Today is the first post in a series on my blog about Claude Monet, Giverny and other French musings.
My favorite thing to receive as a gift is a good book. When I discovered Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Paintings of the Water Lilies by Ross King, I couldn’t get it in on my Christmas list last year fast enough. King is also noted for Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. King’s books are extremely well researched and Mad Enchantment is no exception. Focusing on the latter part of Monet’s life at Giverny, and his series of water lily paintings, including the “Grande Decoration” that would be the large paintings eventually ending up at the Musée L’Orangerie in Paris, it delves into his obsession with creating such an enormous oeuvre for an artist at his age.
I discovered several things from the book that I never knew before about Monet. One is he would work on several canvases at once of the same scene while painting plein air. Essentially, they were a series of the same view captured at the moments in time before the light changed. As he was working on one canvas and the light had changed too much, he would grab the next one and work on that one for a while and so on. Sometimes even working on one for only seven minutes. It wasn’t uncommon for him to work in all weather conditions shuttling canvases back and forth and when he went on painting outings he was followed through the fields by his children and step children carrying canvases for five or six paintings of the same subject matter done at different times and with different lighting effects.
He had a deep and long lasting friendship with George Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister during World War I. Clemenceau’s fortitude during the war helped the French get through it. Being one of the original architects of the Treaty of Versailles, he was instrumental in the war ending and getting reparations for the French from Germany. Clemenceau and Monet corresponded religiously. Clemenceau was a huge support mentally, emotionally and physically for Monet and his work.
So it was right before World War I that Monet had the idea for the the larger than life canvases, he called “La Grande Décoration,” the series of water lily paintings that are now one of the most highly visited series of paintings in Paris at the Musée L’Orangerie. He painted them during the war while he was in his late seventies. While the enemy was close, on several occasions with their attacks on Paris and it’s environs, Monet never contemplated leaving. He would rather parish at his home with his work if it came to that. It was through his connections that he was able to garner favors for gas, so he could continue to use his cars, (he was a car collector), cigarettes, which he smoked like a fiend, and wine, which no French man can live without, during the war. Plus, he was aided with transport for all of the art supplies that he needed for his “Grande Décoration, " which would be coming from Paris.
After Rodin donated his entire collection of sculptures and paintings to the French Sate on the condition that his workshop, the Hotel Biron and his home outside of Paris become museums, the seed was planted in Monet’s mind that he could too be honored in such a way by donating his “Grande Décoration” to the State, if they agreed to build a venue or museum to his exact specifications to house and display the series.
Clemenceau was instrumental in getting the ball rolling and Monet started negotiations with the French State to make his gift a reality. But it was not smooth sailing and resulted in several tumultuous occurrences that everyone involved, including Clemenceau, wondered if it would ever come to fruition. Monet would tumble into fits of rage and depressions due to dissatisfaction with his work. He was known to take a knife slashing and then burning hundreds of canvases, not only the water lily works, but to those done through the course of his life. One panel in the collection of the L'Orangerie had to be repaired from the swipe of a knife. It is estimated that in his lifetime he destroyed more than five hundred canvases.
Another obstacle was Monet's health. He wondered if his grand project would ever come to completion due to his failing eye sight due to cataracts. He had multiple surgeries on his right eye, with long difficult recovery times, plus trial after trial of prescription glasses that never seemed to work for him. Eventually he found the right lenses with a new scientific discovery, an instrument made by Ziess, that could map the surface of his eyes to create a lens that would be the best that he could get. Even those at first didn’t meet his satisfaction. He barreled down the rabbit hole into another fit of depression. After having surgery and multiple treatments on his right eye, his left eye was getting worse, and he refused to go through another bout of surgery, having suffered enough on those with the right eye.
As he was finally adapting to his new way of seeing, he continued to work on the large water lily panels and was working with the architect on the design of the space that would eventually be their home. Originally it was planned as an addition to the Hotel Biron, Rodin’s museum. But when the architect fell out of favor for not meeting Monet’s specifications a new one was hired along with a search for a new location. It was then that the L’Orangerie, the former shelter during the winter for the orange trees of the Tuileries Gardens, during the time of the Third Republic, was considered. It had also been used for dog and agricultural shows and expositions, and was also a place for lodging immobilized soldiers during the war. Monet agreed to rennovating the L'Orangerie and the architect began drawing up plans according to Monet’s wishes for two oval rooms and a skylight to light the works.
Time was of the essence because the French State was in an agreement with Monet and a date had been determined when Monet would hand over the work to be installed in the L’Orangerie around 1924. As time was getting close, he made every excuse to not follow through and canceled the donation. An exasperated Clemenceau was distraught and didn’t want anything more to do with Monet, and the situation almost destroyed their friendship. The underlying factor, on Monet’s part, was that he not only felt dissatisfied with the work, and that it was such a part of his “essence” he couldn’t part with the paintings while he was still alive. Even today in one of the panels there is an unfinished area, as if Monet couldn’t come to terms with completing them.
After Monet died in 1926, the project finally came to fruition. Clemenceau was instrumental in making sure all of the details were addressed to open the L’Orangerie and dedicate the master works of his dear friend. The date of the dedication in May of 1927, and the opening of the Musée Claude Monet a L’Orangerie des Tuileries opened to very little fanfare. Clemenceau noticed that day that a sign for a dog show to take place at the same time in another part of the building was more prominent then one announcing the inauguration for the Musée Claude Monet. In fact art critics after his death didn’t hail him as a master artist. Because of the changing taste to more modern works at that time, they claimed the impressionists produced art that was essentially “fluff” and were postcards of niceties for American tastes. This, Monet’s momentous, glorious gift to the French State and no one seemed to care. By the 1950’s the L’Orangerie was essentially deserted and in disrepair.
It is hard to fathom what went on in the L’Orangerie after the dedication of the Claude Monet Museum in 1927 and how it became what it is today. Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog post to find out, or grab a cup of tea, a comfy chair and a copy of Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies.