This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:
Arriving in the summer were Auguste and Gabrielle, coming from Cagnes-sur-Mer in the South of France. Paul had arranged a driver and car to take them the many kilometers to Giverny.
A blessing for Claude to have a dear friend with him, yet it brought sadness when Claude watched the chauffeur and a gardener carry Auguste from the car to a wheelchair. The slim man who used to stroll with Claude for hours around Paris. Decades later, Auguste was even thinner, and walking caused him a great deal of pain. Rheumatoid arthritis had ravaged the poor man’s body and paralyzed a portion of his facial muscles. He had sought relief from massages and baths at spas, which, if any relief was found, turned out to be temporary.
As it happened, Madame Renoir was at a spa in Vichy and wasn’t among the visitors. Gabrielle aided Auguste in the trip. She was Aline Renoir’s cousin and had been hired as a nanny for Auguste and Aline’s second son, Jean. Since then, Gabrielle had become a caregiver and model for Auguste. She was just less than half of Auguste’s age of seventy.
As Gabrielle pushed Auguste’s wheelchair toward the house, Claude welcomed them.
Auguste’s demeanor remained serious, as he said, “There has been a mistake. I was expecting to see my friend Claude. Instead, I have been brought to his grandfather.”
Claude laughed. “I am a grandfather, and a proud one at that.”
“I’d like to be one,” Auguste said, now with humor in his eyes. “I was later than you in having children.”
“You already resemble a grandfather,” Claude said. “If you doubt me, you should look into a looking glass. What you see is not the future, but the present.”
Auguste stroked his white beard with the side of his hand, the fingers paralyzed in a grip. He said, “Oh, I’m quite aware. But your beard is longer. You were always the bushier one.”
Claude leaned down, held Auguste’s bony shoulders, and gave him kisses on both cheeks. The men’s white beards touched, and Claude’s was indeed longer. Despite the humor, Auguste couldn’t hide his disappointment in having to sit during the greeting.
“Are you two finished comparing your beards?” Gabrielle asked. “I would like to see the garden. I had to listen to Auguste go on and on about your famous flowers for the entire trip.”
“A slight exaggeration,” Auguste said. “But let’s go see what keeps Papa Noël busy when he’s not delivering presents.”
During Auguste’s visit, many hours were spent by Claude pushing Auguste’s wheelchair in the straight, orderly paths of the garden next to the house, and the more curving path that followed the perimeter of the pond. Claude would stop the wheelchair next to a bench, then take a seat and the men smoked cigarettes while admiring the blossoms and trees. They exchanged updates of what their children had been up to since their last letters to each other. They talked of Alice Monet and in a way kept her alive.
The painters reminisced about their youthful days, such as when Claude convinced the director at the Gare Saint-Lazare to temporarily delay the trains, so he could paint them and their churning steam.
“It still amazes me how you pulled that off,” Auguste said. “You with your lacy shirt cuffs and your talk of how the trains would make grand art.”
“I impressed the train station director,” Claude said with a smile. “The man knew a true artist when he saw one.”
“Bah,” Auguste said. “You were far from famous back then. You hoodwinked the man. You were a common charlatan.”
“None of us was famous. But we dreamed of success.”
Auguste nodded. “And you were the biggest dreamer of us all. With your studio on a boat.”
Claude liked the mental picture of people on shore, pointing at him in the small boat. He had been quite a sight, starting in Argenteuil. The floating studio had shown him the Seine’s ripples in a different way than from land. He said, “I still have the boat, moored close to here.”
“Of course you do,” Auguste said. He motioned a clutched hand at the scene before them. “And for you to dream up this … this ecstasy of color. As if these flowers have crowded together to get your attention. They’re positively falling over themselves to get the great Monet to paint them.”
“Not recently, I haven’t.”
Auguste looked gently at his dear friend. “But you will get back to it. You’re in a miserable place now, and you may think you’ll never paint again. But you have been there before, and you returned to painting. It’s too deep inside us to ever go away.”
Gratitude washed through Claude. “I’m very glad you are here.”
“Certainly,” Auguste said. “Have faith in the light inside you. It will come out again. As artists, we have to have that. Otherwise, we would only paint the night. And who would buy that?”
“Perhaps some would like paintings of nighttime Paris.”
“Perhaps. But limiting yourself to those would not be good for you.”
They spent time in the studio, converted from a barn when the Monets bought the property. The space also served as a drawing room where family and guests conversed after meals, sitting on the wicker chairs, drinking coffee or liqueur, eating cheese straws or fruit jellies or violet-flavored bonbons.
The walls, crammed with paintings, offered a visual biography of Claude’s interests and homes and travels throughout the years. A viewer could shift his or her feet on the wooden floorboards, move their attention around, and absorb a sense of the artist’s history without being told a word. Self portrait of a younger Claude with dark hair, Rouen cathedral, haystacks, water lilies, London’s Houses of Parliament, Camille holding a parasol before a cloudy sky, poplars, two women paddling a canoe, youthful Jean and Michel on a path between beds of tall sunflowers at Vétheuil, Waterloo bridge, cliffs at the sea.
“You see?” Auguste said. “These are far better than if you painted the night.”
Claude inhaled from his cigarette and swept his eyes across the paintings. Here was result of learning from tradition, then breaking it to strive on the path of plein air painting. Claude had been joined not only by Auguste, but Sisley, Bazille, Manet, Cassatt, Morisot, and others. They interpreted how nature looked and felt in a place, at a specific time. Short strokes with the brush, varying colors, becoming intoxicated with color and light. For Claude, that intoxication remained.
Lunches and dinners were livelier than before Auguste and Gabrielle arrived. Claude couldn’t help but think of how Alice would’ve loved to be here, with these guests. He felt guilty for having a nice time without her.
In his first lunch of the visit, Auguste said the yellow dining room was like being inside a daisy’s petal, one decorated with Japanese prints on the walls.
With Marguerite’s skillful hands in the kitchen, the group ate very well. Chicken with chervil. Duck with turnips. Broiled steak in wine. Tomatoes stuffed with thyme, mushrooms, bacon, and shallots. Salads that Claude dressed at the table, but some guests—such as Gabrielle—asked for a separate bowl, due to the host’s fondness for a lot of black pepper.
Meals raised yet another difficulty for Claude to see the state of his friend’s condition. Twenty years earlier, Auguste had suffered from dental neuralgia and his teeth were extracted to lessen the pain. His food had to be mashed or liquefied. It was a blow to a man who loved eating, especially grilled herring with mustard sauce and fire-roasted meat and potatoes.
Marguerite accommodated Auguste’s culinary need, mashing his food and preparing soups for him: cream of sorrel, garlic, and cream of turnip.
“Tell me more about the good, old days,” Gabrielle said at a lunch. “I’d like to hear again about when you two used to kick up your heels.”
Gabrielle had already heard many stories, since she had been with the Renoirs for so long. The Renoirs had been living in Montmartre, which had felt like the countryside, when they hired Gabrielle as a nursemaid. She had arrived after Auguste’s time of poverty in downtown Paris and she witnessed his rising success. Gabrielle had experienced the Saturday nights when friends came to the Renoir house for conversation and dinner of Aline Renoir’s pot-au-feu that had filled the house with a wonderful aroma.
“I never kicked up my heels,” Auguste said. “I was too dedicated to my art for such frivolities. Claude was the wild man.”
While Claude chuckled, Gabrielle said, “Oh, come off it. I know you didn’t spend all your days bent over a canvas. You were young once, I am sure of it.”
“We were young once?” Auguste asked the host.
“Once upon a time, we were,” Claude replied. “And you participated in the frivolities, too. You can’t deny the truth, mon ami.”
The friends described regularly meeting with other painters at Café de Bade, then later Café Guerbois to discuss their works. The gatherings were valuable for camaraderie among like-minded artists. As were evenings at Frédéric Bazille’s studio. Frédéric had been generous in allowing Auguste and Claude to use his studio, since they didn’t have studios of their own when starting out. The three painted and caroused together, and friends joined them in merry making after the sun set. Noisier were Friday nights at Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio, where party-goers drank from the assortment of liqueur bottles, sometimes of unusual cocktails that Henri invented. Classier receptions were held at Georges Charpentier’s home, as well as that of Berthe Morisot’s parents.
“My, my, you two were quite the bon vivants,” Gabrielle said.
“We had our moments,” Claude grinned.
Behind that grin and unsaid was the thought of the friends who had died since then. Many had gone. Bazille at the tragic age of twenty-eight. Berthe Morisot, courageous and graceful amid the group of mostly men. Édouard Manet was older than much of the group, but his passing still stung. Alfred Sisley, just before the turn of the century. Toulouse-Lautrec, soon into the new century.
Sadness added to sadness from those departures. Claude knew Auguste felt it as well; his eyes did not hide it. And Auguste rubbed his nose, a typical gesture when he was troubled.
Claude also knew those vibrant and beautiful people had made marks inside him. Here he was, with a fellow survivor, who could share in telling stories about them.
copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons