When Claude Oscar Monet arrived at his new home in the spring of 1883, he had to borrow money to pay the rent.
The sturdy burger with the black Babylonian beard, smoker of strong cigarettes and painter of soft paintings was broke. He was one of many Frenchmen still suffering from the economic depression that had hit 10 years earlier and reduced the demand for paintings — among other things. Unable to sell his work, Monet had trouble feeding the mouths that depended on him.
For when he moved into the great barn of a house in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris, he didn’t come alone. He came equipped with his two sons, his companion, Alice Hoschede, and her six children. The youngest was only 5. They soon added a half-dozen servants.
The painter lived in his pink and green house in Giverny, along with his alternately growing and shrinking family, for the next 43 years, producing the body of work for which he is best known, a body of work that cannot be separated from the home he lived in.
That home served not only to shelter him, but to inspire him. The house and its surrounding gardens became, as he got older, the only thing he painted.
COMFORTABLY MIDDLE CLASS
Monet was born in 1840 in Paris and moved to Le Havre when he was 5 years old, and grew up there in comfortable middle-class surroundings. When he was a teenager, he decided he wanted to be an artist, began his studies and finally set up as a painter along with a ”brat pack” of his buddies, all of whom challenged the status quo in the French art world of the 1860s.
They later were called Impressionists and among their number was Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley and Berthe Morisot.
They were beginning to achieve success when a double-headed ax fell on their careers. First, there was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and then the bank crash in 1873.
By 1880, things had improved, but Monet had to start from scratch building his career. He was lucky in that he had Paul Durand-Ruel as his dealer. Durand-Ruel was a saint among dealers and regularly advanced Monet money on paintings he hadn’t painted yet.
That is how he managed to pay the annual rent on the 2 acres of land with the house and outbuildings.
The bank crash had brought him Alice, too. Originally the wife of one of his benefactors, Ernest Hoschede, who had commissioned paintings and decorations from Monet, she gravitated to the painter when her husband fell bankrupt and abandoned his family.
At first, Alice and her six children lived with Monet and his wife, Camille, and their two boys in the town of Vetheuil. But Camille died in 1879 and Monet and Alice set up house together quickly after that.
It was one of the great partnerships in art, a perfect match between people, one intemperate and moody, the other steady and gracious, with all the tact the painter himself lacked.
ON THE BANKS OF THE SEINE
Giverny was not more than a village, with fewer than 300 residents, when they moved there. It sat on the north bank of the Seine River in the angle where the Epte joins it, on a slightly rising bank above the river and below the wooded hills that rose behind.
Monet’s new home sat near the edge of town between the two main roads. The house itself was a monster of an old farmhouse, looking something more like a warehouse than a home. On one end was a barn that Monet turned into his studio. The building was covered in a pinkish stucco that Monet made pinker, with gray shutters that Monet painted green.
The yard that came with the house had an old orchard in it and room for the gardens that Monet planned. Within a few years, the grounds were overgrown with the many flowers and trees Monet planted.
And life began slowly to improve for the Monet-Hoschede family. At a time when a common laborer made about 10,000 francs a year, Monet was selling his canvases for 12,000 francs each. By 1888, Monet was making 100,000 francs a year.
He spent it lavishly, building studios and greenhouses, adding to the house, improving the garden.
”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he wrote.
And when his lease ran out in 1890, he had no trouble buying the house and grounds for 22,000 francs, payable over four years.
In 1893, he bought an adjacent lot, on the other side of the railroad tracks that bordered his property, and began making a pond to grow waterlilies.
AN EARLY RISER
Monet’s life in Giverny turned into an ordered process of days, not only as the seasons progressed through the year, but even as the day progressed.
He got up early, between 5 and 6 in the morning, took a cold bath and ate a big breakfast, often an ”English” breakfast of bacon and eggs. From then until midday dinner, held promptly at 11:30 a.m. every day, he painted. He carried his canvases with him, often working on more than one, passing from canvas to canvas as the light changed with the hour.
He would sit out in the sun in his tweed suit and pleated shirt wearing a broad-brimmed old hat and smoking his stinky Caporal Rose cigarettes.
Monet had begun working in series, attempting to catch the evanescent effects of light as they flew by. A series of haystacks was followed by a series of poplar trees, each showing what their subject looked like at dawn, early morning, late morning, midday, afternoon and evening. As the sun changed, he changed canvases.
His critics complained that he was just trying to sell the same painting many times over. But Monet showed a dogged determination to make these series.
When the land with the poplars was sold, Monet paid the new owner not to cut down the trees until he was finished painting them.
Lunch was the major social event of the day. When Monet had visitors — which was often, more often than he sometimes wanted — they did their visiting at midday.
The afternoon was given over to painting once again, followed by a small supper at 7, and for Monet, bed by 9:30. He was notoriously bearish if this schedule wasn’t kept precisely.
So that, when his son-in-law, who was a slow eater, visited, Monet gave orders to the servants that no seconds should be offered.
And the painter could get out in the field with his canvases and brushes on time.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
The 20 years after he moved to Giverny were the best of his life. His prices kept rising, he painted happily and productively through the year, taking time most years for an extended trip. One year, he went to Venice, another to Norway.
In 1892, after Ernest Hoschede’s death, Monet and Alice got married. The following year, he built his first water garden. In 1897, his son, Jean, married Alice’s daughter Blanche. Monet’s solo exhibitions regularly sold out.
The only troubles he had were in getting the municipal cooperation on improving his pond. Local residents were concerned that Monet’s plan to divert water from the Ru River, actually little more than a brook, would affect their crops and cattle grazing, but some help from the mayor swayed them and the permits were issued.
Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler and another daughter, Germaine, married a businessman from Monaco. The marriages soon brought four grandchildren to the family.
Meanwhile, Monet added more acreage to his holdings, including the ”Maison bleu” — the ”Blue House” — in the middle of town, where he installed a gardener named Florimond to cultivate his kitchen garden, which supplied the family with vegetables for their elaborate menus.
At one point, he employed six gardeners alone, along with a cook named Marguerite, a butler and valet named Paul, who was Marguerite’s husband, a maid named Delphine and a combination chauffeur and wine steward named Sylvain.
He needed the chauffeur because, although he owned automobile after fancy automobile — fast cars were a passion, along with watching auto racing — he never learned to drive.
The family also owned four boats, which they moored on the Seine, including the one boat Monet had fitted out as a floating studio. Monet often was accompanied on his painting forays by his step-daughter Blanche, also a painter, and they shared space on the boat.
Once a month, Monet retreated to Paris to have dinner with his circle of artist friends. He and Alice would take in the latest theater, see the gallery shows, and attend concerts.
Or watch wrestling — a particular favorite of the otherwise demure Alice.
A DISTRESSING UNDERTOW
Yet underneath the comfortable bourgeois existence of the increasingly wealthy painter was a distressing undertow. If Monet made paintings that soothed — he once called them a ”refuge for a peaceful meditation” — perhaps it was because he had a better than passing acquaintance with death and loss.
His mother had died when he was 18. Friends had died in the war. His wife, Camille, had died in 1879 after three years of lingering illness. The very month he moved into Giverny, his mentor, Edouard Manet, had died and Monet had served as pallbearer.
The early years at Giverny had proved a reprieve, but as Monet’s once black beard turned into a vast white haystack on his chest, time caught up with him.
In 1894, Suzanne developed a paralysis and five years later, she died. Alice went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.
”Our beloved Suzanne died last night,” Monet wrote Durand-Ruel, ”while her poor mother was in bed with a bad case of bronchitis which she caught the other day at Moret. One sorrow after another.”
Around him, his colleagues began dying, too. Caillebotte — a particular friend — had died in 1894. Alfred Sisley died only a week before Suzanne.
Pissarro died in 1903; Cezanne in 1906. By 1917, Rodin and Degas were dead, along with Monet’s friend, the playwright Mirbeau. And in 1919, Renoir died.
Part of this was the natural result of living a very long life. But there were special sorrows for Monet.
A flood destroyed his lily pond and large portions of his gardens in 1910. It took several years to rebuild.
In 1911, Alice died after a long illness. Monet entered a deep depression that prevented his painting for some time.
In 1914, his son, Jean, died. Jean’s widow, Blanche, returned to Giverny and served Monet as hostess and housekeeper.
And the outbreak of World War I weighed heavily on the painter.
”I’m back at work,” he wrote. ”It is still the best way of not thinking about present sorrows, although I’m rather ashamed of thinking about little researches into forms and colors while so many suffer and die for us.”
There was another sorrow for Monet, one that threatened his very identity as a painter.
Beginning at the turn of the century, Monet’s eyes, which had bothered him since his youth, began to develop thick cataracts that interfered with his vision.
He painted through them, but friends and critics noticed a change in the paintings, which sometimes seemed oddly colored.
”I’m working very hard and I would like to paint everything before I cannot see anymore,” he wrote Durand-Ruel.
The condition worsened and relented over the years, but by 1922, his eye doctor reported that Monet’s vision was reduced to ”one-tenth in the left eye and to perception of light with good projection in the right eye.”
Monet continued painting, sometimes knowing what color he used only by reading the label on the tube of paint.
”I could paint almost blind,” he told a visiting journalist, ”as Beethoven composed completely deaf.”
The operation his doctor recommended on his right eye helped things in 1923, but resulted in a peculiar condition called ”xanthopsia,” which caused him to see everything too yellow. When this condition abated, it resulted in its opposite, in which Monet saw everything as too blue.
”It’s disgusting, I see everything in blue,” Monet complained to a visiting professor.
”How do you know it’s blue?” the visitor asked.
”By the tubes of paint I choose.”
His ophthalmologist finally found a pair of tinted glasses that brought his vision back to something approaching normal, and Monet painted like a demon.
In 1925, he wrote, ”My vision has improved tremendously. I am working harder than ever, I am pleased with what I do, and if the new glasses are better still, I would like to live to be a hundred.”
A FINAL GIFT
He didn’t make it to a hundred, but the final years were spent on a vast project of painting the waterlilies in his water garden.
Conceived as a gift to France, he worked in increasingly larger formats, finally building a new studio to house the 8-foot-tall, 12-foot-long segments of the murals he was painting.
”These ‘water and reflection’ landscapes have become an obsession,” he wrote the journalist Gustave Geffroy in 1908. ”They’re too much for an old man’s strength, yet I should like to be able to reproduce what I feel.”
He destroyed paintings he didn’t think up to his standards. At one point, he wrote Durand-Ruel, ”I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least 30.”
The large waterlilies marked a significant change in Monet’s approach. In the past, he had been rigorous in painting outdoors, directly from life. But for these ”decorations,” as he called them, he worked inside, in his studio, from his imagination.
That underlined not just a change in technique, but in the basic purpose of his painting. What had been an attempt to reproduce an accurate record of what his eye saw became an involvement in what paint can do and mean.
Pablo Picasso had painted his first Cubist painting in 1906 and the winds of Modernism were blowing the old smoke out of the room. Monet caught the fresh air and enthusiastically took part in the change. The late waterlilies are no longer Impressionism; they are modern art.
”I am looking for something I have not done before, a shiver my painting has not yet given,” he wrote.
In 1926, a lifetime of smoking cigarettes caught up with Monet. By late summer, he was bedridden with pulmonary sclerosis. His eyesight had deteriorated; he no longer could paint. He died on Dec. 5 with his family around him.
The following year, his waterlily decorations were installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.
As for his beloved home, it stayed in the family, eventually abandoned in World War II. But in 1957, Monet’s surviving son, Michel, donated the deteriorating property to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, along with the paintings left behind by the painter at his death.
The Giverny site, now renovated with gardens replanted in the 1970s, draws about a half-million visitors a year.
On Michel’s death in 1966, the paintings reverted to the Musee Marmottan in Paris.
It is hard to calculate how much this one small piece of provincial property has given to art. Monet painted what he loved, and what he loved for the final four decades of his life was his home in Giverny.
”My heart is to Giverny for ever and ever,” Monet wrote.