The Hirshhorn Museum hosted an exhibit on Marcel Duchamp before Covid-19 hit, and during the lockdown I hoped the exhibit would still be there when the museum re-opened. Thankfully, it did and it did.
With gratitude, I recently went to the museum for the exhibit, Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection. It granted my wish to see unusual works that provoked me into asking questions … what makes art “art”? … would the answer to that be different for every person you ask?
Examples: if someone bought a urinal, turned it upside down, called it Fountain, and signed it “R. Mutt 1917,” would you consider that art — or a joke? And what if someone bought a postcard of the Mona Lisa, drew a mustache and chin beard on the famous lady, and called it L.H.O.O.Q., would that be art or a joke?
Marcel Duchamp created/transformed both of those works. According to Wikipedia, Duchamp…
“rejected the work of many of his fellow artists (such as Henri Matisse) as ‘retinal’ art, intended only to please the eye. Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.” — Wikipedia
Various art movements — including Dada and Surrealism — tried to claim Duchamp among their ranks, but he avoided being formally attached to any particular movement. Seemed like an artist who wanted to go where his curiosity led him, and that wasn’t attached to a certain style.
Here are some photos I took of the museum and the exhibit…
Quote from Duchamp: “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”
Living in a Maryland suburb, I’m very lucky to live close to Washington, DC’s museums. They make for hours of meandering from one exhibit to the next.
My wife and I hopped on a Metro train last Sunday and headed for the Museum of Natural History to see the renovated Fossil Hall.
Being back in a museum was wonderful. When our daughters were younger, the four of us would visit the museums for day trips. A big advantage: free admission to the Smithsonian museums. Those trips became more spread out as all of us grew busier with school and work.
Returning after a long while was refreshing to our minds and spirit. As was seeing other people walk around the museum. This was life before Covid. Welllll, not entirely. Masks were required.
We also went to the National Gallery of Art, which I enjoy for discovering what visual artists have created. I prefer the East Building, which houses Modern Art pieces. There, I’ve admired the creativity of many artists.
We weren’t super interested in the temporary exhibits, so we headed to the top level for the whimsical Alexander Calder room and the contemplative Mark Rothko room.
With Rothko, I stand/sit in front of his paintings and try to let go of my everyday thoughts: to-do lists for work, to-do lists for home, etc. I try to open my mind while gazing at the colors. A kind of meditation, I suppose. Of his works at the museum, the best one for this is No. 1. It has a subtle difference of the black rectangles against the dark gray background. That difference grows clearer the longer I look at the painting. At times, I want to step inside the painting and see what it contains…
More colorful is his Red Band…
Finally, here’s a more vivid color. Standing on the rooftop terrace is this large, very blue guy. He watches over DC’s rooftops…
Back in Giverny, Claude’s depression was intensified by the house without Alice. He ached to tell her about his trip to Les Collettes. Despite the emptiness of the room’s owner, Claude went to Alice’s bedroom and closed the door and sat on a chair and softly talked of the trip. As if she was sitting up in bed and smiling while she listened. He felt a little better.
Occasionally before Alice passed away, Claude’s doubts had been so heavy, he stayed in his bedroom all day. Meals were brought to him. Those episodes were short-lived, then he would leave his room and return to his family and painting.
Even though this current depression was heavier than any of those times, Claude saw that he could find a path back to art. Auguste had been correct about surrender as a horrible choice.
Claude was fearful of his vision quickly becoming worse and his sight robbed from him. He would’ve hated to lose the visual joys of his life. His children growing older. Gatherings around the dining table. Reading letters from loved ones, writing back. A cat lounging in a sun-spotted area of the garden, the feline yawning and baring fangs, the cat’s eyes drowsy with such contentment it could not imagine how the moment could be improved upon.
Seeing roses climbing the arches along the Grand Allée roses covering the arch at the boat dock clematis climbing trellises bearded iris Japanese crab apple trees Japanese cherry trees Japanese maples water lilies water iris wisteria azaleas ferns weeping willows rhododendrons bamboo sunflowers wallflowers morning glories African marigolds forget-me-nots agapanthus Spanish blue bells nasturtiums geraniums delphiniums pelargoniums dahlias gladioli pansies Oriental poppies red corn poppies Chinese peonies tree peonies Asiatic lilies cosmos lilacs ox-eye daisies snapdragons sweet peas hollyhocks hydrangea asters orchids in the greenhouse giant hogweed English lavender tulips daffodils foxgloves.
And of course seeing life begin on a blank canvas. Strokes of color forming the shapes of things, becoming what he created. His wives had accused Claude of pouring more of his heart and time into art and gardening than nearly everything else, and he knew that to be true. They were the loves that would not die. Flowers did, but they came back.
He had time. He wouldn’t be struck blind tomorrow. Hopefully not.
After breakfast the next day, Claude walked to the pond, to the peak of the arched bridge. Canopy of wisteria overhead. He wondered if the pond really seemed blurrier than the last time he looked at it, or if his mind was playing a trick. Below the bridge was a rippling mirrored image of himself. The water painted a portrait of Claude in his own style and set it in motion, a painting better than anything he could’ve accomplished. You could interpret nature, but you could never best her. That realization put you in your place as merely human. Claude focused only on the pond, blocking out the land and sky from his vision. Water lilies, ripples, reflections of clouds. He pretended those formed the entire world. Everything else was the void. To be able to paint that world on a large scale. To share that world with others. Show them the ceaseless surface of water in a way they hadn’t seen before.
Thanks to the authors of the following books and webpages, for the research they did in the lives of Monet and Renoir. The materials were helpful for me to write about the events of 1908 and 1911 in the “Claude” story. I took creative liberties with dialogue, as well as the thoughts and some activities of the characters. Renoir and Gabrielle’s trip to visit Monet in Giverny during the summer of 1911 was included in the source material, but I made up the trip Monet took to Les Collettes.
Fell, Derek. The Magic of Monet’s Garden. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2007.
Fell, Derek. Renoir’s Garden. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1991.
Michels, Heide. Monet’s House: An Impressionist Interior. New York, NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1997.
Two decades ago, Auguste had moved away from Impressionism after viewing works by Raphael during a trip to Italy, and he began to paint his subjects with a clearer line. Auguste had written of this shift to Claude, and Claude had sent a letter back that he understood, was eager to see what came out of Auguste’s changed method. Claude never communicated his disappointment, but he supported his close friend.
Auguste’s path had been difficult in tuning the voice of his fingers. Out of that difficulty, he had developed a personal style blending qualities from Impressionism and classical art, resulting in art akin to Peter Paul Rubens with looser brushstrokes.
In the garden, Claude noted the differences between here and Giverny: the types of plants thriving in this climate, the hillside, the areas left to grow wild. He had become accustomed to his careful strategy of plantings and he needed to bite his lip to avoid recommending alterations. This was Auguste and Aline’s garden, not his. Aline had arranged a formal garden in an area, but Auguste’s wish was to not overly design and manicure nature. So the poppies and iris were allowed to proliferate to their desires underneath the trees.
Those flowers were not blooming now, in summer. The roses, which seemed to be everywhere, were in bloom and they perfumed the air, along with lavender, angel’s trumpet, eucalyptus.
Some garden paths were sloped for Auguste’s wheelchair to be pushed. Other paths were stepped, and Auguste was carried in a sedan chair. Claude joked that he looked like a sultan.
“Please paint,” Claude said. “Don’t refrain from it on my behalf.”
“You don’t mind?” Auguste asked.
“Not at all. Just because I’m not painting doesn’t mean you shouldn’t paint either.”
Auguste accepted. He sat in the shade, a brush slid into his grip, and worked on a canvas of the old farmhouse of plaster walls, chunks missing to show stones, and a terra cotta-tiled roof.
Meanwhile, Claude roamed the garden, admiring it. Masses of red pelargoniums softened the tops of retaining walls. The Venus Victrix statue, the goddess holding an apple. Cacti, yucca, agave, wild oat grass, bamboo. Trees: palm to linden to pine to orange to peach to cypress. Claude saw Coco climbing a tree, and saluted. He enjoyed the garden’s progress since he had last visited here.
Also while Auguste painted, Claude visited Cagnes with Aline, Jean, Coco, and Gabrielle. The buildings in town were of similar architecture of the farmhouse, the streets of cobblestone. Then the docks for the fishermen, the Mediterranean opening up in her dazzling blue, the salt air more pungent.
During the visit, Claude feasted on the freshest seafood he had eaten in a long time—fish, oysters, mussels, octopus, scallops. Cooked with garlic, lemon, butter. Or cooked with wine, tomatoes, herbs. All washed down with Sancerre and other white wines.
Claude’s grief from the passing of his beloved Alice made space within him for peacefulness brought by being with the Renoir family. He fit effortlessly in their embrace, strengthened by the years they had known each other. Auguste’s history, Aline’s compassion, Coco’s laugh, Gabrielle’s delightfulness.
The day before Claude left, he and Auguste sat on a balcony to soak in the view of the garden and sea beyond. An umbrella protected Auguste’s sensitive skin from the sunlight. They discussed the news from Paul Durand-Ruel about the buzz in Paris over a Spanish painter. Rumors had swirled about one of the Spaniard’s paintings. Five nude women, their bodies formed by odd angles. Some of the women had masks for faces, and one’s face was twisted about.
“Sounds very strange,” Auguste said.
“It does,” Claude said. “But after I thought about it, I realized that’s what people used to say about us. The young artists are now shaking things up. It’s their turn.”
“But with weird angles? Masks instead of faces?”
“I don’t understand it either,” Claude said. “But it could be the new direction. That’s no longer in our hands.”
“What’s the painting called?”
“The Spaniard calls it Mon Bordel.”
Auguste winced in distaste. “As if he made his own brothel?”
“I had a similar reaction,” Claude said. “Then I remembered a certain prostitute that sent the old hats tittering many years ago. Back when Édouard was the bad boy.”
“Olympia.” Auguste’s distaste smoothed away.
Édouard Manet’s Olympia, by her direct gaze at the viewer, demanded you acknowledge her nudity and her position as a prostitute. Behind Olympia, a black maid presented a flower bouquet that could’ve been a gift sent by a client. Shocked viewers called the painting vulgar. Previously, art’s nudes were gods and goddesses.
That was the second of Manet’s paintings to cause tongues to sharpen and wag in Paris. His earlier Luncheon on the Grass had ignited controversy by showing two dressed men picnicking with a nude female, while another female in an opaque dress bathed in a stream, the group surrounded by dense forest.
Claude had been inspired to paint his own Luncheon on the Grass, women in billowy dresses, additional figures for a more complex arrangement. However, Gustave Courbet had criticized the painting as a knock-off, saying, “By chance of birth, you nearly match Édouard’s surname. People will confuse you two with only a letter of difference. Why would you encourage that confusion by creating a similar painting?” Claude didn’t finish the artwork. Later, he was always irritated when someone confused him with Édouard. “Monsieur Manet and I are distinct individuals,” he would say.
Auguste and Claude bemoaned the recent theft of La Joconde from the Louvre. Saying the act greatly disrespected art’s history. The small painting was a treasure. The way da Vinci had painted the lady’s curious eyes and mysterious smile, the ripples in her dress and sleeves, was masterful. The artwork deserved to hang in a museum for all to appreciate, not secluded in a thief’s apartment. With any luck, the authorities would soon track down the painting and slap justice on the thief.
As Auguste cursed the burglar, he lifted an arm and shook his hand, as if the thief stood before them and could see Auguste’s outrage. Then he sat back in his wheelchair and let out a grunt.
Once again, Claude was impressed by the man’s resilience. He had been beaten down by pain and frozen muscles, but he kept pursuing his art. The man had immense courage in his heart. Claude’s eyes teared up and he wiped away the moisture.
“Look at us,” Claude said. “Me with my blurred eyesight. You with your difficulties. We’re quite a pair, aren’t we?”
That earned another grunt from Auguste. “I feel I have several more years in me, God willing. But I miss the vitality of youth.”
“As do I, mon ami.”
“The alternative is giving up,” Auguste said. “What kind of choice is that? Not one for me. I will move forward. The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Claude looked from the trees to sea, a study in viridian and blue. “Always beautiful, yes.”
“That is the arrangement everyone is given,” Auguste said. “We get difficulties and in return, we get this.” He gestured toward the setting before them. “And a great deal more.”
I made up nearly all of the dialogue in the story. The only exception is in this part: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” A quote attributed to the elderly Renoir when asked by Matisse why he continued to paint while afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis (source: Experiment Station, website for the Phillips Collection). In my story, Monet asks instead of Matisse.
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.
“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.”
Vétheuil, with familiar streets and buildings. Memories seemed to want to erupt from Claude’s head and replay before his eyes. The women prominent in his life, Camille and Alice, along with the children skipping about.
Before Auguste and Gabrielle left Giverny, they had persuaded Claude to visit them. Auguste had said, “The salt air will do you good.” Claude decided to leave after them, so waving good-bye wasn’t difficult while knowing he would see them soon.
A couple days were spent getting affairs straight, mainly sorting out instructions to the head gardener on what to do while Claude was away.
His luggage packed, Claude was driven by chauffeur to the cemetery in Vétheuil. Leaving the chauffeur in the car, Claude walked around the headstones until finding the particular one. He placed a bouquet of white gladiolus on the grave with the plaque marked Camille Doncieux,épouse du peintre Claude Monet. Seeing his own name was unnerving. His name wasn’t on Alice’s plaque.
The death year on the plaque—1879—caused Claude to envision the painting of his first wife on her deathbed, but he wished to banish that image while in the cemetery. Better to remember Camille resplendent in movement and emotion. Remember her guarded look when she had met Claude, as he had been introduced to the young woman as a model for artists. Claude had hired her but could pay hardly anything.
Claude remembered painting her and dancing with her. Remembered her face as they made love, her worry when she learned she was pregnant. Her anger when Claude told her he would depart Paris and live with his aunt. He did it to create the ruse to his family that he and Camille were no longer together. She had yelled, “How could you leave me when I am with your child? You have responsibilities here. What kind of man are you?” On the train heading away, Claude had heard those words echoing and he felt that he was a coward.
He had returned to Paris when Jean was born, but stayed only a handful of days before departing again. Camille’s anger was made worse by crying. Added to that, Jean’s crying seemed to communicate his disappointment in his father for not staying.
Claude’s next return was before Christmas, and the three finally became a family. Living in sad apartments and constantly concerned about money, but they were together. Claude and Camille were married a few months before Jean turned three.
Amid the struggles were times sparkling with happiness, in which their troubles were not entirely forgotten but temporarily dismissed. Times of baby Jean gazing at the world, Jean’s smiles and adorable laughs. Camille modeling for Claude, her in a silk dress striped in black and emerald green, flowing underneath a black velvet jacket trimmed in fur. Another time, she wore a brilliant red kimono with a samurai embroidered on the back, his hands gripping sheathed swords. Claude marveled over the samurai’s fierce expression, and laughed over the contrast of the warrior and Camille’s beauty. Under the spell of Japanese art, Claude had adored painting his wife wearing the garment. Then while Camille was immersed in nature. In gardens and meadows, on the banks of the Seine, on the beach at Trouville during their honeymoon. Camille wearing one of the few dresses and hats she owned and didn’t have to borrow for modeling. A parasol’s stem rested on her shoulder, the dome shading her back and head.
A man had asked Claude, “Why do you include so many parasols in your paintings?” Claude had said parasols were part of ladies enjoying a pleasurable afternoon, and that made for a lovely vision. Also, Claude thought people would like to have such artwork on their walls, so in humdrum or distressing times, people could look at the artwork and imagine themselves stepping into the scene. They could feel some of the pleasure of that afternoon, which could ease their minds. Even a little would be beneficial. The man had frowned doubtfully at Claude and carried on with his day. Claude had been glad he didn’t tell the man of his further thinking that parasols resembled huge flower blossoms.
“I’m sorry,” Claude now said to Camille’s grave. “I’m sorry for not treating you better. I should’ve been a better husband and father. I should’ve been better to you, after you gave me so much.” He kept his voice low, despite being the only one in the cemetery.
If heaven existed, Camille’s spirit might’ve heard Claude. Or perhaps her spirit was close, although he could not detect it. He had been doubtful whenever someone claimed to feel spirits of the deceased. Wherever Camille’s spirit resided, Claude hoped she understood his reasons for his actions, understood that he was as fragile and error-prone as everyone else. Perhaps more than other people. He prayed she forgave him.
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.
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.
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…
Claude 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.
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.
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.
A quiet movie of people’s (mostly) quiet lives, showing how a person’s outward appearance can project nothing of their inner life — that a bus driver composes poetry in his head while shuttling passengers from stop to stop — that a cupcake baker also enjoys painting black-and-white patterns around the house and wants to learn how to play guitar — that people can have the urge to craft their thoughts and feelings into a form of art, like a guy practicing a rap in a laundromat; the people we see in life and might not pay much attention to them (waiters, shop clerks, fast food restaurant cashiers), so little attention that they are forgettable the moment we walk away from them — how these people, within the routines of their lives, can harbor deep creativeness that may not make them rich and famous but can make them rich in expression by forming artworks that are inspired by their heroes and have their personal touches (from experiences, opinions), so no other artwork has ever been created that exactly, uniquely matches the one now being crafted.