Read Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet Online

Authors: Stephanie Cowell

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Biographical

Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

Marrying Mozart
Nicholas Cooke
The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare
The Physician of London

As always, to my husband, Russell, and to my sons, James and Jesse

July 1908
hanging copper pots in the kitchen where the old painter sat with his wine, smoking a cigarette, a letter angrily crumpled on the table in front of him. Through the open window he could hear the sound of a few flies buzzing near one of the flower beds, and the voices of the gardener and his son, who were talking softly as they pushed their wheelbarrow over the paths of the vast garden.
He had meant to paint his water lily pond again, but after the letter had come he could do nothing. Even now, he felt the bitter words rising from the ink. “Why do you write me after all these years, Monet? I still hold you responsible for the death of my sister, Camille. There can be no communication between us.”
Outside, the day was ending, smelling of sweet grass and roses. He swallowed the last of his wine and stood suddenly, smoothing the letter and thrusting it in his pocket. “You foolish woman,” he said under his breath. “You never understood.”
Head lowered, he made his way up the stairs to the top floor, under the sloping attic roof, and down the hall to the locked door. He had worked in this small studio briefly when he first moved here years before and could not remember the last time he had gone inside.
Dust lay on the half-used tubes of paint on the table; palette knives and brushes of every size rested in jars. Rolled canvas and wood for stretchers leaned against a wall. Past the table stood a second door, which opened to a smaller room with another easel and an old blue-velvet-upholstered armchair. He lowered himself onto the chair, hands on his knees, and looked about him.
The room was filled with pictures of Camille.
There was one of her embroidering in the garden with a child at her feet, and another of her reading on the grass with her back against a tree, the sun coming through the leaves onto her pale dress. She was as elusive as light. You tried to grasp it and it moved; you tried to wrap your arms around it and found it gone.
It had been many years since he had found her in the bookshop. He saw himself then, handsome enough, with a dark beard, dark eyes flickering, swaggering a bit—a young man who did not doubt himself for long and yet who under it all was a little shy. The exact words they spoke to each other that day were lost to him; when he tried to remember, they faded. He recalled clearly, though, the breathless tone of her voice, the bones of her lovely neck, and her long fingers, and that she stammered slightly.
There she stood in his first portrait of her, when she was just nineteen, wearing the green promenade dress with the long train behind her, looking over her shoulder, beautiful, disdainful, as she had appeared nearly half a century before. He rose and lightly touched the canvas. Sometimes he dreamt he held her; that he would turn in bed and she would be there. But she was gone, and he was old. Nearly seventy. Only cool paint met his fingers.
“Ma très chère …”
Darkness started to fall, dimming the paintings. He felt the letter in his pocket. “I loved you so,” he said. “I never would have had it turn out as it did. You were with all of us when we began; you gave us courage. These gardens at Giverny are for you, but I’m old and you’re forever young and will never see them. I’ll write your sister again at her shop in Paris. She must understand; she must know how it was.”
Outside, twilight was falling on the gardens, and the water lilies would be closing for the night. He wiped his eyes and sat for a time to calm himself. Looking around once more, he left the studio and slowly descended the stairs.

Part One


I have so much fire in me and so many plans. I always want the impossible. Take clear water with grass waving at the bottom. It’s wonderful to look at, but to try to paint it is enough to make one insane

color every hour; sometimes it was bright blue-green, sometimes exhausted gray, and other times a mysterious inky black. Boats creaked against their anchors, from great English ships with towering masts to little shabby fishing boats, wind-worn and piled with soggy nets. The wind always carried the smell of salt and fresh, slippery fish, which spilled out daily on the wet rough wharf boards. The ropes were every shade of brown.

Seventeen-year-old Claude Monet strolled down the main street in his dark suit and starched lace cuffs, his thick dark hair tucked beneath his jaunty hat and an artist’s portfolio under his arm.

Pushing open the creaking door of the art-supply shop, he called out,
, monsieur!”

Old Gravier limped from the shadows illuminated by a few oil lamps. “There you are!” he exclaimed. “Did you bring more of your work to sell?”

Claude dropped the portfolio on the counter and lifted his new caricatures, drawn with huge heads and minuscule twigs of bodies in the popular Parisian style.

The old man chuckled, showing his broken, tobacco-stained front teeth. “You clever boy!” he lisped. “Yes, people will pay well for these. Commissions come in every day for you. Can you go to this address first thing in the morning? The gentleman who lives there is eager to have his caricature made. He’s the father of your friend Marc from your lycée, which hasn’t yet let out for today, I believe.”

“Hasn’t it?” Claude replied airily, taking the address and ignoring the subtle inquiry. He turned away to glance out the window and down the street to where ships bobbed in the water, their masts moving back and forth. Someone was coming past the shop and in through the door. Who is it? he thought, a little uneasily. Ah, no one much! Only Eugene Boudin, one of several local painters who haunted the area with an easel weighing down his shoulder, always wearing the same clothes and shapeless brown hat. He was perhaps forty; friends said you could set a firecracker off near him when he was painting and he’d never hear it.

As Boudin walked across the floor, nodding pleasantly to them, the closing door created a sudden small wind, which lifted a few sheets of drawing paper from Claude’s portfolio. The young man dropped hastily to his knees to retrieve them.

, Monet,” Boudin said. “Allow me to help.” He also stooped to retrieve a paper that had blown against the counter and glanced at it. Stroking his beard, he studied a chalk sketch of boats. “But what have we here?” he asked, surprised. “Is this

“It’s mine.
” Claude replied stiffly, holding out his hand.

“But it’s very good indeed. I didn’t know you drew seriously.”

“Oh, I don’t draw seriously,” Claude replied as he put his drawing away. “I just do it for my amusement between my real work.”

“Your real work?”

“Yes. I intend to be the most famous caricaturist in France.”

Boudin began to sift through a large wood box of oil paint tubes that Gravier had brought him. He weighed a few in his hand, his face thoughtful. Looking up at Claude again, he asked, “So that satisfies you, eh? But come! You’ve never tried oils or landscapes?”

Claude sensed both artist and shopkeeper waiting for his answer. He shrugged.
, monsieur, such as you do? Standing outside in all weather to paint? That doesn’t interest me.”

Boudin shook his head. “Look here, then,” he said. “Try it once and you might change your mind. I’m going to paint at dawn tomorrow, and I invite you to come with me. I’ll bring an extra easel and supplies. Meet me in front of this shop at five in the morning.”

“It is unreasonable to go anywhere at that hour, monsieur.”

“It is totally unreasonable.” Boudin touched his chosen paint tubes with love and carefully laid money on the counter to pay for them. “Accept it as a challenge if you like.”

“Why of course, monsieur,” Claude replied calmly. “Five in the morning, as you say. I don’t suppose it’s as hard as all that.”

more quickly from the shop, glancing toward the wharf, where his father’s business stood. Not for the world would he go that way. Things were bad between them.

It had not always been so. When Claude was younger, he had adored his father and loved to run down to the nautical-supply shop, delighting in the cut-glass inkwell, the pens, the samples of brittle ropes hanging from nails, the tin boxes of hard bread. He would go after school, climbing on his father’s lap, being sent at last to the confectioner’s to bring back cakes with hazelnut cream to eat on the desk between the accounting books. Then came the harsh quarrels of the last few years, his sarcasm and poor marks in school, the bitter confrontations. There was also his exemplary older brother, Léon, who was turning out (as his father said) the way a man should.

So much had changed since those early days. Then, his father and mother had slept lovingly in one room; for two or three years now they had separated into their own bedchambers. He knew the cause. Claude hunched his shoulders as he climbed the hill to their house in the Ingouville neighborhood above the harbor, breathing harder for his anger and clutching his portfolio as if to defend himself. His mother was delicate, sweet, and too kind for this world. She should never have been the wife of a tradesman but of some great man who would have appreciated her love of the arts and her gift of empathy; she was tenderly warm, welcoming all, from their friends to the beggar at the back door.

As he approached his large house up the path and walked through his mother’s rose garden, he made his decisions on how best to manage the evening before him. Guests would be coming tonight for the monthly musicale; if he did not descend until they arrived and escaped upstairs again before they left, he could avoid the irksome problem of speaking with either his father or his newly married brother.

His shapely young cousin would be coming as well; that would likely make the evening bearable.

Claude mounted the stairs to his room two at a time and closed the door behind him. This room was his alone since his brother had moved away; with its narrow bed, washstand, and well-worn copies of novels, poetry, and plays on the shelf and in piles on the floor, it served as his refuge. He had also tacked some of his caricatures on the wall near magazine pages of women dressed in the latest Parisian haute couture of wide crinolines and embellished silk evening dresses.

Glancing at his small desk, he saw his schoolbooks waiting for him and, with sudden disgust, thrust them under the bed. Why had old Gravier asked him that stupid question? He put it from his mind as not worth thinking of at this moment and lay down to read a favorite novel.

Hours later, when darkness was falling and the clock below struck its melancholy eight times for the hour, he heard the voices of their guests for the musicale, dressed in his evening suit and shirt with lace cuffs, and sauntered downstairs to the parlor. Gaslight shone on the embroidered chair seats, the silk wallpaper, and the good French piano. He noted also the plentiful supply of wine.

Adolphe Monet stood near an oval portrait of his own mother on the wall, feet slightly turned out while his eyes darted about as if looking for someone to whom to explain his work. There was something irritatingly humble in his need to let all know that he did well by his family. With him stood Claude’s older brother, Léon, already slightly round-shouldered, with his pale, dull new wife.

Claude frowned. I must keep to the other side of the room, he thought, and slip away if he comes near me.

He drank a full glass of wine to fortify himself.

A dozen or more guests had arrived, including his fifteen-year-old cousin, Marguerite, in a long dress of sandy pink, her flaxen hair in curls, her wide mouth smiling at him. She was always daring him with her blue eyes. He sat by her on the sofa, trying to capture her fingers with his. “The price of ship rigging …” his father was saying.

Rigging to hang oneself, Claude thought, his hand now entwined with the girl’s smaller, moist one.

Claude’s mother arranged her skirts to sit at the piano. She began to sing, her older, widowed sister, Claude’s aunt Lecadre, standing near to add a soft contralto harmony. Madame Monet called, “Sing with me, Oscar,” and Claude released his cousin’s hand with a last squeeze and leapt up, bowing extravagantly to the general applause of the room. He pulled a chair next to the piano. Amid all the guests he felt his father watching him as he sang. À
la claire fontaine, m’en allant promener… Ily a longtemps que je t’aime
. By the clear fountain I walked; I’ve loved you for a long time.

He had had too much wine already. His youthful baritone faltered. A few other people had come in, and behind them the Latin master from his lycée. Who had invited him? Claude rose and walked to the side table, where he poured brandy; then he returned to the sofa and sank down onto it to join the girl again, frowning. The room was suddenly stuffy, and he unfastened his top shirt button.

She giggled. “You’re drunk.”

“I need air. Come with me.” He rose, pulling her through the room and outside the house to the now darkened rose garden. He urged her around to the shed and kissed her mouth, his other hand feeling for her little breasts under the whalebones of her corset. More singing came through the window, and laughter.

“Oh don’t, Oscar!
Non, s’il te plaît!”
She giggled as he pushed her against the wall of the shed.

His father had appeared on the house steps, holding a lantern, which he shined here and there in the flowers until the light moved to the shed wall. “There you are!” Adolphe Monet whispered angrily. “What the hell are you doing? I’ve just been informed that you’ve been in school only a few times this past month and that you’re likely to fail the year. And you, young lady!”

He seized Claude’s arm, and the girl fled.

Enraged, Claude shook his father off. “I’ll do what I like!” he cried. “Just as long as I’m not like you! I know about your mistress and what it’s done to my mother!” Their voices rose above the music.

Avoiding his father’s blow, he ran back up the steps, past the guests, and to his room. There he spilled open the box of money he kept on his desk, and the coins rolled and clanked to the floor. He would be wealthy and take his mother away and they would live together and be happy. He felt the girl’s lips on his and the smell of the flowers and was angry and full of longing, and then he threw up harshly from the brandy.

sweet early darkness, that time when you should embrace the pillow and sleep hours more. Through the first birdsong he heard the sound of persistent tapping. He buried his head again, though the housekeeper, Hannah, was calling his name from outside the door, saying, “You asked me to wake you, Master Claude! You’re to go out with that painter fellow. Your father’s still asleep.”

Claude recalled last night’s confrontation in the garden. The last thing he wanted to do today was paint a stupid landscape. He threw on some old clothes and made his way down the hill, swinging his lantern.

The light showed the closed shop and the dark figure in front of it: Boudin, and beside him a wheelbarrow with two easels. I’ll tell him I’m not interested and go back to bed, he thought.

Boudin’s face came into view as Claude approached. “Slept late?” the painter asked. “A landscapist is up before dawn. Is everything all right?”

Oh, what the devil! thought Claude, and he answered, “Yes, why shouldn’t it be? I had a little too much wine last night, that’s all. Come on!”

How strange to walk through the town so early with only a few signs of people waking. The fishermen were just putting their boats piled with nets out to sea in the harbor beyond. Smoke rose from a few chimneys. As they walked on with the heavy wheelbarrow, even these houses fell away, and they found themselves on a dirt path with the first gray light of dawn rising over the fields. A grove of apple trees emerged before them, their blossoms scattered on the ground like ghosts.

Boudin began setting up the easels.

Claude looked around. “Here?” he asked incredulously. “We’re painting here? There’s nothing but trees, and beyond that fields and more trees.”

The painter stopped his work and threw up his hands, his face no longer placid. He exclaimed, “Is that all you see before you, Monet? Perhaps I was mistaken to allow you to come with me today. Perhaps you haven’t much of a gift after all. It begins badly! A painter does not drink late before rising early, not to mention that you kept me waiting for some time.”

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