Monet and His Muse: Camille Monet in the Artist's Life

December 23, 2010

The current Monet-fest in Paris allows the public an opportunity to view more than 170 paintings and 20 drawings by the artist at the Grand Palais, as well as the retrospective Collection Intime at the Musée Marmottan-Monet, which includes a further 135 paintings with additional material.

Interest in this visual feast is high and promises, not least, to allow the French viewing public to assess Claude Monet's standing in the national artistic canon - one that until now, with the exception of the attention of Marianne Alphant, has rarely matched the interest shown in his life and works in the English-speaking world.

The hub of the evolving literature on Monet's work remains Daniel Wildenstein's magisterial five-volume Claude Monet: Biographie et Catalogue Raisonné, first published in 1974, with a trilingual edition in 1996. Challenging and revelatory studies by Robert Herbert, John House, Joel Isaacson, Steven Z. Levine, Virginia Spate, Charles Stuckey and Paul Hayes Tucker have each taken different theoretical standpoints, enhancing our understanding of an extraordinarily gifted artist whose pursuit of "les effets les plus fugitifs" - the most fleeting effects - lasted until his death in 1926. This beautifully produced book by Mary Mathews Gedo, the product of 20 years of reflection and research, engages productively with these varied texts in an investigation into the complexities of Monet's early familial relationships, notably the death of his mother during his adolescence, and the complex evolution of his relationship with his model and muse, Camille Doncieux.

The resultant "psycho-biography" is divided into three sections and an epilogue. Part one, The Youth of the Artist, the Art of His Youth, is concerned with the early years of their relationship until their marriage in 1870; part two is concerned with The Argenteuil Years and part three, Camille and Argenteuil in Decline, takes the reader up to Camille's death and its repercussions for Monet's art.

"La Monette's" role as "model-wife" has been considered in Ruth Butler's 2008 book Hidden in the Shadow of the Master, and Gedo provides further insight into their intriguing relationship. Using her training in clinical psychology and art history, she speculates on the emotional landscape of "la vie intime" using as her primary source its manifestation in Monet's paintings, whether in portraits such as Camille (Woman in a Green Dress) (1866) or Camille's multiple appearances in Women in the Garden (1866), which, as with the discussion of The Luncheon (1869) and other works in which Camille appears, are thoughtful and revelatory.

The Monets' relationship was constantly buffeted by ever-present threats of insolvency and their equally precarious social standing, and then by what would prove to be a fatal illness. In 1879, shortly after the birth of their second son, Camille developed what is thought to be cervical cancer, causing the "increasing physical debilitation and resultant psychosexual dysfunction (that) might also help to account for the growing alienation between husband and wife perceived by several scholars".

The exact nature of Alice Hoschedé's emerging intimacy with Monet in this period has been the subject of some speculation and Gedo agrees with Alphant's description of Alice as "a very neurotic, apprehensive woman" who developed a pathological jealousy of Camille's continuing influence. Alice's destruction of all documentation relating to Camille means that she remains an enigma, despite her material presence in Monet's paintings.

With little direct documentary or photographic evidence, Camille has to be constructed through the lens of memory and encounters of others. In effect this provides a tabula rasa for those attempting to reconstruct her history, where educated guesses often become the substance of interpretation. Were photographs used in Monet's work on the paintings that included Camille? If so, sittings may not have been as protracted as assumed by Gedo when interpreting mood and meaning in these extraordinary paintings.

Monet and His Muse: Camille Monet in the Artist's Life

By Mary Mathews Gedo. University of Chicago Press. 2pp, £35.50. ISBN 9780226284804. Published 24 September 2010

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