My search for Monet’s great love Camille, a guest post by Stephanie Cowell. And a giveaway!
The grave was overgrown, the headstone worn and tumbled when you used to walk through the graveyard of the old church of Vétheuil in search of Monet’s muse and first wife Camille. For a hundred and twenty years, the remains of the beautiful woman who died young had been forgotten while her lover and husband, the man who painted her so often, had become the most beloved artist in the world.
It was not uncommon. Throughout the history of artists, the particulars of the women they painted have often been lost to time. Pictures of her hung in museums over the western world but most often they did not bear her name. It is supposed that Claude Monet, a very private man, destroyed any of her letters and her diaries when she died.
Camille-Léonie Doncieux was around eighteen when she met and fell in love with Claude Monet, leaving her fine home to live with the talented 25-year-old painter who could not sell his work. When she bore his child both her family and his disowned them.
People called her “La Monette.” Everyone was charmed by her. She was a ravishing creature, the friend said, full of kindness and grace. Phrases arise from the few letters and a contemporary diary which sketch their life. “Charming…she really is a good child…a fine comedienne… enchanting….witty…” and then, as Claude wrote sadly to a friend, “We have no heat and nothing to eat.”
She was so lovely! His painting of her in a rented green promenade dress won him his first great notice as an artist while Paris newspapers called her the Parisian Queen. If that was not enough to turn a young girl’s head!
Surely their years of struggle were hard on this girl who had been raised in a chaperoned, sheltered way. She and Claude lived a scattered life, hunted from house to house, fleeing in the middle of the night, unable to pay the rent. They lived mostly in struggle, and only occasionally in prosperity, until her early death at thirty-two. She left two young sons. She never heard of or saw the house and gardens at Giverny. They would come later in the artist’s life.
But, even if we have none of her letters or diaries, we have his many paintings of her. There was no other person he painted so often. And he kept a portrait of her in his bedroom all his life, which likely was not easy on his second wife. I suspect Claude never got over her early loss and, in his own way, searched for her all his life.
As a novelist, how do you create the character of a woman from perhaps twenty paintings and a handful of adjectives? With a lot of hope, studying the pictures and instinct. In the end I must say she created herself, for she grew on the pages of my novel CLAUDE & CAMILLE as much of a mystery to him as she would be to us.
The most complete study of her to date is by Ruth Butler in her book Hidden in the Shadow of the Master. Another study will be published late summer: Monet and His Muse: Camille Monet in the Artist’s Life by Mary Mathews Gedo. Neither was available to me when I was writing the novel, alas. The first is a fine study of the great artists’ model-wives and I look forward to the second.
Over a hundred and thirty years after Camille’s death, her much neglected grave has been restored. But who she really was is known to her friends, her famous lover, and is ours to wonder and imagine.
Giveaway rules: Leave a comment with the word “giveaway” before April 29, 2010 at midnight, EST. The free copy of Claude and Camille will only be shipped to the United States or Canada. Thank you for entering!
FTC disclosure: I received a free review copy of Claude and Camille.