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

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

by Mary Mathews Gedo




“The mourning never stops, it just changes.” (Edward Albee)

For Claude Monet (1840–1926), the founder of French Impressionist painting, these words are a fitting testament to his lifelong relationship with the female muse, most notably—and most hauntingly—with his first wife, the model Camille Doncieux.

For the esteemed clinical psychologist and art historian Mary Mathews Gedo, Monet and His Muse represents a project twenty years in the making. Artfully interweaving biographical insight with psychoanalytic criticism, Gedo takes us on an exploration of Claude Monet’s conflicted relationships with women, complete with exquisitely researched material never before understood about one of our most popular—and inimitable—artists. Beginning with Monet’s childhood, Gedo delves into his relationships with a distant, unreliable father and his beloved, doting mother—whose death when Monet was just sixteen, the author establishes, inspired a lifetime preoccupation with the sea, its lushly imagined flora, and the figurative landscapes Monet painted to such acclaim.

And then—Camille. Entering Monet’s life when he was still a young man, becoming first his model and then mistress and then—finally—his wife, Camille Doncieux always fulfilled the function of muse, even after her life had ended, as Monet not only painted her one last time on her deathbed, but preserved her memory through the gardens he planted at his home in Giverny. Demonstrating how Monet’s connections with women were exceedingly complex, fraught with abusive impulses and infantile longing, Gedo sensitively uses Monet and Camille as exemplars in order to explore links between artists and muses in our modern age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226284804
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/30/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 11.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mary Mathews Gedo is the author of Picasso: Art as Autobiography and Looking at Art form the Inside Out, as well as editor of Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Art.

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Camille Monet in the Artist's Life

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-28480-4

Chapter One



Painting together at Chailly during the Easter vacation of 1863 and around Saint-Siméon in Honfleur in June 1864 consolidated the friendship that had developed between Frédéric Bazille and Monet as fellow students of Gleyre. Their decision to rent a joint atelier in Paris, where they could spend their long working days side by side, served as silent testimony to their new intimacy. They found a suitable studio at 6 rue de Furstenberg and took possession in January 1865.

Although the friendship between Monet and Bazille was grounded in their joint devotion to art, they brought different assets to this relationship, qualities each recognized and admired in the other. Bazille, for his part, clearly perceived Monet as his artistic superior, and in the regular letters he dutifully wrote to his parents he often referred to his companion's achievements with great admiration. He understood and respected Monet's willingness to sacrifice everything to his art, to devote all the time and effort to his craft that his unusual energy level permitted. Rather than feeling envious, Bazille treated Monet as a respected mentor whose professional counsel should be solicited, and whose paintings deserved to be copied. Bazille's recognition of his friend's great talent must have been of inestimable value to Monet in confirming his own judgment of his potential. As the discussion that follows demonstrates, he counted heavily on Bazille to provide such reinforcement during the evolution of Luncheon on the Grass (1865–66). (Several scholars have proposed interpretations of Bazille's sexuality and relationship with Monet which differ from that presented here.)

If Monet provided Bazille with an ideal example of diligence in the service of art, Bazille, for his part, possessed the good breeding, good manners, and good contacts in which Monet was relatively deficient. Bazille's family belonged to the Huguenot haute bourgeoisie and could trace their lineage-and prominent role in Montpellier life—back at least to the sixteenth century; Frédéric had grown to manhood in an intact, loving family that provided an atmosphere of security and freedom from material want. Although often unable to emulate Bazille's gracious behavior, the more roughhewn Monet clearly respected his friend's character and standards. He must have been appreciative, too, of the fact that Bazille included him in invitations to the home of his distant relative the collector Commandant Hippolyte Lejosne, whose Paris salon was frequented by leading literati and artists, including the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), the painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904), and the photographer Nadar (Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910), all of whom Monet encountered there for the first time.

In the light of their closeness, it seems noteworthy that Bazille and Monet apparently did not address one another by the familiar tu. (One assumes that the formal vous employed in their correspondence mirrored their face-to-face form of address.) We might assume that the persistence of such polite conventions reflected Bazille's more formal upbringing; however, Auguste Renoir certainly did not hesitate to tutoyer Bazille when they became intimate companions in the summer of 1865. Perhaps instead it was Monet who felt uncomfortable about such demonstrations of intimacy. Although by no means withdrawn, he possessed an inner reserve, a tendency to distance himself from others that deeply colored even close relationships, including his friendship with Bazille.

An air of mystery surrounds Monet's activities during the late winter and early spring of 1864–65. We simply do not know how, when, or where he met Camille Léonie Doncieux (1847–79). Their initial encounter could not have occurred before mid or late November, because Monet was still in Honfleur when he wrote to Bazille on November 6 (WL 14).

Apparently only Bazille resided at the rue de Furstenberg studio, while Monet lodged elsewhere. Since an obvious motivation for leasing the joint studio had been economic, it seems surprising that Monet elected not to live there too, even if the private space the studio provided was somewhat cramped. Perhaps the two young men briefly shared living as well as working space in the new atelier until Monet's growing involvement with Camille Doncieux made this arrangement awkward, whereupon he moved to separate quarters where he could enjoy private trysts with his mistress. The evidence indicates that the Doncieux-Monet romance must have been well advanced by the time the artist conceived the plan to create his magnum opus Luncheon on the Grass, a decision he had firmly in mind by February or March 1865.

Little information about Camille's background or personal history has come to light, thanks in large part to Monet's shameful surrender to the unreasonable demands of Alice Hoschedé (1846–1911), Camille's successor in his affections, that he destroy every memento attesting not only to Camille's role in his life but to her very existence. Every shred of his late wife's correspondence, her photographs, and any documents that might have illuminated her relationship with her family of origin—all were sacrificed to appease Mme. Hoschedé's pathological jealousy. Only one photograph of Camille escaped Alice's purge: she evidently never knew about the photo of Camille made in Holland in 1871 (figure 1.1) and sequestered in a private collection ever since. Alice's insistence in the matter seems especially cruel since it deprived Camille's children of all personal mementos of their mother. Their primary souvenirs of her would consist only of the numerous paintings of Camille that Monet retained in his private collection until his death.

Thanks to the diligent efforts of Wildenstein and his assistants, we do know that Camille's family came from Lyon, where she was born on January 15, 1847. Sometime before 1864 they migrated to Paris, where they lived rather modestly. Camille had a single sibling, a sister, Geneviève, ten years her junior. In 1867 this child inherited the entire estate left by a M. Antoine de Pritelly, who had previously disinherited his two adult sons in her favor. His will also provided Mme. Doncieux (whose husband was retired or unemployed) with a special legacy, while granting her free lifetime access to the capital left to her daughter. (If, as the data suggest, Geneviève was a love child, Camille, like Monet, had a transgressing parent and an illegitimate half-sister.) Perhaps her uneasy circumstances made Camille more receptive to Monet's advances, more willing to leave her parents and entrust herself completely to her lover.

The roman à clef L'Oeuvre, by Emile Zola (1840–1902), which appeared in volume form in 1886, provides a few additional clues about Camille's personality and life with Monet. The novel recounts the tale of a doomed plein air painter, Claude Lantier, his mistress (later his wife) Christine, and their son, Jacques. The fact that Zola's hero is an amalgam, based primarily on aspects of the lives and careers of Monet, Manet, and Cézanne, has been widely recognized, but there has been far less agreement about how much each member of this triumvirate contributed to Zola's portrait. As Rodolphe Walter has observed, several points of intersection exist between Monet's real-life experiences and those of the fictive Lantier, and works that Zola describes Lantier as executing (or destroying unfinished) resemble successful paintings Monet executed during the 1860s and '70s, when his friendship with Zola was at its zenith.

Whatever Claude Lantier owes to Claude Monet, the novel's heroine, Christine—portrayed as a beautiful brunette with a gentle, passive, and slightly melancholy personality—resembles the real-life Camille in appearance and personality insofar as we know her from the portraits painted by Monet and his friends during the 1860s and '70s. The climactic incident in L'Oeuvre, Lantier's suicide following his prolonged struggle with his failed masterpiece, may also be based on Zola's recollections of Monet's personal history and the latter's equally fruitless contest with his Luncheon on the Grass. (Of course, the painting described in the novel is a pastiche, related to Monet's composition only in its scale—and permanently unfinished state.)

By the time Monet finally abandoned his Luncheon in the late winter of 1865–66, the painting had surely become a hateful symbol of frustration and failure to its young creator. Fortunately Monet, made of far tougher stuff than Zola's fictive painter-hero, neither despaired nor committed suicide in reaction to his inability to bring his composition to a successful conclusion. Instead, he immediately set to work on Camille (Woman in a Green Dress), which he submitted to the Salon jury of 1866 in lieu of the abortive Luncheon. He did not attempt to return to the full-scale version of the Luncheon after completing Camille. Instead, he began planning another large-scale figurative composition, Women in the Garden (1866–67).

But if Monet never completed his picnic scene, neither did he destroy or abandon it; the picture remained in his possession until 1878, when his straitened financial circumstances forced him to leave the rolled-up canvas with his second landlord at Argenteuil, Alexandre Flament, as security for unpaid rent. Flament, unmindful of the precious character of the collateral he held, consigned the canvas to his cellar, where it suffered extensive damage from mildew. When Monet finally succeeded in reclaiming the work in 1884, he was able to salvage only two fragments: a large segment from the heart of the composition, plus a long, narrow portion immediately to the left of this central section. (Figure 1.2 represents the final study for the Luncheon; figure 1.3 shows the final study for the painting with these two areas outlined.) Perhaps because the vertical piece from the left margin (figure 1.4)—which had been left in a less polished state than the heart of the painting—spoke all too eloquently of the terrible struggle Monet had experienced while working on it, he evidently never showed it to anyone. It lay rolled up and forgotten (perhaps even by its creator) in a dusty corner at Giverny until Georges Wildenstein rediscovered it during an inventory of the artist's studios carried out in the early 1950s. Donated to the Louvre in 1957 and transferred to the Musée d'Orsay in 1986, it now hangs side by side with its larger sister fragment (figure 1.5), which entered the museum in 1987.

Although Monet never publicly exhibited the central section of the Luncheon, in his twilight years he enjoyed displaying this relic of his youthful hubris to the privileged few invited to make the pilgrimage to Giverny. A 1920 photograph (figure 1.6) shows the artist with the Duc de Trévise, viewing a group of his earlier figurative paintings, kept on display in a disused studio. They have paused before the large fragment of the Luncheon, which enjoyed pride of place in this private exhibition of Monet's Monets. "This is a Picnic, which I did after Manet's," the artist informed his guest. "At that time, I did what everyone else did; I proceeded bit by bit with studies done from nature, which I would then put together in my studio. I am much attached to this work, which is so incomplete and mutilated."


The brief summary Monet provided for Trévise of the method he had followed half a century earlier seems accurate enough—as far as it goes. However, aside from hinting at his desire to compete with—and outdo—Manet, the statement provides little detailed information about either the painting's history or its personal significance for its creator, questions of primary interest for this study. What actually prompted Monet, then a brash youth of twenty-five, to attempt the quantum leap from painting easel-size pictures to covering a canvas as vast as many of the greatest "machines" exhibited in the Louvre? First and foremost, one must credit an increase in Monet's self-confidence, an audacity that led him to believe he could successfully undertake such a monumental figurative composition despite his lack of experience either in working on the scale he now envisioned or in portraying the human figure. His oeuvre prior to that time had consisted primarily of small landscapes and seascapes. The largest paintings he had executed to date, two marines specifically designed for submission to the Salon of 1865 (w 51 and 52), measured only three by five feet. Both were studio productions, based on smaller, more rapidly executed studies created before the motif. But these minor exercises in enlarging plein air sketches into studio productions scarcely prepared him for the task he now set himself: transferring a painted study (figure 1.2), whose own dimensions (4 x 6 ft) exceeded the size of any canvas he had previously painted, to a monumental support measuring approximately fifteen by twenty feet. Viewed from our vantage point, Monet's grandiose scheme seems like a recipe for disaster. But fears of failure were far from his mind as he finalized plans for what he perceived as an ambitious but perfectly feasible project.

In order to prevent problems, Monet attempted to organize all his procedures in advance. The enormous atelier he had rented with Bazille not only would accommodate his machine-size canvas but would permit him to study the work in progress from a sufficient distance to give him an accurate idea of how the composition was shaping up—not to mention imagining how it might look when installed in the vast spaces of the Salon of 1866, the destination for which he had intended his magnum opus from its inception.

Monet had also preselected the spot he would use as a base for carrying out his preparatory studies: the small village of Chailly, located just outside the forest of Fontainebleau, easily accessible from Paris by rail. He knew the area well: he had painted there with Bazille in the spring of 1863 and had returned to the spot alone in April 1864. On both occasions he had lodged at the Cheval Blanc Inn, which he intended to make his headquarters for what he correctly anticipated would be a lengthy stay in the area during the spring and summer of 1865.

Leading scholars have carefully considered the roles the achievements of Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet (especially the latter's 1863 picnic scene) played in shaping Monet's ambitious plan. Obviously, his desire to compete with and triumph over these leaders of the artistic avant-garde was critical to Monet's decision to create a mural-size work. As these same critics have observed, Charles Baudelaire's influential essay "The Painter of Modern Life," first published in Le Figaro in 1863, also helped to shape Monet's ambition to create an absolutely contemporary picture, featuring representations of eleven members of his circle clad in the latest fashions and represented on a scale hitherto primarily reserved for crowned royalty, historical heroes, and mythic figures.

The central role another person played in the genesis of Monet's ambitious undertaking has been largely overlooked—that of Camille Doncieux. The artist's burgeoning love affair with this beautiful young woman lent wings to his ambition, inspiring him to new levels of daring. (Such competitiveness is often stimulated by a youth's initial success in winning a desirable woman.) By the time he finalized his plans to relocate to Chailly, the lovers must already have been living together, for Camille had obviously accompanied him "on location." Her continual presence in his life provided him not only with self-confidence, companionship, and sexual satisfaction but also—more central to his great project—with the constant availability of a lovely model to pose for the five female figures he wished to feature in the composition. Monet had found his muse; the era of heroic figurative paintings could begin.

Camille's talents as a model soon proved greater than Monet could have anticipated. She demonstrated a real flair for assuming postures and attitudes, an aptitude that may have been honed by a knowledge of current theatrical styles. Whether or not she introduced her lover to the latest fashion plates, as Joel Isaacson has suggested, she was surely familiar with these popular prints, from which Monet drew inspiration both for determining poses assumed by Camille and, later in the evolution of the composition, for suggesting how certain of the costumes in which she is shown might have been modified to keep up with the latest fashion trends.

No eyewitness accounts have come down to us concerning the interactions between artist and model as Camille posed for the Luncheon. However, we do have reliable information about Monet's inconsiderate treatment of his stepdaughter, Suzanne Hoschedé, when she posed for the twin compositions of 1886 (w 1076–77) that show her standing outdoors in summer weather. Ignoring Suzanne's fatigue, Monet insisted that she hold the same pose during working sessions that sometimes lasted for hours. There seems little reason to doubt that he would have behaved in a similar manner twenty years earlier. Unlike Suzanne, Camille evidently possessed the stamina (or stoicism) and patience to meet Monet's demands; after all, she was in love with the artist. Again in contrast to Suzanne—the passive, reluctant victim of Monet's professional attentions—Camille quickly assumed the active role that transformed her from mere model into participatory muse.


Excerpted from MONET AND HIS MUSE by MARY MATHEWS GEDO Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments

Prologue: Monet’s Character

Part One                      The Youth of the Artist, the Art of his Youth

1          The Perils of Young Love, Monet’s Magnificent Failure

2          Success and Scandal

3          Camille as Flora

4          Painted Metaphors for the Absent Woman

5          Ariadne on the Grande Île

            With William Conger

6          The Myth of the Bourgeois Family

7          Honeymoon and Exile: Camille’s Status Legitimized

Part Two                      The Argenteuil Years

8          Argenteuil, 1872–1873: Classic Impressionist Landscapes, Mythic and Enigmatic Images

9          Camille as Collective Muse

10        Camille Ascendant; Camille Redux

11        Camille’s Captive Samurai

12        The Muse of the Past, the Muse of the Future

Part Three                    Camille and Argenteuil in Decline

13        The Course of Camille’s Final Illness and Its Repercussions in Monet’s Art

14        Death and Transfiguration

Epilogue: The Memorial Garden of Claude Monet


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