When Monet died, his step-daughter Blanche took over his home in Giverny. Once she died the place was passed to his son Michel, who had no interest in it, preferring to be on safari in Africa. Trees grew up in the large studio where some of his last paintings were still stored and Monet’s Japanese prints still hung on the walls. I knew people in Giverny who used to rummage through the house when they were kids. Much was stolen form the place, but not Monet’s paintings, nor the Japanese prints. When the house was restored, so were the prints. The influence of these prints on Monet’s work, and the work of the Impressionists cannot be overstated. At each juncture in Monet’s career, he returned to the Japanese for inspiration. (I will give some specific examples in later posts.)
I was fascinated by this connection and on my first trip to Japan I visited the southern end of Japan where the Dutch traded with the Japanese. There are several stories about how Monet first came into contact with the prints, but one is that while staying in Holland to avoid the draft during the Franco-Prussian War, these prints were used to wrap his groceries. he was so taken with them that he returned to the store and picked up a pile of them. Once you learn the process that goes into these prints, with each one taking up to a month to produce, you soon see that even when they were more common, it is unlikely that they would be used as ballast in a ship.
Here is a wonderful film about Canadian David Bull, who upon seeing his first Japanese prints decided that he had to learn how to do these. After some trial and error he packed up his family and moved to Japan, where he sought out master printers who would teach him the trade. Now, more than 20 year later, he is still in Japan. This film shows the process in some detail and helped me really appreciate what went into these amazing prints. http://woodblock.com/press/woodblock_shimbun.php?storyid=tv45
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, “Women in the Garden”
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.
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
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
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”
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
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.