From canvas-slashings to car trips with Clemenceau: the remarkable story of Monet's Water Lilies

Claude Monet's Water Lilies (detail), Musee de L'Orangerie, Paris
Claude Monet's Water Lilies (detail), Musee de L'Orangerie, Paris Credit: Peter Barritt/Alamy

Canadian author Ross King's new book, Mad Enchantment, reveals the personal torment that lay behind Monet’s most famous series of paintings

Northern France, an April day in 1914. “Drive faster!” Georges Clemenceau urges his chauffeur. “Faster!” The car shudders and leaps, hitting 60mph along dusty Normandy lanes. In fact, there’s no hurry. His friend, Claude Monet, isn’t going anywhere; these days “old hedgehog” rarely travels far from his house and world-famous garden at Giverny. But Clemenceau, the former and future prime minister of France, just loves speed.

This is an addiction he and Monet share (to avoid terrifying his passengers Clemenceau sometimes disconnects the speedometer). Nicknamed “the Tiger” for his political ruthlessness and ferocious wit, he first met Monet in Paris in the 1860s, when the painter was a cash-strapped twentysomething. Now France’s most celebrated artist, Monet earns around 400 times the average worker’s wage. He has a garage full of glamorous vehicles and received his first speeding fine in 1904.

Monet is also a liberal host, whose table provides “the best cuisine in France”. Art dealers and artists, fabulously rich American and Japanese collectors, well-heeled cultural tourists and hungry hacks – they all make the pilgrimage to Giverny. Will the master admit them to his studio? “Lunch first!” Monet insists.

Monet and Clemenceau on the 'water lilies' bridge at Giverny Credit: Alamy

Ross King’s Mad Enchantment opens with Clemenceau’s 1914 lunch date, when he persuaded the 73-year-old Monet, who had said that he’d put down his brushes for good, to think about painting again. Over the coming years, in between a term as wartime prime minister, negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and a full schedule as an in-demand elder statesman, Père Victoire (“Father Victory”) would provide constant encouragement for Monet’s longest-running artistic project, the series of enormous water lily paintings on which he worked until his death in 1926.

It was Clemenceau who negotiated the donation of 300ft of Monet’s paintings to the French state. In 1927, after successive creative, practical and medical setbacks vividly chronicled by King, these works were posthumously installed in two elliptical galleries at the Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens.

The public response was muted. This was not the Paris in which, in 1889, Monet made the biggest splash of his mid-career, exhibiting 145 paintings at the Exposition Universelle alongside sculptures by Rodin (“I don’t give a damn about Monet,” Rodin exploded on hearing that the painter objected to sculptures obscuring his work. “I only care about myself”).

Monet's 1899 painting, White Water Lilies, showing the Japanese footbridge at Giverny Credit: Heritage Images

Also on display were Europe’s first colourful water lilies, bred by Joseph Latour-Marliac by crossing pale northern strains with brilliant tropical ones. In 1894 Monet ordered six of these plants, two pink and four yellow, as “motifs to paint”.

Throughout the 1890s Monet poured resources into his garden – the landscaping, planting and team of gardeners soaked up a fortune. In the early 1900s he embarked on a series of paysages d’eau – landscapes of water – featuring his lily pond’s reflective surfaces and floating blooms. In 1909 he exhibited 48 of these, hoping that someone would acquire the entire show as a single decorative ensemble. The paintings he began after Clemenceau’s visit were conceived as mural-scale grandes  décorations; he was soon inviting friends to see “the start of the vast work”.

The absence of people in Monet’s Giverny paintings contrasts with the sociable tenor of life there. Claude and Camille Monet had two sons; after Camille’s death in 1879, Monet lived with his mistress, Alice Hoschedé, who brought six children from her previous marriage. Monet struck visitors as an archetypal paterfamilias, a landowner with a touch of the peasant, “his hands black with earth”, yet still a genius. “F---!” exclaimed Cézanne in rueful admiration. “He’s simply the best.”

Alice refused to allow life models in the studio – naked or clothed – and King suggests that the fleshy lily petals, trailing willows and occasional anthropomorphic swirl or shadow in Monet’s water lily paintings are surrogates of some kind. Similarly, the weeping willows whose dark trunks and mirage-like reflections inhabit the paintings may have an emotional freight: as the series took shape, young Frenchmen were dying at Charleroi, at Verdun in their hundreds of thousands. Monet worried about his soldier son Michel and stepson Jean-Pierre, while troop trains clanked east across the railway line that bisected his garden. Yet the work went on: joiners delivered sets of huge stretchers, canvases were meticulously primed and a cavernous new studio was built.

All the while the elderly Monet’s energy seemed phenomenal, particularly as the creation of the water lily series coincided with the least happy, though most prosperous, period of his life. In 1911 Alice had died of leukaemia, followed two years later by Monet’s son Jean. In summer 1912 he feared he was going blind. A cataract was diagnosed; Monet put off surgery until 1922, but the condition of France’s most famous eyes became a nagging matter of national concern.

When it came to the business of painting – of facing a blank canvas or one that’s gone badly wrong – fame and fortune were no balm for the self-doubt, second thoughts and canvas-slashings to which the old master was no less prone than the young turk had been. Dissatisfied with the final form of his grandes décorations, Monet told Clemenceau: “When I am dead, I shall find their imperfections more bearable.”

Credit: World History Archive / Alamy

Initially his pessimism seemed justified. Monet’s water lilies had to share the Orangerie with dog shows and, on one occasion, an exhibition of tapestries that were draped over the canvases. For the Cubist André Lhote, they amounted to “artistic suicide” by drowning.

It took a new wave of Americans in Paris after the Second World War to see Monet with fresh eyes. First, Ellsworth Kelly, then Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell revered him as a proto-Abstract Expressionist, a magician of the “immediate excitement of the paint surface”.

Monet, as King points out, might have disagreed. He hated most expressions of modernity, refusing even to look at Cubist art and never once making a phone call. Yet the water lilies turned out to be a grand, if hard-won, gift in more ways than one. “Those great summations,” as the critic Clement Greenberg affirmed, “belong to our age.”

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet  and the Painting of the Water Lilies  by Ross King is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£25).  Michael Bird’s most recent book is Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories (Laurence King). To order either from the Telegraph at a discount, call 0844 871 1515 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop