Book Review: Monet by Himself, Edited by Richard Kendall
What's It About?
Over 200 quality reproductions of Monet's world famous Impressionist paintings illustrate this large book, in which a choice selection of private letters allow the reader a fascinating insight into the artist's life.
These letters describe Monet's early experiments with drawing and painting, and the blossoming of what were to become life-long friendships with fellow artists such as Cezanne, Manet and Degas, to Monet's decades of financial struggles, and also his personal life as a husband, father and step-father.
He toured widely through Italy, Brittany and Norway in search of new vistas to paint, all the while struggling by on very little money, and encountering crushing disinterest from art dealers and critics. Monet experienced occasional bouts of ill-health, and sometimes dismal temporary housing in his search for scenes to paint. He determinedly refused to admit defeat in the face of any obstacle.
Only in his last decades of life did Monet find the artistic acclaim, and resulting wealth, which he had worked so diligently to achieve. He bought the house he had been renting in Giverny, France, for himself and his family, and created a garden with a lily pond - the same lily pond which became the focus of his most famous and beloved paintings.
About the Editor
Richard Kendall is an art historian and a curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA.
He has written a number of book about artists, including Van Gogh and Nature, Degas by Himself, and Cezanne by Himself.
Kendall specialises in nineteenth-century French art, and has lectured on this subject in Britain, Europe and America.
What's to Like?
What a fabulous book! Aside from the luscious art works which have been reproduced to a very high standard, the text has been intelligently designed so that even if a reader was to be entirely unfamiliar with Claude Monet's life or his paintings it would be easy to receive a clear and concise understanding of both.
Each section of the book begins with a biographical account of the relevant phase of the artist's life. The art works themselves are presented in a chronological sequence from the early days through to the heights of Monet's fame achieved during his lifetime, to the last paintings which were still in progress when he died in 1926.
It is both interesting and educational to observe the steady development of Monet's ideas and painting techniques into what became his distinctive signature style.
The book begins with a biographical overview which serves well as a solid introduction to the Monet's life and work, and the reader is even treated to some whimsical caricatures drawn by Monet which reveal a humorous side to his career-driven character.
Could Monet be fairly described as obsessive? Certainly he put his pursuit of painting above everyone and everything else, including personal comfort and practicality. His determination to keep on painting left him without the financial means to support himself, never mind his two sons, Jean and Michel, from his marriage to Camille Doncieux, who died soon after childbirth in 1879.
They all lived in abject poverty as Monet's letter from this period clearly show. He regularly writes to friends, asking for money. Other people might have got a regular job but not Monet, who seems not to even have considered this obvious solution.
When Monet's art dealer, Ernest Hoschedé, became bankrupt and fled France for Belgium, poverty forced Monet to move himself and his sons into Hoschedé's house. Monet was already on friendly terms with Ernest's wife, Alice Hoschedé, and her six children, but this unconventional arrangement created considerable controversy and scandal at the time. Following Ernest Hoschedé's death, Monet married Alice in 1892.
Only in his last couple of decades did Claude Monet's paintings attract the large sums which enabled him to purchase the previously rented house at Giverny and to buy some adjoining land in order to design the gardens which have since become famous. By this time, Monet had become a hard-nosed businessman, wise to the moods of the fickle art world, and knew how to play one dealer off against another to drive up prices.
As age and failing eyesight took its toll, his letters reveal his frustrations at his own physical weaknesses and his unceasing ambitions for his paintings as he strove to complete his water lily series to his satisfaction, and finally recognised that some canvases simply would never be finished before his health gave out.
So what we have here is a detailed impression of the chief Impressionist's life and work, in a large and glossy book which I am very glad to have on my shelves.
What's Not to Like?
Monet's friends must have been remarkably patient and forgiving of him! Judging from his letters to them, seemed to be forever pestering them to give or loan him money. If it had not been for the indulgence and support of his wealthy friend Frédéric Bazille during his early years, Monet would have literally starved - that, or got himself a job like so many artists from ordinary backgrounds have done, and still do.
Even his art dealers were sent demands for cash in return for paintings which weren't always received in accordance to their exchange agreements. And yet they loved his work so much that they tolerated his clearly unreliable promises.
This, however, is not a criticism of the book but of the man himself.
Might the book have made room for a few opinions about Monet from those who knew him best, Bazille, Degas and Renoir perhaps, and certainly from his wives?
Monet's letters reveal that Alice threatened to leave him several times, and no wonder. For many long years she endured dire poverty while Claude Monet was off on yet another of his numerous painting expeditions. Surely she would have resented how he could raise funds for his travels while she struggled to feed eight children, two of them not even hers?
The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:
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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray