have been particularly interested in French impressionist art, with one of the key collections of impressionist painting outside France being held in London at the Courtauld Gallery. So, it’s surprising that Jackie Wullschläger’s new biography of Claude Monet, one of the most important impressionist painters, is the first to be written in English. However, the wait has been worth it, as Wullschläger delivers a magnificent account of Monet’s life and work.
At the heart of Wullschläger’s life of Monet is the role three women played in the shaping of his art and the progress of his life: his first wife, Camille; his second wife, Alice; and, in his later life, his stepdaughter, Blanche. The biography is organised around these successive relationships and argues that they were collaborators and facilitators of his artistic achievements – not merely his emotional partners.
Jackie Wullschläger is hardly a die-hard radical feminist, as her partly dismissive review of Tate Britain’s recent Women in Revolt! exhibition demonstrates. This is nevertheless very much a female-centred account of Monet’s work and life, which is partly what makes it such an interesting book. Rather than present the artist primarily as a detached, driven male – which Monet remains in part even in this account – Wullschläger situates him firmly within his personal relations and is concerned with the importance of these bonds to him.
As she remarks, Monet was the only major French painter of the 19th and 20th centuries not to at any time paint a female nude. This, one can see, has prompted Wullschläger to investigate whether it suggests something about how Monet related to the women in his life.
His first wife, Camille, is presented both as model and collaborator. The majority of the figures that appeared in Monet’s non-landscape paintings throughout his life were his family, and, as Wullschläger finds, in his early work this was most often Camille. In some major works, she is the only model. For instance, she models all four women depicted in Women in the Garden (1866): each figure in the painting is Camille differently attired and posed.
Wullschläger’s argument is that this and other paintings focussed on Camille as model only look the way they do because of her clothing choices and her ability to assemble interesting poses, as well as holding them for long periods. Indeed, when Monet tried to recreate his famous painting Woman With a Parasol (1875) – originally posed by Camille and Monet’s son – with his stepdaughter Blanche some decades later, Blanche was unable to hold the pose for long enough in the sun for the painting to be completed.
While Camille and Claude were collaborators, his treatment of his young wife and family nevertheless at times starts to look like partial neglect, even to a sympathetic biographer like Wullschläger. While perhaps having a more enlightened view of male-female relations than some artists, Monet even so often left his family untended. The artist’s obsession with his work to the exclusion of family needs is not an unusual story and indeed has become one of the key stereotypes of the artist as driven genius.
Moreover, as Wullschläger depicts in some detail across the biography, his relations with his friends and relatives were often self-centred and at times dishonest. For much of his early life, until finally becoming wealthy in the first decades of the 20th century, Monet was constantly seeking loans – seldom repaid – and other favours from artist friends, his dealers, and other contacts. Wullschläger pulls no punches in setting out how Monet’s friends quite often ended up having to forgive all sorts of deceit around his economic circumstances.
This deceit also reached into his emotional life as Camille’s health declined. Through some rather idiosyncratic household arrangements, he fell in love with the wife of one of his collectors, with whose family he and Camille shared a house. These arrangements are explored in some detail by Wullschläger to set out how, after Camille’s death, Alice became Monet’s life companion, even while still married to her first husband.
Alice’s role in Monet’s life was very different from Camille’s, being more a champion of his work and general facilitator of his home life and emotional well-being. Their relationship only became formalised by marriage once her first husband had died. Once again, Wullschläger makes the case that Monet’s work shifted and changed in response to Alice’s support, seeing him begin the serial works that make up much of his mid-career.
While Monet again spent time away from Alice working on his paintings, she was initially more forgiving than Camille. But as the years progressed, Wullschläger presents this relationship as more fraught than either the one it succeeded or the fully supportive role of Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche after Alice’s death. Blanche took over the management of Giverny, the house that Alice and Monet had moved to at the end of the 19th century, and helped Monet make it the centre of his art world for the last sustained period of his work.
Blanche’s role became part business manager, part secretary, and part social host, all to ensure Monet could focus on his work. And as Wullschläger notes, this required her to sacrifice her own career as a painter until after Monet’s demise, which by this account she willingly did.
What makes Wullschläger’s book so strong as a biography of an artist is her continual attention to and analysis of Monet’s work. From her account of his role in impressionism, not least of all providing the painting from which the movement’s name derives, to her fascinating exploration of how Monet’s later work helps set out the artistic environment in which the 20th century’s experiments with abstraction took place, Wullschläger always puts Monet’s work front and centre of the biography.
The integration of Monet’s artistic practice and creative process with his life both as an artist and a 19th century man is accomplished through detailed analysis of his correspondence and work with surviving relatives. Wullschläger also gives careful attention to the memoirs and diaries of his close relations, artistic colleagues, and others whose lives intersected with Monet’s.
Most importantly, like all good art history, Wullschläger’s account makes you want to view Monet’s work – and not in reproduction, but on the gallery wall. Her descriptions of Monet’s working practices and how these play out in canvas after canvas are powerfully suggestive.
Like Hilary Spurling’s two-volume biography of Henri Matisse, this will be the standard work for anyone seeking to get a better idea of who Claude Monet was, why his work looks like it does, and how this work was produced. That this reintegrates the three most important people into his life reflects not so much a feminist agenda, but rather excellent art history, following the sources to their clear conclusion.