Impressionist Claude Monet was distraught. Despite a few adulatory press notices and the sale of some paintings and works on paper, the 38-year-old artist could not support his small family. Constantly broke, Monet approached collectors as well as friends and colleagues such as Frederic Bazille, Gustave Courbet, and Edouard Manet for loans and handouts. He could hardly afford art supplies. And now his wife, Camille Doncieux, the mother of his two young sons, was on her deathbed. She was 32.

After a long illness, probably uterine cancer, Camille succumbed on Sept. 5, 1879, and at her side Monet painted his grief. He wrote Georges Clemenceau, later the eminent French statesman and a dear friend, that “finding myself at the deathbed of a loved one, I was surprised … by the colors that death brought to her immobile face.” The changing tones of blue, yellow, and gray mesmerized him. Reacting instinctively, he “found himself desiring to reproduce the last image of she who would leave us forever.” He used long, rapid brushstrokes and subdued colors.

Though he would live for 47 more years, enjoying love and fame, Monet carried Camille always in his heart. His tender depiction of her was hanging in his bedroom when he died at the age of 86 in 1926. After the oil entered the collection of Michel Monet, the executor of his father’s estate, the work remained unknown for 38 years. Today, it belongs to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and is often on view.

For Monet authority Charles Stuckey, the poignant painting is “truly a labor of love.” Art Institute of Chicago curator Gloria Groom points out, “This was one of the most tragic moments of Monet’s life. And he chose to remember this moment that would never repeat itself, exactly what the Impressionists did.” With one twist: These artists painted light, not death.

Monet always wanted to see his art hanging in the Louvre. But it wasn’t his landscapes he pictured in its palatial galleries. Monet had his figure paintings in mind. And the woman who posed for many of these over the course of 13 years was Camille Doncieux. The artist met his attractive model, who was born in Lyon and raised in Paris, when she was 18; he married her in 1870, almost three years after the birth of their first son, Jean. Their life together resembled scenes from Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme crossed with chapters from Emile Zola’s l’Oeuvre.

But unlike the Italian composer or the French novelist, Monet did not transform extreme poverty, incurable illness, and artistic indecision into art. When Camille appears in the Impressionist’s paintings, she wears fashionable dresses to a picnic in a forest clearing; sits on the beach elegantly holding a parasol; lunches with her young child at a food-laden table; and fans herself while wrapped in a dramatic Japanese kimono. Then, too, the friends who visited the Monets at the houses they rented in Argenteuil during the early 1870s were artists facing real struggles. When the 30-something artist wrote to Camille Pissarro that “Renoir’s not here — you can have the bed,” he was extending a concrete invitation.


Phyllis Tuchman