A vivid account of Claude Monet (1840-1926) facing his greatest artistic challenge in the last years of his life.
As King (Leonardo and the Last Supper, 2012, etc.) poignantly shows, neither failing eyesight, frail health, nor a raging war on his doorstep could stop the beloved painter. In the spring of 1914, with France on the cusp of World War I, Monet had fallen into depression after the deaths of his wife and, later, his son, but it was seemingly unthinkable that he would put away his brushes. Fortunately, his friend Georges Clemenceau, a politician and newspaper owner, convinced him to work again. In his 70s, Monet, esteemed for his paintings of haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and poplars, all “evocations of an essential Frenchness,” began to work on his last and most ambitious project, a series of water lily paintings that continued to obsess him until his death at 86. The collection included “forty-five to fifty panels making up fourteen separate series” (the total length was more than 200 meters), and many are now exhibited in museums worldwide. It was the apotheosis of “Monet’s decades-long obsession,” and he sometimes worked “on multiple canvases simultaneously,” rotating them to capture a particular quality in the moment. Indeed, the novelist Proust described Monet as a painter of time. King effectively puts readers at the painter’s side as he rails against the impossible task he set for himself, suffering the “tortures” of painting and slashing canvases. As in his superb The Judgment of Paris (2006), about the rise of impressionism, the author sets this fascinating portrayal of the larger-than-life artist—known equally for his “obstreperous temperament” and warm hospitality, for his love of gardening, family life, fast cars, and gourmet food—against a backdrop of the raging war, politics, history, and changing tastes in art.
King elegantly reveals the soul of a great artist, the last impressionist standing at the end of one of history’s most remarkable art movements.