‘Claude,’ Part 2

The Seine River is in the foreground, and several buildings of Lavacourt are in the distance, behind trees.
“Banks of the Seine at Lavacourt” 1879

This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1

Part 2

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.

Camille Monet on her deathbed, with paint strokes of white and gray and lavender
“Camille Monet on her Deathbed” 1879

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.

Path in the middle of a garden that's full of sunflowers. A little boy stands on the path, and another little boy stands on the stairs behind him.
“Monet’s Garden at Vétheuil” 1880

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.

continued on Part 3

copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons

‘Claude,’ Part 1

Photo of Claude Monet with short hair and a long beard.
Monet in 1899, taken by Nadar

During seven days, I’ll be posting my short story “Claude” about, yes, that Claude. The story takes place later in Monet’s life.

The story will be posted in sections, since the whole story would make a long post — and I’m going to include Monet’s paintings here and there to break up the text and show what paintings are mentioned in the story.

Nearly all of the dialogue is made up. The only exception is a Renoir quote in the story’s Part 5.

This story is in my collection, Jumble: Stories and Drawings. (The book’s 68 drawings are independent of the 18 short stories.) “Claude” is the only historical fiction story. The ebook is available here, and it’s in the Kindle Unlimited program. The paperback is available here.

I hope you enjoy the story…

by Dave Williams

The irony was sad, but at times he found an odd humor in it. The humor helped him avoid thinking a great deal about his vision, because a great deal of worry led to a dark place. Where his eyesight ended before his body did.

The irony: A man had once told Claude, “Your paintings are blurry, sir. As if everything is wrapped in mist. Which is understandable with smoke from trains at the station, but not on rivers and gardens. Perhaps you need spectacles to see the world better and paint clearer lines?”

Claude had told the man the style was purposeful; he and others had a new method of painting that interpreted the world differently than past artists.

The man had given a dismissive wave—disgusting by itself—and said, “These look as if you slapped down paint as quickly as you could. You wanted to rush and finish them so you could have as many as possible to sell?”

“That is not the case,” Claude had said. “I work swiftly to catch the feel of the scene and the look of light at that moment. A great deal of thought goes into them. They are not slap-dash.”

The man had harrumphed. “These aren’t to my taste. Perhaps someone loose with drink would appreciate them, but not me. Good day, sir.”

The man’s false politeness had worsened his insults. Claude had wanted to punch the man in the face, but knew the action would’ve worsened the situation. The man, like many other people decades in the past, had not understood what Claude and his friends were doing with paint. The man had refused to try to understand. He was rigidly stuck in art’s traditions.

Now, Claude’s world outside the paintings had started to blur. One of the issues that came with aging. As with wrinkled skin, less hair atop his head and the remainder turning to white, quicker tiredness, aches. Such was the inevitable with those who managed to live past youth. But to a man who worshiped light and color, the eyesight’s diminishment was concerning to say the least.

And the beginning of that diminishment could’ve contributed to Claude’s frustration that built the longer he studied the canvases meant for an upcoming exhibit in Paris, at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel. The paintings weren’t ready. As devastatingly simple as that. A few of them had spent too long on easels, looking overworked. Doubt cast gloom again in his heart, and he slashed those few canvases. The rest, he turned to face the wall. He canceled the exhibit, to Paul’s dismay. But Claude’s dealer would have to manage, as he had for years with artists.

Monet's painting of Venice's Grand Canal, with paint strokes of blue to green to purple to lavender.
“Le Grand Canal, Venice” 1908

Glorious to be in Venice. It was a magical trip to spend with Alice, who had proposed that her husband would benefit from a change of scenery away from Giverny. Alice was correct, and Claude was happy for it.

Venice presented him with a resurgent passion to put oils to canvas and interpret the buildings and canals. And the city provided memories Claude cherished after the tragedy that happened too soon after the journey. Two and a half years afterward, but far too soon. The memories also made him ache, since the married couple never got the chance to return to Venice, as they had hoped.

But hope was alive during bright parts of the trip. Hope in discovering the old city and a new subject to paint, hope in the century that still felt new, eight years into it.

After his hours of painting each day, Claude made sure to include time for walks with Alice and meals at restaurants and gondola rides, which delighted Madame Monet so much she looked practically girlish.

“You can’t get away from bridges and water,” she teased him.

Claude smiled at the insight, although deep meditation had not been required to achieve it. He said, “I can’t help it.”

“Even away from your precious pond, you need the water,” Alice said.

“Not entirely true, my love. I traveled to London a few years ago.”

“And what did you paint? Water and bridges. You went to another place and found yet another river.”

“But in a different light,” Claude said. “The Thames shows itself differently than the Seine and these canals. Everywhere has something particular about it, and I try to capture that. This place has an ancient feeling, like the tales of old.”

“You are hoping princes and princesses will walk about with their attendants, all decked in their finery?” Alice appeared amused.

“That would be splendid,” Claude said. “Perhaps I would sketch them and burn the picture of them in my mind to paint them later.”

“Could we stay long enough for Carnival?” she said. “We could see the revelers in their masks and elaborate costumes. We could even dress up and join the fun.”

Claude hummed pleasurably at the imagined vision of the Venetian celebration. He had heard stories of it. Indeed, those would be marvelous sights, as if entering an olden tale. He told his wife he wasn’t sure if they would stay the through winter, to Carnival. But possibly they could return another year.

After the Monets had settled into their friend Mary Hunter’s home and Claude toured the city for good spots, he set about his work. To capture the light at certain times, he painted in different spots as the day progressed. His subjects were the rows of columns and arches of the Palazzo da Mula, Palazzo Dario, and the Doge’s Palace. The tower and dome of the San Giorgio Maggiore basilica. The domed tops of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal. His paintings were beginnings, to be finished back in his studio.

The silhouette of a church with brilliant sunset: the sky is red to orange to yellow to blue
“San Giorgio Maggiore au crépuscule” 1908

Alice and Claude took gondola rides at sunsets, gliding on the canals, admiring the proud buildings, poles jutting from the water, other gondolas gliding past. Alice said she felt as if she was dreaming before her head rested on a pillow.

One day, she braved the pigeons in a piazza, letting them alight on her hat and outstretched arms. Not exactly loving the experience, but wanting to try it. Later, she enjoyed telling family and friends of the experience.

Mary Hunter needed to leave the city, and the Monets moved into the Grand Hotel Britannia, whose electric light charmed them. The electric illumination in their hotel suite was especially helpful when, for several days, the October and November’s chill and rain forced Claude indoors, and his mood matched the dreary weather.

“Oh, hush down,” Alice said. “Take this chance to rest your old bones. The rain will eventually pass, and you can go back to tromping the streets, clattering your easel and brushes, making a loud racket.”

Claude grunted and sipped his brandy and followed her suggestion. He was in his late sixties; Alice was four years younger. The rest did them good, despite Claude’s grumblings. Alice’s prediction became true. The sun returned, and with it Claude’s clattering around the streets.

However, the increasing cold finally caused the Monets to leave in early December and head home, where they promptly told workers to install electric lights in the house.

continued on Part 2

copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons.