Honor Clerk

Monet’s great war effort

Georges Clemenceau is the real hero of Ross King’s intriguing account of Monet’s last artistic flowering, Mad Enchantment

Claude Monet wanted to be buried in a buoy. ‘This idea seemed to please him,’ his friend Gustave Geffroy wrote. ‘He laughed under his breath at the thought of being locked forever in this kind of invulnerable cork, dancing among the waves, braving storms, resting gently in the harmonious movements of calm weather, in the light of the sun.’ Tethered below the water, but bobbing on the surface like a necropolitan bud, this bizarre image would have the great Impressionist finally metamorphosing into the thing that had so dominated his later years: the water lily.

For an author who has taken on those titans of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo, an ageing Claude Monet might seem an odd choice of subject. In his earlier years, however, Monet had made himself the interpreter of France and the French countryside, and as France again found itself at war with Germany and almost a million and a half Frenchmen went to their graves, the cantankerous, selfish, obsessive, gourmandising old egotist found himself the improbable symbol of the France and French culture that German barbarism was threatening.

This is the peg on which Ross King hangs the story of Monet’s last great fling as a painter and an obsession that began 20 years earlier when he bought his first water lilies from an enterprising botanist in Bordeaux. The history of Monet’s garden is a familiar one, but this book is not so much about Giverny as a narrative of the long, exasperating and often bitter process by which Monet’s dream of a circular panorama dedicated to his paintings of water lilies finally became a reality in his and Impressionism’s most famous memorial, the galleries of the Orangerie.

While Monet had been painting his pond and lilies since 1895, King’s story really begins in the spring of 1914, with the visit to Giverny of his old friend and champion, the journalist, campaigner, duellist and past and future prime minister, the redoubtable ‘Tiger’, Georges Clemenceau.

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