Shane's Reviews > Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell
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A true-to-the- real-story fictionalization of the life of Claude Monet from age 17 - 39, the years when he met, fell in love with, and was married to Camille Doncieux, until her death of cancer. It is also an unflattering portrait of the artist as a young man, long before he reached immortal fame with his water lilies, when he struggled to feed a young family, and struggled to get the world to recognize his form of painting that went against the grain of the establishment at the time.

The chapters are broken out in annual or biennial chunks, chronicling the significant events that took place in those time periods, and hence the novel has an episodic feel rather than a dramatic arc. Interspersed between the chapters at critical points are the reflections of an older Monet (circa 1909, at the age of 69) reflecting on his life with Camille and trying to come to terms with the loose ends left there. The writing is gentle, like the colours of Monet’s palette, even though the lives of artists of the nineteenth century were anything but gentle, despite many of them, Monet included, coming from middle class families and having the means of running back home to live with parents or of asking for family loans to tide them over the rougher patches.

After an aborted military service in North Africa, due to illness, Monet, declines his father’s offer to take over the family’s ship chandler business in Le Havre and pursues his education in art in Paris. In the City of Light, he meets other budding artists—Manet, Cezanne, Pissaro, Renoir, Degas and Bazile—to form a breakout art form from the traditional, soon to be known as Impressionism, consisting of visible brushstrokes, changing colours, and focused on scenes of modern life in the countryside. The young painters rent a studio and live to paint, often running out of rent money and being evicted, only to return after some paintings sell or a relative offers a handout. Camille and her sister, Annette, meet the young painters when they pose as models, but Claude claims he has had his eye on Camille ever since he saw her at a railway station many years earlier, and that she had become his invisible muse. In fact, he paints her over and over again throughout their life together, and his painting, “Woman in the Green Dress,” which Camille modeled, gets him into the official Paris Salon and on the path to eventual fame.

Claude and Camille’s life together is constantly plagued with the lack of money. While he paints incessantly in all weather, she tries hard to keep the home fires burning. Her attempts at becoming an artist herself, first an actress, then a novelist, all end up half-baked as the family constantly has to move residence, either due to the lack of money or to supports Claude’s career. Claude is the consummate artist, willing to destroy his work that does not match his expectations, emotional to the point of suicide when things start falling apart. And yet, the passion between the couple is palpable and triumphs over illness, hunger, third-party affairs, and artistic disappointments. The Franco-Prussian war interrupts the lives of the young artists, and many are recruited to fight. Monet flees with his family to England to sit out the war, and to paint another series of outdoor scenes that will eventually add to his oeuvre. The war ends with some of the Impressionists losing their lives and seeing their promising careers cut short. Monet is left bereft when his close friend Frederic Bazile falls victim, leaving a schism in their friendship that involves Camille, one that is never to be repaired.

In the last years of Camille’s life, the wealthy textile family Hoechede enter the scene, after Claude is commissioned to paint wall panels in that family’s country mansion. A cruel set of events lead to the bankruptcy and impoverishment of that family and in them taking up residence with the Monets who have finally started making some money. The tensions and the happiness that this combined living arrangement create leads to some interesting developments for both families. One has only to look up Wikipedia to see how it ended, so I will not leave any spoilers here.

I found this book informative on the lives of artists of the nineteenth century, and also re-assuring in that it confirms my view that every new art form has had to struggle against fierce opposition to gain recognition from a hidebound establishment.

As for Monet, I believe he withstood the pressure of the Paris Salon to become the founder of Impressionism against stunning odds, but wouldn’t have made it if not for the love of Camille, who retreated unsung into a footnote of history. I’m glad this book was written to restore her due place in the Monet legend.

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June 16, 2019 – Shelved
June 16, 2019 – Finished Reading

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Gail This is one on my list to read. I have it on reserve right now. Enjoy reading on Monet and the recent films made about him - one that mentioned his periods of depression and asking for money from fellow artists. Loved the sentence "The writing is gentle, like the colors of Monet's palette....". Good insights into the novel.

Shane Gail wrote: "This is one on my list to read. I have it on reserve right now. Enjoy reading on Monet and the recent films made about him - one that mentioned his periods of depression and asking for money from f..."

I think you will like this one. The grim parts are sanitized.

Gail Just finished reading this novel and am ready to re-read it. What a compelling and tenderly written account. I'm buying it as gift for a fellow Monet aficionado for her upcoming birthday. Having lived with a struggling songwriter for a time, I can identify with Camille.
His paintings of her are so ethereal. I liked the way Renoir was depicted as a loyal friend and a realist. Working on my review.

Shane Glad you liked it. All the best with your review.

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