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Mad Enchantment – Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King

 

Ross King is a Canadian writer, based in the UK, and winner of the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize for his most recent book Mad Enchantment – Claude Monet and the Painting of The Water Lilies.

We are all familiar with the work of Claude Monet, especially the Water Lilies. These images have been used on all sorts of stationery items, jigsaw puzzles, clothing and accessories.

One of the most well known of the Impressionist painters, by the 1890s Monet was already widely recognized, his work sold in prestigious galleries, being collected by wealthy Americans. He was also one of few living artists to see his work hung in the Louvre.

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The book spans the years when Monet lived at Giverny but fills in the past as the story moves forward. We read of Monet and his family vacationing in Trouville during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, then leaving France to sit out that war in England. But, by the time World War 1 begins Monet is living in Giverny and this time he stays put – in his garden, working on the huge paintings that have become so celebrated. He wrote, “I would prefer to die here in the midst of my work”.

With the horror of the First World War in the background Monet lived relatively unaffected at Giverny. He was inconvenienced by the disruption of the train schedule, the shortage of cigarettes and gasoline. He was worried about the young men in his family who were fighting but he continued to work quite undisturbed by the war. Amazingly in 1917 he was commissioned to paint the ruins of the cathedral in Reims, and took advantage of the trip to take a holiday, driving in Normandy, to Etretat, Fecamp, Dieppe and Le Havre – a route still often followed by tourists today.

Of course it is always advantageous for artists to have friends in positions of power. Monet had many but Georges Clemenceau was his great friend and future Prime Minister of France. His story is woven into that of Monet’s. Clemenceau was instrumental is allowing Monet to keep possession of his car, and a supply of gas. Clemenceau and other friends also ensured that Monet had a supply of cigarettes.

Artists reading this book will find Monet’s way of working especially interesting, the way in which he prepared his canvases and other odd bits of information about his painting technique, and how later in his life he deals with compromised vision.

The first half of the book takes place during the First World War, and the second half continues through the years of Peace Treaty negotiations. In these years in addition to the wealthy Americans already buying Monet’s work he also developed a clientele of wealthy Japanese collectors. Monet himself had been collecting Japanese prints for many years, and certainly there is Japanese influence to be seen in the Giverny gardens.

We come to know Monet as a complicated man, a tormented genius, a man who put his art before all, a man depressed by the death of friends, including Rodin and Renoir. He is frustrated by failing eyesight and cataract surgery, and becomes more and more enraged and frustrated as he ages.

During all of this time Monet worked on his huge canvases with the plan, from the beginning, that they be donated to the nation in a purpose built gallery. After much delay and negotiation the venue considered most suitable was The Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris. Monet was impatient with the delay in the completion of renovations to the Orangerie. By 1925 both Monet and Clemenceau were in poor health and feeling that they were approaching the end of life. In fact, Monet died on December 5th, 1926 – his paintings not installed in the Organerie until two weeks after his funeral! Georges Clemenceau died only a few short years later in November 1929.

Of course, now The Organerie and Monet’s home and gardens at Giverny are on every tourist itinerary and travellers to France are all taking pleasure in reading Mad Enchantment by Ross King.

 

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