‘Claude,’ Part 4

In the foreground is the river, with ripples showing the reflection of the tall trees and buildings of the Vetheuil village.
“Vétheuil in Summer” 1880

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

Part 1Part 2Part 3

Part 4

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.

Three paintings of Camille: one where she wears a fur lined jacket over a dress of green and black stripes, one where she wears a red kimono, and one where she wears a light colored dress and holds a parasol
“Camille” 1867, “Madame Monet Wearing a Kimono” 1875, and “Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son” 1875

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.

continued on Part 5

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

‘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