MAD ENCHANTMENT: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, by Ross King. Bloomsbury 403 pp., $30.
In May 1927, the Musée Claude-Monet à l’Orangerie des Tuileries opened in Paris, just months after the celebrated artist’s death. Affixed to the walls in two egg-shaped rooms were eight huge, enveloping paintings of water lilies: shimmering, iridescent, ethereal. They were brilliant evidence of Monet’s artistic reputation as the “great anti-depressant.” But as Ross King amply shows in “Mad Enchantment,” his sensitive, deeply researched and altogether delightful biography, those paintings — Monet’s obsession for 30 years — emerged not from joy, but from the artist’s abiding despair.
In 1883, Monet, his mistress, Alice, whom he later married, and their blended family of eight children moved to the village of Giverny, 40 miles northwest of Paris, in the lush Seine valley. He rented and eventually bought a sprawling house and an adjacent plot of land that he transformed into a magical garden of irises, tulips and Japanese peonies; he filled an aviary with parrots and peacocks, and a garage with his growing collection of expensive sports cars. Monet, King reveals, had a “passion for speed” that Giverny’s mayor found disconcerting and even dangerous.
The gardens of Giverny became Monet’s solace — and torment. He produced more than 300 paintings of his roses, weeping willows and, most of all, his water lilies. The artist was desperate to capture the subtle glimmers of the lily pond — “not only the fleeting shadows and surface reflections,” writes King, “but also the murky, half-hidden depths of trembling vegetation.”
In 1909, an exhibition of 48 of those paintings garnered brisk sales and critical acclaim: “No one has ever painted better than this,” exulted one critic. But Monet was not satisfied, and in the years that followed, he ruthlessly slashed paintings he thought inferior. Although his reputation soared, and his mounting income allowed him to indulge in fine food, wines and cigarettes, he was an unhappy man.
In contrast to morose Monet was his closest friend, Georges Clemenceau — the two-time prime minister known affectionately by his countrymen as the Tiger. He emerges as the indefatigable bright spirit of this biography and of Monet’s life. “Whether it rains or shines,” Clemenceau once wrote to Monet, “my rule is to accommodate myself.” Monet’s rule was to mine his despair and self-doubt for his art.
The death of his first wife, Camille, in 1879; of Alice in 1911; of his son Jean in 1914; and of several stepchildren spurred him to paint: It was, King writes, “almost as if he believed the act of furiously painting might hold his own death at bay.”
Besides the loss of family and friends, Monet discovered that his vision was increasingly compromised by a cataract in his right eye. He resisted an operation, afraid that it would fail and result in blindness in that eye, or that a cataract would develop in the left eye as well, or that he would die under the knife. He preferred, he wrote to Clemenceau, “to make the best of my bad sight, such as it is, and give up painting if necessary, but at least be able to see something of the things I love, the sky, water and trees, not to mention my nearest and dearest.”
Finally, Clemenceau prevailed and Monet submitted to surgery, which led to a long, unhappy period until he found spectacles that adequately restored his vision. This, in turn, led to an unhappy period of dissatisfaction with his paintings, now seen clearly. “It’s irritating for you not to be able to complain about your sight after all of your wild lamentations,” Clemenceau wrote to Monet. “Fortunately, your work ‘gives poor results,’ and therefore you can whine about that instead, because complaining gives you the greatest joy of your life.”
King, author of “The Judgment of Paris,” “Brunelleschi’s Dome” and other titles, sets Monet’s career against the avant-garde art movements and political upheavals of the time, not least of which was the First World War. To commemorate fallen soldiers and France’s victory, Monet agreed to donate to the nation 19 panels, making up eight compositions, provided that they were installed in a special room that met with his approval. That last stipulation caused no end of trouble: one architect failed to meet Monet’s standards; nor was the artist pleased with the Orangerie. The space was too narrow, he complained, the ceiling too low. Although he promised the paintings as soon as they were completed, he could not bear to let them go. France got its incomparable gift only when he died.