Oct/Nov 2016 Reviews & Interviews

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and Painting the Water Lilies

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and Painting the Water Lilies
Ross King.
Bloomsbury. 2016. 413 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 6195 0.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! In 1914, at the age of 74, with failing eyesight and with war between France and Germany imminent, Claude Monet began to paint a series of huge canvases for which he had very precise plans. Each canvas was five feet (approximately 1.5 meters) high and more than six-and-a-half feet (approximately 2 meters) wide. Eventually, Monet would donate 12 of these paintings to the French State, but only on condition that he be allowed to design a purpose-built pavilion, oval in shape, in order to display his "Grande Décoration" to its best advantage.

Monet's "Grande Décoration" was, of course, the sequence of magnificent water-lily paintings which are now housed in the Orangery in Paris. Getting them there, however, was a long and complicated process, not least because of Monet's stubborn and difficult character.

Ross King tells the story of their conception, their creation, and the many and varied vicissitudes that accompanied their completion and their public display. He also captures the irascible and often tormented character of Monet, for whom they became a "mad enchantment" bordering on obsession.

Monet, at 74, was a highly respected and well-established artist whose work attracted very high prices, especially amongst American collectors. However, this was not always the case. Ross glances back at Monet's impoverished early years when bailiffs once seized his paintings from the wall of an exhibition and he claimed to have survived one winter living on potatoes. He looks, too, at Monet's early links with the Impressionists, some of whom became lifelong friends. And he writes of the times of public derision, which eventually turned to acceptance and then to renown. Most of the book, however, is centered on Monet's home in Giverny.

Over the course of the book, we gain a vivid picture of life at Giverny, where Monet drained marshland and diverted part of the river to create the lily pond beside which many of his most famous works were painted. One of his greatest pleasures was entertaining friends and, as Ross writes, "lunch chez Monet was a delightful but demanding gastronomic odyssey" after which guests might be conducted past Monet's extensive art collection to his studio. Monet himself habitually began the day with a large breakfast and a glass of white wine, started lunch with a shot of home-made plum brandy, and dined on "huge quantities of food and wine that satisfied his refined and discriminating tastes." He also smoked heavily—an "eternal cigarette" burning in the middle of his nicotine-stained "crumb-catcher of a beard."

Monet's daily painting routine was strict, but painting was frequently a torment to him. His attempts to capture the infinite fluctuations of light and to chase the "merest sliver of colour" were often frustrating and exhausting. "Oh, how I suffer, how painting makes me suffer! It tortures me," he complained to one art dealer. He was known to slash and destroy canvases in fits of rage, and at times, especially after the death of his second wife and later when his eyesight was failing, he sank into depression and stopped painting altogether. All of which threw the completion of his "Grande Décoration" into question, at a time when the State had gone to considerable expense to comply with his wishes for a specially designed place to display it.

Monet could also be incredibly rude to prospective buyers and was especially rude about Americans, a number of whom had lived and painted in the town of Giverny before the war began in order to be near "The Master." Towards the end of his life, too, when his eyesight was so bad that he could not paint, he became unpredictable and impossible even with his closest friends.

Georges Clemenceau, the politician who steered France through the war years and became a national hero, was one of the few close friends who knew how to deal with Monet. His presence in this book is almost as large as Monet's. And it was he who dealt with the problems posed by Monet's donation of his "Grande Décoration" to the State; he who persuaded Monet to have a cataract operation, and he who bullied and cajoled Monet back to work when the worst depressions hit him. It was Clemenceau, too, who ignored Monet's sudden, last-minute decision to cancel his donation of paintings to the State, and who finally pushed Monet to complete the work ready for hanging and public exhibition.

Monet, who had once declared that the paintings would be with him until he died, had his wish. The number of paintings grew to 22, and although he had seen and approved the rebuilt Orangery as their home, they were not publicly displayed there until after his death.

Ross brings to life the short, stout, prodigiously bearded man in the photographs scattered throughout this book. He also manages to include something of the history of French art, and a picture of life when wartime shortages were acute (although Monet managed to find ways around many of them) and bombs were falling on Paris, just 40 miles away from Giverny. He writes about Monet's interest in Japanese woodblock prints and how this influenced Monet's art. And he even manages to include a disquisition on water-lilies. He manages does all this in an easy and digestible way, but this does extend the story of the creation of Monet's great water-lily paintings so that the 12 years of their creation seem like a lifetime.

What Ross does best, however, is to reveal the genius and acuity of Monet's vision and the painstaking effort and skill with which he worked. When paintings are as well-known and as much reproduced as Monet's many water-lily paintings, it is easy to overlook the originality of his vision and the individuality of his techniques. I, for one, will now look at his paintings with renewed interest and understanding.


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