This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir in their later years. To read from the beginning:
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.”
copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. The first image is from Wikimedia Commons; the final two images are from WikiArt.
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.