Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell
Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell is sub-titled A Novel of Monet. We can picture the artist Claude Monet as a white bearded old man, with a paintbrush in hand beside his famous garden at Giverny. The man we perhaps might not imagine as clearly is the young man portrayed in this novel. Claude Monet was born in Le Havre, on the Normandy coast, in 1840. By the time he was sixteen Monet was well known for his caricatures, but it was not until Eugene Boudin recognized Monet’s talent that he began to paint with pastels and oils. Eugene Boudin was already a well-respected artist, known for painting the Normandy landscape with cows, cows and more cows in the fields where he lived.
By the time Claude Monet was nineteen he was living in Paris. Renting studio space, sometimes sleeping on the floor, he lived with other struggling artists, his closest friend Frederic Bazille, and Cezanne, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley and Manet. Models were hired, among them Camille Doncieux who became Claude Monet’s lover, and was painted by him, time and time again, for the rest of her life.
Life was not easy for these intense young men. Their work was a departure from what had come before – we know them now as The Impressionists – but for most of them it took many, many years for recognition, and prosperity, to come. Claude Monet was constantly juggling his debts, owing money to the grocer, the landlord and everyone else as he attempted to make a living from his painting. It was never enough and he moved his family constantly, painting in Etratat, Trouville, and throughout Normandy and the countryside near Paris, as he attempted to escape his creditors and find a situation that he hoped would improve his circumstances.
Camille had been the sheltered and pampered daughter of a well-to-do family. Her relationship with Monet was unacceptable to her family, but theirs was a “great love” and despite the challenges of their chosen lifestyle, and some infidelities, they remained together until Camille’s death. Throughout all of these years Monet found little success. It was not until they were living in exile in London during the Franco-Prussian War that Monet’s work was exhibited – and some actually sold. On his return to Paris he continued to exhibit with some small success, providing a modest living for his family.
This novel is a fascinating portrayal of Claude Monet, his life as an artist, and as a man whose art was who he was – as much as he loved his wife, and his children, during times that he could not paint he became despondent. It was his passion for his art that brought Claude and Camille together, and it was during times when he found he could not work that they drew apart.
It is hard to imagine now that these artists barely made a living wage from their work in their lifetimes. Monet by simply living to the age of 86 did in fact see the recognition of his talent. By the late 1880’s he was regularly exhibiting and selling his work, and finally in 1886 he had a very successful exhibit in New York City. In 1890 he is able to buy property at Giverny, where he begins to paint his Water Lilies series in 1902. In 1921, five years before his death, Monet arranged to have the Water Lilies permanently displayed in the Orangerie des Tuileries.
The novel Claude & Camille focuses on the years between 1857 and 1879. The story of this time is occasionally interrupted by the elderly Claude Monet, as he reflects upon his life with Camille while sitting in his garden at Giverny. With both fiction and history seamlessly woven together, Stephanie Cowell brings the young Claude Monet to life.