Today The Tome Traveller's Weblog is pleased to welcome Stephanie Cowell! Stephanie is the author of the new historical fiction novel Claude & Camille, which tells the story of Claude Monet and his beloved wife, Camille. Since Stephanie has a background in art, I wondered if she had uncovered anything in her research for this novel that really surprised her about the life of Monet, or changed her previous feelings about him and his art.
Well, yes, I was utterly surprised through a great deal of my research.
I think most people have generalized conceptions of the great artists of history. Shakespeare looked like a marble bust. The Bronte sisters ran around the moors. Van Gogh loved sunflowers and cut off his ear. Monet was always old, pot-bellied, bearded and painted water lilies….and so on. We don’t have time to really know things in depth; life is just too vast. We pass a lovely engagement calendar with a Japanese bridge and we think “Monet!” We suppose he might have married someone. But until we know more he is a lovely coffee mug or a mouse pad.
I first encountered the person I began to think of rather intimately as Claude in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum called The Origins of Impressionism. This exhibition had gathered together paintings of the 1860s by the several young men who would be known years later as impressionists. Most were in their twenties. I was struck how very young Claude was and, when I decided to write about him, I began to collect what books I could on his life. At the same time I found a portrait of him by a friend when he was twenty-five and was very startled. This was no pot-bellied old fellow; this was a hot-headed, impatient, drop-dead gorgeous young guy. He might have been a gypsy. He reminded me of Johnny Depp when young.
And so I became fascinated with the young man who would become the old man. But what was he like? Each writer saw him differently. He was very poor then and some people saw him as cold and opportunistic, and others as charming and the best friend in the world. Fortunately, a diary recently discovered written by one of his older friends portrayed him as very charming. I could not make a hero from a man I could not love. (And no, he was not easy to be married to, as tender and caring as he could be; the painting always was first. It was in his blood like something wild in him.)
What I realized in studying his very difficult, impoverished life on his 20s and 30s was what a long road it was to the water lily paintings. He did not begin those really until his 60s and he was chasing light with his paintbrush for a long time before that. To many people these garden paintings of bridges and flowers and willows are blissfully serene and we suppose the man who created them was serene as well. That is not true. He was serene only when he felt his painting went well. It was his endless restless search for light and color which created the serenity he left us in his garden and his works. “The work sometimes knows more than the artist,” my mentor Madeleine L’Engle used to tell us.
In his very last months of life, old and sick and sitting in his garden chair, having finished his great water lily panels which now hang in the Paris Orangerie, I think he knew serenity. I think then he knew he had accomplished the reason of his life, that he had fulfilled his purpose. It was a journey of almost seventy years. I am quite awed to consider how faithfully he pursued his vision of painting air and light no matter what his difficulties and how much of it he left to us.
Thank you so much for a fascinating guest post, Stephanie! I am so glad you decided to explore the early life of Monet, your utterly absorbing novel was the result!
For more information, be sure to visit Stephanie's website. And come back tomorrow to read my review of Claude & Camille!