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Things That Have Interested Me

Monet Talks

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
19 May 2007

The exhibition The Unknown Monet at the Royal Academy, enthusiastically received in these pages by AS Byatt on its opening two months ago, doesn't close till June 10. When I dropped in the other day, it was by no means crowded. Impressionist shows are supposed to be the bread and butter of today's galleries, but this one really is a landmark exhibition, and the research that went into it alters your sense of the painter. It tells you something new about how he became what he became.

You might think it would by now be impossible to say anything new about the impressionists. Surely all their works have long since been catalogued, and surely all the information has been marshalled and all the anecdotes are in? Surely all the social history has been sketched out? What could remain to be done?

The answer is that there are all kinds of lacunae in our knowledge of the major painters, and all kinds of basic work remains to be done. It would be nice, for instance, to have an up-to-date and authoritative catalogue of Degas's drawings. It would be even nicer (I have irritating daydreams about this) to find Degas's missing notebooks covering his trip to New Orleans. It seems as if some luggage on his American trip went astray. Who knows? It might turn up.

This business about luggage turning up is topical: in the Royal Academy show there is a series of pastels that Monet executed in London, staying at the Savoy and waiting for the bags containing his painting equipment to arrive. Included in the series is an image called Waterloo Bridge, Fog, in which one is hard put to discern or interpret any outline at all. This aspect of Monet's work is very little known - many of the pastels remain in private collections - and must have needed patience to track down.

One thing that did turn up, in the course of preparing the catalogue, was the full text of a source that had only been partially used before, the journal of Comte Théophile Beguin Billecocq, a cultivated friend of the arts who wrote up an account of his life using diaries that have since disappeared. His family knew the Monet household in Le Havre, which apparently served as a sort of bed and breakfast place for tourists from Paris.

There must be a great deal of social nuance here that would need fleshing out before one could fully understand the relationship between Monet and his first patrons, and why he rather edited them out of the story in his own accounts of his life. Monet liked to present himself as the rebellious son of philistine parents, who made his way in the world, in adolescence, by drawing caricatures for money.

But the new information presented by James A Ganz and Richard Kendall shows that, while there were indeed tensions between father and son, the women of the Monet family were artistic and talented, wrote poetry, played music and acted in comedies. Monet himself would join in such amateur theatricals and music-making (he had a tenor voice). But like many children he found a home-away-from-home, in this case with the Billecocq family, who took him on sketching trips, encouraged and collected his early work, and no doubt offered for him Larkin's fabled place where he could "be himself".

When Ganz and Kendall were allowed to look at the Billecocq archive, they found works that would appear to be by the young Monet - in those days known by the name Oscar - but about which they are cautious. They are always cautious with the evidence. It is a very attractive trait in their scholarship (especially as they have managed to turn up so much new evidence). They are always asking just how we know something, and whether the thing we know is known to us because it derives from Monet's talent for self-presentation in later life.

Reading between the lines, it seems that there is a break in Monet's personal life after his brief military service in Algeria with the Zouaves. Before this time he was Oscar Monet. But his fellows teased him about this name, which had some unspecified bad associations (this was decades before the Wilde case). So he changed to his other name, Claude. His friend and patron Billecocq noted that, on his return from Algiers, he "had become a man, excitedly affirming that he wished to become a painter acknowledged and recognised by everyone". Perhaps this was when he began the process of saying goodbye to Billecocq.

A story is told of Monet's dealer, in later years, being offered a canvas signed "Monet" showing an Algerian scene with camels. At first Monet disowned it, saying "I've never done any camels." Then he relented and apparently proposed keeping it in exchange for another picture. It sounds, from this snippet, as if, having been forced to recognise the work as his own, he couldn't wait to get it home and destroy it.

It's not that there is anything sinister being suppressed in this process of self-shaping (and every artist has the right to destroy his works, as long as they belong to him); it's more a matter of trying to recover what has been edited out of the picture. For our interests in these matters are not the same as those of the artist.

When asking about Monet and drawing (the chief subject of the exhibition and its catalogue), we want to know what the drawings tell us, not necessarily what Monet tells us (although that, too, has its place). It is a subject that has been treated extensively only once before, and that is in a volume of an immensely expensive catalogue by Daniel Wildenstein. Clearly, though, there are aspects of Wildenstein's work that are already out of date. Ganz and Kendall give us new things to think about - the art that Monet grew up with as a child, the graphic art in the mass media of his day, various techniques of print-making that have long since passed out of vogue - and rare objects to see. The show will move on to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is exemplary.

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