Beginning in 1914, and continuing almost until his death in 1926, Claude Monet was preoccupied with a massive, multipart installation project known as the Grande Decoration. Inspired by his garden at Giverny outside Paris, these paintings were devoted to the play of light and color Monet discovered in his lush private water park, where he had lovingly cultivated water lilies, wisteria, rhododendrons and weeping willows for decades. But unlike the Nymphéas (or water lilies) paintings he had been producing since the 1890s, the Grande Decoration evolved as a cycle, meant for permanent installation in a gallery devoted to the series, and was presented as a gift to the nation in a contract Monet signed in 1922.
Ross King’s “Mad Enchantment” is a history of those paintings, installed since 1927 at the Orangerie in the Tuileries Garden, a beloved and obligatory stop on every tourist’s Paris itinerary. King, author of books on Michelangelo, Leonardo and Machiavelli, offers a well-researched and in-depth account, based on Monet’s letters and the reminiscences and writings of his many friends and admirers. Neither the creation of the paintings, which were vastly larger than the work Monet had pursued before, nor the circuitous route whereby they were donated to the French people were straightforward, and King charts every tortuous twist, turn and divagation in this drawn-out saga.
Unfortunately, as a narrative armature, the creation of Monet’s Grande Decoration isn’t sufficient to merit this 400-page account. King compensates with long digressions, many of them fascinating, into the larger social and political backstory. Of that, there is plenty. The gestation of Monet’s Orangerie paintings covers some of the most tumultuous years in French history, including the repugnant anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus affair, the shattering of the Belle Epoque, the madness of World War I, and the uneasy armistice and aftermath of that carnage, which, King writes, claimed “a quarter of all French men born in the 1890s.”
Then there is the simultaneous history of art through this period, during which Monet grew old and outlasted the other great Impressionists, while new figures such as the Fauves (including Matisse) and the Cubists (including Picasso and Braque) challenged not just the popularity of Impressionism but the powerful and lingering old guard that still painted in the grandiloquent academic style.
Through all of this, Monet pursued his work, untroubled by developments in technology (he was uninterested in film and photography, never made a telephone call, and resented the intrusion of telegraph poles into the exurban sanctuary of Giverny) and mostly unfazed by innovations in the arts by the generations that succeeded him. His primary concerns were the integrity of his art and the comforts of his home. He was a gourmand, liked his wine, enjoyed a stiff bracer of plum brandy with his meal and used his influence as France’s most renowned painter to be sure his coal scuttles and the gas tanks of his beloved cars were full, even in periods of wartime privation.
As he grew older, and as he sensed time running out on the completion of his Grande Decoration, he became increasingly peevish. He scorned rich and unsophisticated collectors who paid astronomical sums for his paintings, and he was baffled by an American admirer who asked for a paintbrush as a souvenir of their meeting. He also suffered the pains of aging, among which the loss of his eyesight was the most debilitating. Despite operations, special eye drops and custom-made glasses, by the end of his life Monet suffered periods of near-blindness, which made him doubt his work and delay delivery of the over-scaled and wildly ambitious Orangerie paintings. They didn’t leave Giverny until after his death.
In Giverny, the world came to him, and for the most part he received visitors graciously. But Giverny was also a retreat from the world, from the larger French landscape that had inspired his work in earlier decades, and by the end of his life he had become a bit of a hermit. The water lily paintings were a self-generated creative sandbox, a bit like the poems of Emily Dickinson or the great novel of Marcel Proust, a private space in which Monet could process the larger world without leaving home. They brought him to the edge of pure abstraction, even as he claimed that they were still intimately connected to the paintings he had always made, passionate and ultimately futile efforts to fix the evanescent on canvas.
He was exacting and hypercritical about his final masterpiece, in ways that tormented his most ardent and selfless friends. The most touching pages of “Mad Enchantment” are those devoted to Georges Clemenceau, the French statesman who led his country to victory — ultimately pyrrhic — in the Great War. He and the artist had been friends for decades, and more than anyone else, including Monet, it was Clemenceau who shepherded the Grande Decoration to completion. But by the end of the drama, Monet’s vacillation, self-doubt, second thoughts and interpersonal deceptions (at one point he canceled the project without telling Clemenceau) had alienated even his greatest and oldest friend. The two were reconciled, uneasily, but the rupture is one of the book’s saddest moments and a painful comment on the collateral damage aging takes on many relationships.
The friendship with Clemenceau — who is one of the most colorful characters of any age — is the reader’s happiest reward in this book. Through the scintillating and deliciously ribald prose of his letters and conversation, and the endearing spectacle of his devotion, Clemenceau emerges as a more engaging and entertaining man than Monet, who was famously reticent. But while this enviable friendship between France’s great artist and its most animated politician is essential to the story, it isn’t the main thread of the narrative. And when the narrative returns to the subject of Monet’s great project, interest flags.
Monet was moody and pursued his project in fits and starts; chapter by chapter we learn that he has despaired of finishing it, but now has found new energy; has set it aside, and taken it up again. This grows tedious. Readers will come away with an enhanced understanding of Monet’s art, about which King is insightful and articulate. And when King animates the colorful politics of Monet’s France, the book sparkles. But of Monet himself, we learn mainly this: Over time he grew old, selfish and cussed.
Philip Kennicott is the chief art and architecture critic of The Washington Post.
By Ross King
Bloomsbury. 416 pp. $30