This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir in their later years. To read from the beginning:
A train brought Claude from Vétheuil to Paris, then another train in a longer journey south, releasing him in the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer.
He inhaled the smell of the sea and understood again why Auguste had moved here. The area provided plenty of subject matter for art, and the air itself was marvelous. Particularly in winter, when the warmth of this area was better for Auguste than the northern region’s cold that worsened his arthritis pain.
Auguste’s chauffeur drove Claude to Les Collettes estate, and on the climb to the house, the car passed a pine grove, olive trees, and palm trees. At the top of the slope, the house was made of pale stones and white shutters.
The door opened and out came Aline Renoir, plumper than the last time Claude had seen her, graying hair swooped in a bun. A little white-and-brown dog raced out and barked at the visitor.
“Don’t mind Bob,” Aline Renoir said. “He’s always running about. Hardly ever keeps still.”
“Unlike the rest of us,” Claude said and kissed her cheeks, followed by an embrace. “And I couldn’t forget about him. Bob is such a funny name for a dog.”
Aline looked at the dog sniffing Claude’s shoes. She said, “He’s a funny little thing. The name fits.”
“It’s a joy to see you. You are as lovely as ever, Madame.”
“And you are as full of flattery as ever,” Aline said. “I apologize for not coming to see you, but I needed therapy.” Aline had suffered from diabetes for years.
“I hope you were treated well at the spa?”
“I was. Now, let’s get you inside and to the table. You must be famished after your travel.”
Gabrielle was the next to welcome the visitor, cheerful as she was back in Giverny. She had been a buoyant addition to the Renoirs, although Aline had been jealous of the younger woman spending time with her husband. However, Auguste had told Claude he had never been romantic with Gabrielle, and he even had asked permission from Madame Renoir for Gabrielle to pose nude for him.
Auguste seemed more comfortable in his own home. Before, he had said the place felt like a convent to him, that nearby Nice—where Auguste went to his doctor for treatment—was more energetic. But he had also called Les Collettes a paradise. The garden was to his liking, but the house not as much.
Dinner was sole fillets poached in white wine, and the adults were joined by two of the three Renoir boys: Jean and Coco. Jean was in his late teens, and Coco was only ten years old. When Coco was born, Auguste had written to Claude with concerns about becoming a parent again at the age of sixty. But Coco, whose real name was also Claude, had been in many of Auguste’s portraits. The oldest Renoir son was Pierre, working as an actor in Paris, mostly in the theater, also in the silent film La Digue.
Jean and Coco had met Claude on several occasions, and weren’t shy around him. The boys talked about Bob’s mischief, his chasing rabbits and barking at hens and goats. However, the dog ventured too close to the goat and was kicked in the hindquarters, so Bob had kept a farther distance since then. And the boys told of the time Bob stole part of a roasted chicken from the kitchen table.
Gabrielle said, “That’s the last time I let Bob in the kitchen while I’m cooking. You turn around for a minute, and the naughty devil grabs his chance.”
The boys’ energy reminded Claude when his sons were their ages. After the Monet and Hoschedé households had combined, the meals had been noisier by the increased number of kids. Claude sometimes missed those stimulating meals, and he now enjoyed the lighter dose of them in the Renoir house.
The pattern of days in Les Collettes reflected those the friends had spent in Giverny.
In the studios inside the main house and in a separate structure, Auguste showed his paintings to Claude. A mix of landscapes around the property and Cagnes, portraits, a few still lifes. Claude thought the two self-portraits in a white hat were striking in the honesty of showing his age. Auguste had peered into a looking glass and had not flinched.
Surely, people had criticized Auguste for painting scores of nudes at this late stage of his career and called him a dirty old man. To Claude, the paintings were celebrations of beauty. Responses to a wish to reproduce on canvas the things you adored. All artists were fixated. Your eye caught on certain items, and you investigated their curves, colors, textures. Was the eye the originator of the fixation? Or the head or heart? Claude didn’t know, and the answer didn’t matter. He had been too busy investigating what he considered wondrous.
The portraits held a kind of magic. The nude and clothed models would never grow old inside them. Not Aline, not Gabrielle, none of the others. As long as the paint held its color, the model’s age would remain as on the day of the painting’s creation.
Also, a curiosity about the style of the women, changed since Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. While the artist had become more shrunken—resembling the numerous gnarled olive trees on his land—the women in the paintings had grown fleshier and rosier. As if Auguste wanted to portray the joie de vivre yet burning inside himself, but instead of showing it in his self-portraits, he enhanced women with vigor.
“You haven’t lost your touch,” Claude said. “If anything, you have become better at the subtleties. These are luminous.”
“Merci,” Auguste said. “I’m pleased how they came out. Of course, you always see parts that could be improved.”
“A curse of the artist,” Claude said. “Ever since you veered away from our style, you’ve become more of your own person.”
copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. First two images are from Wikiart; the last two are from Wikimedia Commons