“Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies” (Bloomsbury USA), by Ross King
Anyone who has stood before Claude Monet’s monumental water lily paintings may recall feeling dissolved into their world of ineffable light and seemingly perfect tranquility. A new book makes clear that that’s just a first impression.
In fact, the Impressionist master’s final work emerged from a period of personal loss and at times deep self-doubt — and from an era of historic upheaval. World War I raged over the years Monet painted the multiple huge canvases depicting the garden and pond he lovingly created at his home in Giverny in the French countryside. A few times, artillery explosions even resounded in the village itself.
“These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession,” he wrote to a friend in 1908. Yet up to his death in 1926, he continued to create scores of depictions of the scene, to refine them — and in some cases, to destroy them.
The title of Ross King’s rich recounting of Monet’s more than two decades of work on the masterpiece — “Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies” — reveals only about half of what this remarkable book contains.
It also traces the story of Monet’s longtime friend, Georges Clemenceau, the writer-editor and political figure whose ascent to the leadership of France at a low point in the war was credited with bringing victory and saving the nation. In King’s telling, Clemenceau’s friendship can also be seen to have helped save Monet himself — and preserve the water lily canvases, nearly 300 feet long in all, viewed today by about a million visitors a year at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.
Monet was, of course, known for his studies of shifting light on subjects as varied as stacks of grain and the shadowed facade of the Rouen Cathedral. He found a particularly enthralling challenge in trying to capture the ever-changing surface of water strewn with flowers called “nympheas,” the French name evocative of nymphs. Over time, his grand project took shape: to create large-scale works that would cover the walls of an enormous oval gallery.
Once financially hard-pressed, Monet, like his fellow Impressionists, transcended initial critical disapproval, and by the Belle Epoque period before the war he made a handsome living from sales of his work. He was able to buy the Giverny property, with funds to spare for exotic plants and gardeners to tend them, and he could later build a huge studio to accommodate canvases 14 feet wide.
King delightfully describes the good life of creativity, hearty meals and convivial visits with a stream of friends and admirers. But there were losses, too, most notably Monet’s wife, Alice, and a beloved son. During the war, when another son deployed to the front, Monet donated paintings to support the war effort but expressed guilt at continuing his artistic work while others fought.
Still, King says, the conflict’s heavy toll can be glimpsed in certain garden paintings of “sulfurous sunsets,” … a lake of fire and blood,” and affecting portraits of willows, a symbol of grief.
“The war infuses every inch of these canvases,” King writes. “They are a firm riposte to anyone who regards Monet simply as the ‘great antidepressant.'”
Following the allied victory over Germany, King notes that the first outing for the triumphant Clemenceau — nicknamed “Pere la Victoire” — was to Giverny, for lunch with Monet. The French leader wanted an artistic monument to the war’s sacrifices and success, and Monet proposed donating paintings from his water lily project.
King, who has explored art history in several previous books, takes the reader through the tortuous process that followed — through years of negotiation and design changes for the space that would hold the paintings, through Monet’s loss of friends and loved ones. Meanwhile, despite badly deteriorating eyesight, he continued to apply “finishing touches” to his work well into his 80s. Again and again, King quotes Clemenceau’s letters consoling and cajoling his friend, even as he despairs and threatens to withdraw the gift.
King, an exhaustive researcher and a pleasing writer, has produced a perceptive chronicle of war and friendship, shifting tastes and lasting art — and of the painted reflections of a pond that became a mirror.