Right now, I am reading Claude and Camille, by novelist Stephanie Cowell. Artists have such interesting lives and I love being able to take a peek into their worlds. Cowell’s book is a glimpse into Monet’s struggles as an artist, his friendships, and his relationship with his first wife Camille. I’d like to welcome Stephanie Cowell to Linus’s Blanket. She’s here to share with us about Monet’s relationship with the women in his life, and how they inspired his work.
The gardens of Giverny were created by a man who loved flowers and wanted to paint them. And yet to me the spirit of the feminine hangs everywhere and with good reason. Claude Monet was a man who needed to be surrounded by women, and to be loved by a woman. There were to my mind five major women in his life, only two of whom he married.
Even years before Claude Monet turned fifty and began to create his great gardens, he had always longed for a garden of his own. The first garden he knew belonged to his mother and as a boy, he likely worked with her on it. He lost her when he was only seventeen and shortly thereafter he moved to Paris to paint. I think he never got over her loss; she understood his artistic side and his father did not.
At twenty-five he fell in love with the upper-class Camille Doncieux and promised her everything; when he finally had money he moved her to Argenteuil outside of Paris and made a lovely garden where he painted her reading under a tree. Losing that place to debt, he took her to Vétheuil where he made her another garden in the year she died.
He then fell in love with his patron’s wife Alice Hoschedé, taking her to live with him in Giverny when he first could afford to rent it. With her came four stepdaughters, all of who modeled for him, and, in the days before he could afford gardeners, they put on old hats and old clothes alongside their brothers and Claude’s two sons and went out to dig and weed.
Alice, by then his second wife, never knew what to think of his ever enlarging gardens; she felt drowned by the size of them and Claude’s obsessive need to throw every penny he earned into them. His fame was growing and they hired gardeners now. The stepdaughters could read and paint instead of weeding. The most beautiful of them was his favorite model, Suzanne, who they lost young. His grief and Alice’s was very deep. The gardens were enormous by the time Alice herself died. Claude was then seventy.
The fifth major woman in his life was both his step-daughter and daughter-in-law Blanche. She had married his son Jean, his first child with his first wife Camille, and when Jean’s life ended tragically young, she returned to Giverny. She had always been almost a daughter to Claude Monet, for she had painted at his side since she first knew him. She lived with him the last ten years of his life, taking care of his every need and after stayed on as caretaker. Gradually the gardens and house grew shabby and she grew very old.
By the time l’Académie des beaux-arts inherited the property in 1966, everything from lily pond to flower beds was pretty much in ruin. Now that they are restored, we can almost feel the ghosts of the five young, pretty woman as they once were — Claude’s mother, Camille, Alice, Suzanne, and the ever-devoted Blanche — coming down the path again in their long dresses and parasols as if seeking to find him.