Artist DNA: John Peter Russell, Monet, Van Gogh and Matisse


Monet, “Rocks at Port Goulphar, Belle Ile”

In 1897 and 1898 Henri Matisse visited Belle Île a remote island off of the Brittany coast. John Peter Russell, an Australian artist who was living there, introduced him to impressionism and to the work of Van Gogh (who was relatively unknown at the time). Matisse’s style changed radically, and he would later say “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained color theory to me. [Wikipedia & Hillary Spurling, “The Unknown Matisse”]


Russell, “Belle Ile”


Matisse, "Belle Ile"

Matisse, “Belle Ile”

Russell had been friends with Monet, who also came to Belle Isle to paint. But he is perhaps best known for his portrait of Van Gogh. He believed in Van Gogh and had several of his drawings.

1886-john-peter-russell-portrait of-vincent-van-gogh

John Peter Russell, “Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh”


According to Hilary Spurling,  at some point the Australian gave Matisse one of his Van Gogh drawings — something that he had never done before, and would never do again, which “suggests that he found in no one else the depth and strength of Matisse’s response.”


Vincent Van Gogh, “Townhall of Auvers”

Letter from VanGogh to Russell:

If you go:

Books of Interest:

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Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at







Wardrobe or Prop: Haven’t I seen that dress somewhere before?

Some of you may think that I am obsessed with Monet, and you would be right. Clues I have found in his paintings have sent me on adventures to sites in France, Italy and even Japan. Currently I am reading a book on Monet’s relationship with his first wife, Camile Doncieux, Mary Mathews Gedo’s, “Monet and his Muse”.

While spending time looking at Monet’s two early monumental paintings “Le Dejeuner sure l’Herbe” and “Woman in the Garden” I was struck by the dresses the women were wearing. We know that Camille posed for all of the women. Is this, then, her wardrobe? Or did Monet, as some have suggested,  take these dresses from contemporary fashion magazines that Camille, as a seamstress, could have introduced to him.

Claude Monet, "Le Dejeuner sure l'Herbe"

Claude Monet, “Le Dejeuner sure l’Herbe”

Claude Monet, "Women in the Garden"

Claude Monet, “Women in the Garden”

Fashion Plate Showing Clothes Designed by Madame Breant Castel, from La Mode Illustree, 1864

Fashion Plate Showing Clothes Designed by Madame Breant Castel, from La Mode Illustree, 1864

The dresses in the two paintings, in fact, appear to be the same dresses. Let’s do a quick match-up between the dresses in “Women in the Garden” and “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe”.

The Stripped Dress



The Dress with Polkadots


Dress with Black Trim





Yellow Dress Front and Back

The fact that Monet was developing his ideas around painting en plein-air, where everything was dependent upon being out of doors and reflecting the light and atmosphere of the moment, it seems unlikely to me that he would then make up the clothes that his model was wearing. I am more inclined to think that these are Camille’s clothes, perhaps made by her own hand and influenced by the fashion plates of the day.



Monet and Camille and their not-so-secret life

Claude Monet, "Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe"

Claude Monet, “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe”

Camille Doncieux was Monet’s model, mistress, wife and mother of his two children — or should I say, mother of two of his children, as I will explain in a later post. But their relationship is far more complex than that would indicate.

Both Camille and Monet had illegitimate half siblings. Monet’s mother died January 28th,  1857, when Monet was 16 years old. On January 3rd, 1860 Monet’s father at age 60 had an illegitimate child with his 24 year old servant. Camille’s mother worked and her father was either retired or unemployed. The circumstances around her half-sibling are not clear. But her situation was sufficiently inhospitable that she left home early to make her way in Paris. She worked first as a seamstress, but later became Monet’s model and, as so often happened, his mistress.

Monet kept his relationship with Camille secret from his family, as he knew that to reveal it would have put his income in jeopardy. His father and aunt were willing to support him, but only as long as he was seriously pursuing his studies as an artist. This relationship would have been unacceptable to them.

I believe that artists often reveal themselves in their work, especially when it is not possible to express things by other means. Monet’s “Dejeuner sur L’Herbe” is particularly interesting in that regard. In this painting, Camille has assumed the role of each of the women in the painting. She stands next to Bazille, who also poses for several parts, as his equal. In this sense Monet has raised her status and reveals to us that he considers her his social equal and someone he is happy to show off to his artist friends. His relationship to her is further indicated by the heart carved into the tree.

Heart Carved into the Tree

Heart Carved into the Tree

You might also notice, that to the right there is a man hiding out behind a tree. As often as I have looked at this painting, I had not noticed him until Mary Mathews Gedo  pointed him out in her book, “Monet and his Muse”. While this man is probably meant to be a servant in the painting, Gedo believes he may be a stand in for Monet’s father lurking somewhere in the background about to find Monet out.

Man Behind the Tree

Man Behind the Tree

Monet had ambitious plans for this painting and wanted to submit it to the Salon as a piece to rival both Manet and Courbet (who, by the way, is posing as the man sitting on the left).



But he was not able to finish it in time. Courbet suggested to him that he do something a little less grand that he could finish in time. Monet painted “Camille: Woman in a Green Dress”.

Claude Monet, "Camille: Woman in Green Dress"

Claude Monet, “Camille: Woman in Green Dress”

At first glance, this could be a painting of any society woman just entering the house from a turn in the garden where she has picked a flower. Flower, you say? What flower?

Violet Flower in Camille's Hand

Violet Flower in Camille’s Hand

Camille carries in her hand a violet. Yes, once again [see Manet’s Secret Love] an artist is revealing his secret love with the language of flowers. The meaning was not lost on the critics, one of whom, who wrote for the Journal du Harve, the hometown paper of Pere Monet, not only revealed that Camille was Monet’s mistress, but implied that she was a prostitute. Despite his own odious behavior toward his servant girl,  Pere Monet condemned Camille and stopped any further support of Monet.

Books of Interest:


Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at

Monet’s Self-Portrait – NOT

Monet?, “Self-Portrait in his Atelier”, 1884

Monet self-portrait

Monet’s [Self] Portrait in question

In an earlier post [Is She or Isn’t She] I discussed whether or not a drawing attributed to Monet was actually by him. I thought that the drawing was by the minor Impressionist artist Helleu. Recently in an article in The Art Newspaper, “Monet’s favorite portrait of himself – but it is not by him,” Martin Bailey posits that the portrait that for years was thought to be a self-portrait by Monet is not by the artist at all, but by an unknown artist. And who are the likely suspects? As with the alleged Monet drawing, the name of John Singer Sargent, among others, is being circulated.

But here is the twist that interests me. Until recently, the painting was in the hands of Paulette Howard-Johnson, the daughter of Paul HELLEU! She died last year at the age of 104, and was the last person to have known Monet. She remembers seeing the painting in his bedroom at Giverny the last time she and her father visited Monet in 1925. She believed that Monet told her the painting was by Sargent. Why then, had Wildenstein, the author of Monet’s catalog raisonné, have it attributed to Monet. In the 1979 edition of the catalog, it was attributed to John Singer Sargent. In the 1994 edition, once the painting was owned by Wildenstein, it appeared as an authenticated Monet. Wildenstein may have had hopes of selling the painting, but was not able to obtain Monet prices for it.

When I inquired of the curator at the Clark about the provenance of the questionable Monet drawing, I was told, “Well, it’s in Wildenstein.”

I believe the drawing was by Helleu, but I was not sure if there was a connection between Monet and Helleu. Knowing now that he frequently visited Monet, makes it even easier to imagine how a Helleu drawing could get mixed up with Monet’s estate. And perhaps, in this case, too, Wildenstein had a hand in the misattribution.

But that doesn’t answer the question of who painted Monet’s portrait. There are clues in the painting itself. The landscape in the background is of a painting that Monet did while visiting Bordighera in 1884.


Monet, “Coastal Road at Cap Martin near Menton”, 1884

While in Bordighera he painted the portrait of an English artist. The identity of this artist was not known until recently. It is Arthur Alfred Burrington, who lived on the Riviera until his death in 1924.


Monet, “Portrait of an English Painter, Bordighera”, 1884

The portrait of Monet seems quite different from Burrington’s other work. But I like to imagine these two artists working face face to face on their two portraits with Burrington perhaps being infused with some of the master’s genius.


Painting by Burrington


Monet’s Epte River at Dawn

Monet- Arm of Seine

Claude Monet, “Arm of the Seine Near Giverny”

I like to travel to the other painter’s painting sites. Sometimes seeing the context in which the painting was made  gives me insight into the work.

When dealing with Monet, going to one of his painting sites may not be enough, unless you also happen to be there during the time of year and hour of day that he worked on his paintings.

And even then, there is much we can’t replicate now that Monet was observing in his time, such as the effects of the mini-Ice Age in the 1850s, the pollution from burning coal, and the atmospheric effects caused by the eruption of Kracatoa in 1883.

When I set out to see the Epte River near Giverny, I was at least determined to see it around the same time of day as Monet.

I woke up at  four in the morning and ran along the Rue de Roi until I came to  a turn off near the location of the old train station. The sun was just beginning to crest over the Colines (hills). I decided to follow the sun.

Sunrise, Giverny

Sunrise, Giverny

I found a path through the cow pastures. Soon I found a small shed by the river. If Monet was changing canvases every few minutes, I thought that it would be difficult for him to haul them every morning from his studio.

Could this be a shed that Monet used to store his canvases between painting sessions?

It is also possible that Monet painted his Epte paintings on his studio boat, which blows this theory.

Monet's Shed?

Monet’s Shed?

Around the corner from the shed, I came upon this view.

Leslie Parke, Epte River

Leslie Parke, “Epte River”, photograph


Claude Monet, "Arm of the Seine Near Giverny"

Claude Monet, “Arm of the Seine Near Giverny”


Epte River

Leslie Parke, “Epte River at Dawn”, photograph


Monet- Morning on Seine Clear Weather

Claude Monet, “Morning on Seine Clear Weather”

It seemed remarkably like the view in the paintings. I started to take pictures every few minutes. As I stood there several things about Monet’s  paintings revealed themselves.

I had never understood why the left side of his painting was so much lighter than the right. It seemed to me that it should more closely mirror the right side.

As I stood there I could see that as the sun rose on the left light poured though the trees and dissolved the appearance of the leaves into light. Monet was recording exactly what he was observing.

Claude Monet

Claude Monet


Leslie Parke Epte River Photograph

Leslie Parke, “Epte River”, photograph

I shot photo after photo as the light changed.

What became obvious was how quickly the light changed and how everything recorded in Monet’s series of  paintings of the Epte River basically transpired in an hour.

Each painting shows a phenomena that lasts no more than five minutes. Too fast for him to have recorded it in paint.

It is possible that Monet photographed the scene. He loved photography and housed a darkroom in his second studio. Such photographs could have only been in black and white and no such photos exist today.

However he accomplished these paintings, his power of perception  is unrivaled.

Claude Monet

Claude Monet



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Let Them Eat Cake: I Don’t Think So

My friend Andrew loves to bake cakes. He is completely comfortable baking a cake without a recipe. So, when I called him and told him that I wanted to make a cake called “Vert-Vert” with green fondant fromMonet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet , he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. The cake called for, among other things:  pistachios, kirsch, 2 1/4 cups of butter, about 8 eggs, and spinach for coloring. We headed for Hannafords and about $50. later had our ingredients.

“Vert-Vert”, detail of photo by Jean-Bernard Naudin from “Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet”.

The cake was to be cooked in a single pan, sliced into three layers and filled with pistachio cream – thus the need for 2 1/4 cups of butter. Andrew, who is not known for his patience, decided he would “soften” the butter in the microwave. A few seconds later we had enough melted butter to cover all the artichokes in Castroville, California. If we were going to proceed we would have to go back to the store for another pound of butter. But first, the cake had finished baking and was ready to be pulled from the oven.

Andrew Ciccarelli with my painting of him.

The half pan of batter had baked into a half pan of cake. It didn’t rise. Instead it buckled and lifted from the pan like a ribbon. It also had a rubbery consistency. It was obvious that three layers could not be cut from this frisbee  sized hockey puck. Absolute, utter disaster!

One bite confirmed what our eyes already told us – this cake sucked.  And there was no way that the green coloring seeping  from the spinach was going to make the icing assume the luminous green glow that it had in the book. Khaki green fondant was not what I had in mind.

On top of that, we had already invited a friend we ran into at the grocery store to come over and sample the cake. Andrew and I agreed that the hockey puck, iced or not, was not going to be served.

Undeterred, Andrew emptied my cabinets and in under an hour produced a perfectly tasty chocolate cake with a chocolate ganache icing.

Andrew’s Cake

Later that year, when I had a chance to speak at the New England Culinary Institute about ” Monet and his Gardens in Giverny”, I challenged their students to produce the cake. I was happy to see, that while edible, it seemed nearly as squat and unspectacular as our version.

This is what happens when you are seduced by the color of a cake and have no feeling for its ingredients. Clearly, something was lost in translation.

Books Mentioned:

Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet

Text by Claire Joyes, Photographs by Jean-Bernard Naudin

If You Want to Try Your Luck:

Recipes of Claude Monet

Recipe that Andrew Recommends

If You Go:

Claude Monet Foundation

84 Rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny, FRANCE

Castroville Artichoke Festival

P.O. Box 1041, Castroville, California 95012. Tel (831) 633-2465 • Fax (831) 633-0485

New England Culinary Institute

56 College Street  Montpelier, VT 05602 – info@neci.edu877-223-6324

NECI has several great restaurants on campus.


Andrew is a master gardener and great cake baker living in Granville, New York.

Since Andrew makes up his recipes as he goes along and doesn’t write them down, I asked him to recommend a recipe for a cake that he loved.

Andrew’s Favorite Cake Recipe from Food and Wine Magazine:

Double-Chocolate Bundt Cake with Ganache Glaze

Recipe by Kate Neumann


    1. Vegetable oil spray
    2. 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
    3. 3/4 cup canola oil
    4. 1 cup sugar
    5. 1 large egg
    6. 2 cups all-purpose flour
    7. 1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
    8. 1 tablespoon baking soda
    9. 3/4 teaspoon salt
    10. 1 cup strong-brewed coffee
    11. 1 cup buttermilk
    12. 1/3 cup heavy cream
    13. 1/2 tablespoon corn syrup
    14. 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 12-cup Bundt pan with vegetable oil spray. In a small saucepan, melt 2 ounces of the chopped chocolate over low heat, stirring constantly. Scrape the chocolate into a medium bowl and let cool slightly. Whisk in the oil and sugar until smooth, then whisk in the egg.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Add half of the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture along with 1/2 cup of the coffee and 1/2 cup of the buttermilk; whisk until smooth. Add the remaining dry ingredients, coffee and buttermilk and whisk until smooth.
  3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the lower third of the oven for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. Let the cake cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn it out and let cool completely.
  4. In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. In a heatproof bowl, combine the remaining 3 ounces of chopped chocolate with the corn syrup and butter. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let stand until melted, about 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Let the ganache glaze cool until thick but still pourable, about 5 minutes.
  5. Pour the ganache over the cooled cake. Let the cake stand until the glaze is set, at least 30 minutes, before serving.

Make Ahead The glazed cake can be stored in an airtight container for 3 days.

Andrew with yet another great cake. Note the fleur de lis on his shirt!