This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:
Alice died three Mays after the Monets returned to Giverny. The timing of her death didn’t make sense in 1911’s spring, when the earth was warming and flowers were blooming. More sense would’ve been in the colder months. Inside Claude, the weather matched those months more than the weather outside.
After Alice was buried in the Giverny Church Cemetery, Claude took to longer-than-usual walks in his garden. The sunny days did nothing to improve his spirit. Nor did the vast amount of colorful flowers. The weeping willows, which had looked graceful before, now appeared melancholy. Claude sat on a bench by the pond and felt emptiness inside him.
The sorrow intensified when he imagined Alice at the table during lunch, chatting with him, family, and friends. Smiling, laughing, complementing Marguerite on particularly tasty dishes. Memories of Alice were everywhere. Sharper memories when he clicked on an electric light. And when he drank plum brandy from one of the Murano glasses they had bought in Venice. He missed conversations with her, her teasing him about being so meticulous in his instructions to the gardeners.
Claude tried working on the paintings of Venice, adding to them from mental images, but they did not bring the respite he hoped. He put the Venice paintings to the side, along with the other paintings in progress.
His thoughts reached far back, to places his mind had not visited in a while. He met Alice when she had been married to Ernest Hoschedé, who hired Claude to paint landscapes and panels in his château. Claude and Alice Hoschedé shared intimate moments. Claude’s wife at the time, Camille, lived with their son Jean in Argenteuil. Looking back, Claude knew he had been swept up by Alice’s charm. And she may have desired to indulge in a bohemian artist, a change from her husband who was an executive in a Parisian department store.
Claude became so attached to the Hoschedés that after Ernest’s fortunes fell and he went into bankruptcy, the Hoschedés and Monets moved into a house together in Vétheuil. By then, Camille had given birth to a second son, Michel. The house was a whirlwind of activity with the six Hoschedé children and two Monet boys. Claude couldn’t continue intimacies with Alice, despite his wishes and attraction to her.
Different fortunes fell when Camille’s health declined, first with tuberculosis, then uterine cancer. She was only thirty-two years old when she died.
Claude’s heart broke. He painted Camille’s likeness on her deathbed, shrouded in strokes of white, lavender, grays. Her mouth partially open, her eyes closed forever. She would never get to grow old, would never see their sons grow old, would never get to enjoy the fruits of Claude’s increasing success in later years.
Guilt crushed Claude, an ugly emotional partner with his anguish. He cursed himself for the dalliance with Alice. That had been a poor decision, even if Camille never knew about it. But she might’ve been suspicious from how Claude had looked at Alice and talked about her.
Camille had stayed at Claude’s side through poverty and his sometimes crushing doubts that he could forge a career as an artist. She had nursed him after his attempt to drown himself in the Seine and end the darkness. With little Jean, they had fled to London and Zaandam to avoid the ravages of the Franco-Prussian War. She had cheered Claude’s epiphanies with his developing style of painting. She had embraced him and given him strength when he needed it. They had often argued about the lack of money, wanting a better place to live, wishing for nicer food. Yet, through it all, she had remained with him.
During Claude’s pain over Camille’s loss, Alice Hoschedé had brought his two boys to Paris, along with her own children. By this time, Ernest Hoschedé was out of the picture—he had moved to Belgium—but he was still married to Alice.
Claude had thrown himself into his work, traveled the countryside, recorded on canvas what he saw: ice on the Seine, frost on a clearing, poppy fields, hills, and trees. The cliffs and sea at Fecamp. Nature and art were his medicines.
Also medicinal was Alice, who had returned to Vétheuil with the children. She whipped the household into shape and created as much order as possible with eight children. The combined family moved to Poissy (not to Claude’s liking), then to Giverny (more to Claude’s liking). When Ernest occasionally dropped into these homes, Claude took trips to paint at different places. But he despised the reason for leaving the houses, and had difficulty with his art. Alice refused Ernest’s desire for his family to move in with him and she refused Claude’s insistence to divorce Ernest.
A dozen years after Camille’s death, Ernest passed away. Alice grieved, then finally married Claude. She destroyed his letters to Camille, saying he needed a fresh start.
Other changes came with the larger income from Claude’s paintings, since Paul Durand-Ruel’s experiment of bringing Impressionist art to America had paid off. The Yanks were gobbling up paintings. The money enabled the Monets to purchase the house they had been renting in Giverny. As well as buy the neighboring land and buildings, expanding the gardens and constructing a studio for Claude. Then purchase more land across the railroad tracks and instruct workers to divert the Epte river’s Ru stream to the additional land to form a sizable pond, after receiving permission from the village council.
The garden and pond were his sanctuary. Places of inspiration and healing. With two wives gone, Claude’s legs of their own accord carried him around the garden as memories replayed in his mind. Turning over the past, like working the soil, rediscovering fragments, feeling a small glow at happy memories but suffering with the knowledge that those times would not be repeated with Alice. The journey behind him seemed to stretch a few lifetimes.
Mercifully, his children—biological and step-children—visited to keep Claude company and help manage the household. Those included Jean, in his mid-forties, who had married his step-sister Blanche, a fine painter in her own right who had often painted next to Claude before she married Jean and moved to Rouen.
copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons