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Monet in Zola & Proust.

While reading and writing about the Impressionists, I realized that the life and personality of Claude Monet, the most popular artist of all time, remain largely unknown. He seems to have vanished into his pictures. Yet he lives on in two great novels: his friend Emile Zola's The Masterpiece (L'Oeuvre) and Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Zola and Proust bring him out of the shadows and illuminate his life and genius.

Zola's The Masterpiece (1886) is--with Balzac's Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (1831), James's "The Madonna of the Future" (1873), and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)--one of the greatest portraits of the artist in nineteenth-century fiction. Zola said that his doomed hero, Claude Lantier, a failed artist, was based on several painters, "un Manet, un Cezanne dramatise, plus pros de Cezanne" as well as on Monet and Zola himself, and that he would "have to press his friends into service, to collect their most salient features." What aspects of the novel, I wondered, were based on Monet?

Robert Niess, in his book-length study of the novel, states: "It does not seem that Monet could have been Zola's chief source for the character of Claude Lantier." Zola based Lantier's Provencal origins, childhood friendship, and saturnine personality on Cezanne, and his unfinished masterpiece on Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863). We think of Monet as prosperous and admired, yet when Zola published his novel, the middle-aged artist was still impoverished and striving for fame. Zola clearly based his hero's career, relationship with his first wife, and struggle to achieve artistic and financial success on Monet. The numerous and often exact parallels between Lantier's and Monet's lives reveal the novelist's polemical motive.

Lantier's tragic decline from great promise to hopeless failure reflects Zola's changing attitude toward Monet, which moved from tremendous enthusiasm in his reviews of the Salons of 1866 and 1868 to harsh criticism, as Monet's reputation continued to grow, in 1878 and 1880. Zola's initial reaction to Monet's art was intensely personal. He contrasted Monet's stunning portrait of his wife--with her back to the viewer and face lit up in profile, wearing a gorgeous green and purple striped dress and fur-trimmed black jacket--to the dead weight of academic art that surrounded it.

Zola, praising Monet's vitality and honesty, said in effect that he had balls: "his painting speaks whole volumes to me about energy and truth. Oh, yes, here is someone with a temperament, here is a man among all these eunuchs." Two years later, Zola emphasized Monet's technical skill, acute perception, and keen intellect: "What distinguishes his talent is an incredible ease of execution, a supple intelligence, a lively and quick comprehension of any subject." At first, Zola saw Monet as an ally in the fight against traditional art, as someone who was trying to do in paint what Zola was doing in prose. A decade later, as Impressionist art focused on the painterly aspects of light and color and became increasingly abstract, Zola grew disillusioned with the movement. He now felt that the artists he'd once championed had not fulfilled their promise and become as realistic as he wanted them to be. He published an article to this effect in a Russian journal which, when unexpectedly translated into French, deeply wounded Monet.

Reading The Masterpiece in the context of Monet's life reveals how extensively Zola drew on Monet when creating his artist-hero. When they first meet, Lantier's future model and mistress exclaims: "How odd! Claude and Christine. We both start with the same letter!"--just like Claude and Camille Monet. Lantier's projected masterpiece is called Open Air, which suggests Monet's passionate commitment to capturing his impressions of the natural landscape by working outdoors rather than in a traditional studio. At first Christine, like some of his friends and most contemporary critics, is shocked by Lantier's harsh, violent colors, by the paint that seems ladled onto the canvas, and by his rejection of the established conventions and formulas of art. Gradually, however, her understanding grows with her love, and she realizes that his innovative vision conveys the truth about the natural world.

Ironically, as the novel progresses and the talented, perceptive, intelligent Lantier descends into inexplicable fits of artistic impotence, the plein-air school that he founded and led becomes the dominant movement in contemporary art. Echoing the concept of virility that Zola had expressed in his first review of Monet, Lantier exclaims that though their work has been mocked and condemned, their very appearance in the state-sponsored Salon "really amounts to a victory. Take out a couple of hundred duds and our Salon knocks theirs into a cocked hat. We've got guts! We've got courage! We are the future!" Ever since 1863, when the Emperor Napoleon III established the Salon des Refuses in opposition to the official Salon, the revolutionary plein-air school, exhibiting there in a burst of blazing sunshine, had grown stronger and more influential. By the end of the novel, Zola writes, "broad daylight, after gradually filtering into contemporary painting, had at last come into its own.... Now it was spreading rapidly, putting new life into painting, filling it with light subtly diffused and decomposed into limitless nuances."

Monet, unable to finish his own massive masterpiece Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (which had the same title as Manet's picture), left it incomplete. Years later, after he'd given it in lieu of a debt and it had been badly damaged, he got hold of the ruined fragment and cut it up. In a similar fashion, Lantier discovers in his studio "a piece of an old canvas, the nude reclining figure from his Open Air which he had cut away from the rest and kept when his picture came back from the Salon des Refuses." Zola had suggested the Monets live in Bennecourt, a village on the Seine near Giverny (where Monet would live and work for the last thirty years of his life), and Claude and Camille moved there in 1868. Like Lantier, Monet painted "some lovely snow effects" in winter landscapes like The Magpie (1869), where shadows are reflected on the shining snow and a solitary black bird stands sentinel in the midst of all the whiteness. Lantier also paints another picture, while standing under an iron bridge, with "the crane and the barges and all the porters unloading [cement] in the foreground" This precisely describes Monet's Men Unloading Coal (1875), the only one of his 2,500 paintings that portrays laborers at work.

The wealthy painter and patron Frederic Bazille, a friend of both men, told Zola about the idyllic, passionate life of Claude and Camille in Bennecourt. In the novel Zola portrayed their complete absorption in each other, the exploration of the river and islets on their boat, the planting of their garden, and Claude's inspired portrayal of the picturesque scenery. "One more summer went by," Zola wrote, "the fourth they had spent at Beunecourt, and the happiest they were ever to have, for living was a quiet, easy affair in the depths of the country."

But Zola, poaching once again on Monet's private life, informed his readers that there was also a darker side to their existence: "Christine had lived in sin [with Lantier] for a long time before she was married." Though Jean Monet, born out of wedlock in 1867, was perfectly healthy, Zola emphasizes the Lantiers' child Jacques's illegitimacy by making him both megalocephalic and subnormal. Just as the Monets had asked Bazille to be Jean's godfather, in the novel Christine, who never entered a church, chooses as protector and patron for her son a godfather who was completely reliable and would "provide him with a firm support in life." Zola also portrayed Monet's doubts, hesitations, and confusion when contemplating his marriage. He wished to avoid malicious gossip, please his wife, and make her socially acceptable, but also wanted to retain his artistic freedom. In 1870, after living with Camille for four years, he finally, if reluctantly, married her.

Camille had expected to receive a substantial dowry of 12,000 francs when she married, but she was surprised to find that she would not get the money until after the death of her father. By the time he died in 1873, his estate was burdened by debts and she received only 6,000 francs. This financial disappointment appears in the novel when Christine, also a middle-class girl, leaves her secure job as companion to a wealthy, childless widow in order to live with Lantier and willingly renounces her prospective inheritance. When he questions her about this, she insouciantly replies: "Her money, you mean? ... Do you think I'm worried about that? Let her keep her money." When the widow dies, Christine explains that "her millions have all gone to hospitals, all except a small annuity to the two old servants." Claude then murmurs sadly: "You're sorry, aren't you? ... You might have come into her whole fortune instead of starving with a fool like me for a husband."

In The Masterpiece, the Lantiers' romantic life at Bennecourt is followed by an impoverished existence in Paris, partly based on Claude and Camille Monet's desperately poor life in Vetheuil, on the Seine but closer to the capital, where they moved in 1878. The Lantiers have to live in his wretchedly cold and uncomfortable studio, and he's forced to do degrading hackwork.

After a few years in Vetheuil, Camille developed uterine cancer. She suffered terribly and died at the age of thirty-two. In this grim situation, one of the great crises of his life, Monet realized that art had turned him into some kind of callous monster. Describing this shameful episode, he confessed that,
 seated at the bedside of a dead woman
 [Camille] who had been and still was very
 dear to me, I surprised myself with my eyes
 fixed on her tragic forehead, in the act of
 mechanically observing the succession, the
 encroachment of fading colors which death
 was imposing on the immobile face.... That's
 what I had come to. It's quite natural to wish
 to reproduce the last image of one who is
 about to leave us forever. But even before I
 had the idea of recording the features to
 which I was deeply attached, my bodily organism
 reacted in the first place to the shocks
 of color, and in spite of myself my reflexes
 drew me into an unconscious process in
 which the daily round of my life was resumed.

After Camille's death, Monet felt guilt as well as grief for making her suffer hardship while he sacrificed their life for his art. In Camille Monet on Her Death-Bed (1879), he portrayed her as morbidly brown-skinned, with closed eyes and open mouth, head slightly raised on a mound of pillows, and a bunch of roses on her chest. She's covered by a black shawl and her face is enclosed from crown to chin by a nun-like wimple. The high pillows and bedcovers are painted with frantic slashes and swirls of funereal bluish-gray, streaked with black and yellow and set against a somber background. His emotional portrait (unusual in Monet) is both a valediction and a severance from the woman he'd once loved.

In the novel Zola describes with horrifying exactness how Lantier, "obsessed" like Monet, suppresses his natural feelings and paints his son, Jacques, on his deathbed:
 Every time he passed the child's dead body he
 felt obliged to look at it, as if the glassy,
 staring eyes were exercising some kind of
 power over him. He tried to resist it at first,
 but the attraction grew stronger and stronger
 to the point of obsession, until at last he gave
 way, fetched out a small canvas and set to
 work on a study of the dead child.

In order to create his huge, unmanageable masterpiece, Lantier had "rigged up a system of ropes and beams which held it to the wall.., and with the ladder running the whole length of the vast white sheet"--just as Monet would later do when creating his enormous panels of water-lilies. Though Monet, after a long struggle, finally achieved success, wealth, and fame, Zola's Claude, at the end of the novel, hangs himself "from the big ladder in front of his unfinished, unfinishable masterpiece."

When The Masterpiece appeared, Cezanne, recognizing his own character in Lantier, took it personally. He was greatly offended and severed all relations with his childhood friend. Monet, by contrast, immediately grasped the argument of the novel, and saw that it was an attack on the Impressionist aesthetic. He asked Pissarro, "Have you read Zola's book? I am afraid it will do us great harm." Despite Zola's wounding personal revelations and hostility to the Impressionists, Monet, noted for his fiery temperament, was remarkably restrained when writing to his old friend soon after the book came out in 1886. Though angry and hurt, he was unwilling to provoke another attack, and chose to ignore the unmistakable parallels between himself and Lantier, which everyone who mattered in the art world would immediately have recognized. He said that he refused to believe that Zola had set out to damage the Impressionists, and mentioned Manet, the revered hero of the movement, who had died three years before, neglected and unappreciated by the public.

Monet felt justly bitter about this cruel blow, struck after a long effort to achieve recognition, yet he maintained his respect for Zola as a powerful crusading journalist. In 1898, when Zola had defended Captain Alfred Dreyfus in J'Accuse and was convicted for defaming the Council of War that had condemned him, Monet wrote three letters to Zola expressing his "admiration for your courageous and heroic conduct." By this time Monet had achieved the success he deserved, and could admire Zola's talents, which had once been turned against him.

But in 1886, the Impressionists, outraged by The Masterpiece, felt that Zola had betrayed the privilege of friendship and used personal details about the lives of Monet, Cezanne, and Manet to create a grotesque caricature. Like Renoir, Zola believed "the model is only there to set me going, to permit me to dare things I should never have thought of inventing without her, and to put me on my feet again if I should venture too far." Like the hero of his novel, Zola had willingly sacrificed his friends--as Lantier had sacrificed his wife--to win an argument that he was destined to lose.

Proust's ambitious eight-volume Remembrance of Things Past is the modern version of Zola's twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series of novels, and Proust's early essays on Monet are the equivalent of Zola's art reviews. Proust based his painter Elstir, a minor but significant character in his vast tapestry, on Monet, with hints of Whistler, Paul Helleu, and Edouard Vuillard. Zola's naturalistic novel, narrated in the third person, gives Lantier, the central figure, a pre-determined, tragic fate. Proust's suggestive and symbolic novel is narrated in the first person by "Marcel." His sensitive consciousness recalls events in time and place, portrays the various clusters of people he has known, and orders the events he describes. Minor characters appear and disappear, as they do in real life, and their importance to Marcel changes as the novel unfolds.

Zola presents roughly sketched, clearly defined character types; Proust's characters, though strangely elusive, are more complex and convincing. Zola depicts physical, Proust psychological deformities. Zola portrays his hero in a brutally powerful manner; Proust, in a more intellectually refined style, offers subtle hints about Elstir--and several surprising revelations--throughout the long novel. Christine is sacrificed to, and Gabrielle Elstir transfigured by, art. Zola describes specific paintings by Monet; Proust offers more generalized accounts of his seascapes, cathedrals, and water-lilies. Lantier, the antihero, is an artistic failure; Elstir, a great genius, is extremely successful. Lantier represents Monet's early struggles, Elstir his later triumphs. Zola dislikes Lantier's paintings; Proust admires Elstir's and borrows his aesthetic theories to define his own literary techniques and ways of revealing his characters.

Monet, thirty-one years older than Proust, outlived him by four years. He was the first and perhaps the only artist in history to create a landscape in order to paint it. Though Proust planned to visit the magnificent gardens at Giverny, he never did so. Unlike Zola, he never met Monet, but saw his paintings in the gallery of his main dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, and in the homes of wealthy friends like Genevieve Straus. Both Monet and Proust were influenced by Henri Bergson's insistence, in Matter and Memory (1896), "on the role of involuntary memory in installing the self in 'the fluid continuity of the real.'" Both tried to capture in their art the fragmentary moments of time.

In four early works Proust tried out his ideas about Monet, whom he saw as a kindred spirit and considered the greatest French painter of his time. In an article in Le Figaro (June 15, 1907), Proust described Giverny as a painting and called it "not so much a garden of flowers as of colors and tones, less of an old-fashioned flower garden than a color garden." Proust's second essay, "Monet" gave him the opportunity (often seized on in Remembrance) to indulge in a highly wrought, exquisitely chromatic Ruskinian description, which conveys the impression of languidly drifting through those flowery waters and watery flowers. As Monet unveils the "important constituents of reality," he makes us love the landscape: "islet-dotted rivers during those motionless hours of afternoon when the river is blue and white with sky and clouds, and green with trees and lawns, and pink with sunbeams already sloping on tree-trunks, and splashed with scarlet in the shadow of the garden hedges."

A recent biographer of Proust writes that both artists worshipped aesthetically at actual shrines. Proust "spent long hours contemplating the porch at Amiens, concentrating, as did Monet [in Rouen], on the changing effects of light on the cathedral." In the preface to his 1904 translation of Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens, Proust included a rapturous digression on Monet that compared their complementary studies of Gothic cathedrals in Northern France and described how the Master's paintings transformed the sculptured facade, at different times of day, into part of the living landscape. In a brilliant passage about the perception of nothingness in Jean Santeuil (1895-1900), an early version of Remembrance, Proust, connecting Monet's rivers and cathedrals, described the power of the imagination to transcend what is not seen in order to create what can be seen.

The passages in the novel about Elstir, as well as about Monet himself, gradually reveal the Proustian significance of his Impressionist paintings. Late in the book Proust links the two principal models for the artist, who themselves were friends and who painted similarly misty and evocative seascapes of the Thames, by mentioning that "Verdurin received lessons in taste from Whistler [a near anagram of Elstir], lessons in truth from Monet." Just as Claude Lantier had persuaded Christine that poplars could actually be blue, so Proust notes, in a comparison with Monet, that white birds could look golden: "As the sun was beginning to set, the seagulls were now yellow, like the water-lilies on another canvas of that series by Monet."

The critic I. H. E. Dunlop wrote that Monet "contributed to the character of Elstir's art, though not to his character as a human being." But Proust did in fact use certain aspects of Monet's appearance, background, career, wife, and specific paintings--as well as his Impressionist technique and theory--when portraying the character of Elstir. Like the tough and burly Monet, who worked with icicles clinging to his beard and was nearly drowned when a tremendous wave struck him as he painted a storm at sea, Elstir was "a man of large stature, very muscular, with regular features and a grizzled beard." Monet was a Norman, born in Le Havre, and created many of his most famous pictures during his "campaigns" in that region. Marcel meets Elstir in the fictional Balbec, a town based on Cabourg, just west of Le Havre, on the Normandy coast.

In the novel, Zola has written an essay on Elstir, as he did in real life on Monet; and Elstir's Sunrise over the Sea clearly alludes to Monet's Impression: Sunrise (1872), with its bloody wafer of sun reflected in the shimmering water. When the critic Louis Leroy condemned this painting as a mere impression, the artists took its name for their movement. The Duc de Guermantes, who owns paintings by Elstir, criticizes them for their apparent incompleteness in the same way that Zola did in his late reviews: "I know of course that they're merely sketches, but still, I don't feel myself that he puts enough work into them."

Like Monet, Elstir is strongly influenced by Japanese artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai, and, as in Monet's case, the human figure gradually disappears from his late pictures. Alluding to Monet's The Manneporte, Etretat (1885-1886), Elstir connects the church to the natural landscape (as Proust had done in Jean Santeuil) and observes: "Don't those rocks, so powerfully and delicately modeled, remind you of a cathedral?' And indeed one would have taken them for soaring red arches." Referring to Monet's series of paintings--of poplars, grainstacks, cathedrals, water-lilies, and the Thames--each version of the scene worked on simultaneously to capture the exact light and color at specific times of day, Proust remarks that the landscape "was rendered, from the mountain tops to the sea, with an exactitude which told one more than the hour, told one to the very minute what time of day it was, thanks to the precise angle of the setting sun and the fleeting fidelity of the shadows."

The strange relation of personal guilt to creative power, which Zola had analyzed in connection with Lantier's painting of his dead son, recurs in Proust when Elstir, discussing the portrait of his wife (who is partly based on Camille Monet), "knows that he has created his masterpieces out of effects of attenuated light, out of the action of remorse upon consciousness of guilt." Marcel frequently compares real people to those he's seen in paintings, and Swann falls disastrously in love with Odette, who resembles Botticelli's portrayal of Jethro's daughter. In a similar fashion Elstir sees his wife as an aesthetic object and transforms her into his personal vision of ideal beauty. The disturbing contrast between Marcel's own idea of the "great artist" and his actual knowledge of the artist's work leads to his extraordinary disillusionment with Elstir. Opinion is sharply divided about both the man and his work, though Proust is far too subtle to use his characters' views as a way to judge them. Swarm denounces Elstir as an "oaf" and condemns his talk as "balderdash"; Brichot, a professor at the Sorbonne, describes his "buffooneries" and elaborate practical jokes. The Cottards find him too advanced; the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes criticize his work as too sketchy; the German Kaiser pursues him with hatred. Yet Forcheville is impressed by his conversation; Swarm and Saint-Loup praise his intelligence; the oddly assorted Albertine, Mme. de Cambremer, and the Verdurins admire his pictures.

Marcel, unable to reconcile the contradictory aspects of Elstir--also known, for his timidity, as "Master Biche" (French for "doe")--incredulously asks: "Could it possibly be that this man of genius, this sage, this recluse, this philosopher with his marvelous flow of conversation, who towered over everyone and everything, was the ridiculous, perverted painter who had at one time been adopted by the Verdurins?" Yet after the death of Verdurin, an old patron who'd always had an acute understanding of his pictures, it seemed to Elstir "as though a little of the beauty of his own work had been eclipsed, since there had perished a little of the universe's sum total of awareness of its special beauty."

Proust's analysis of Elstir's Impressionist techniques is unmistakably based on Monet's methods. The synthesis of sensation and intellect, the destruction and recreation of reality, is crucial to both artists:
 Elstir sought to wrest from what he had just
 felt what he already knew; he had often been
 at pains to break up that medley of impressions
 which we call vision.... He abstracts
 such [church] buildings from the global impression
 in which they're included, brings
 them out of the light in which they're somehow
 dissolved and scrutinizes their intrinsic

Elstir's work, like the tranquil, joyous paintings of Monet, "dissolves houses, carts, people in some broad effect of light," creates a "uniform surface, simple, gleaming, grey, which in a bluish haze takes on a creamy softness," and paints "a sea which was no more than a whitish vapor that had lost both consistency and color." Proust concludes by emphasizing the impression made on the painter as well as on the viewer of his work: "But of such a sea Elstir ... had felt so intensely the enchantment that he had succeeded in transcribing, in fixing for all time upon his canvas, the imperceptible ebb of the tide, the throb of one happy moment."

Proust uses Elstir's paintings, as he uses Bergotte's writing and Vinteuil's music, to represent his own theory of art. Proust believed, in J. M. Cocking's useful precis, that "our most valuable spiritual experiences are the result of illusions about objective reality," and that
 art can do two things--record and perpetuate
 the valuable illusions and make clear the laws
 according to which such illusions arise in the
 mind.... Painting is not the imitation of nature
 but the metamorphosis of nature.... In
 [Elstir's] Port de Carquethuit land is painted in
 terms of sea, sea in terms of land.

In this painting, which is based on works like Monet's Etretat, Rainy Weather (1885-1886) and which Proust describes in elaborate detail, there is "no absolute line of demarcation between land and sea" just as there is no fixed boundary between the unimpressive, even absurd "Master Biche" in the Verdurins' salon and the impressive genius whom Marcel meets in Balbec.

In both Monet-Elstir's paintings and Proust's novel, the constantly shifting and ambiguously cinematic perceptions are quintessentially modern. In a bold but incisive comparison that spans several centuries, cultures, and genres, Proust states that the greatest artists allow readers and viewers to experience their immediate perceptions without having them elucidated. Elstir reproduced "things not as he knew them to be but according to the optical illusions of which our first sight of them is composed." Elstir and Mme. de Sevigne (the classic seventeenth-century letter-writer) are both great artists of the same school. Both present things, Proust observes, "in the order of our perception of them, instead of first explaining them in relation to their several causes.... Mme. de Sevigne, like Elstir, like Dostoievsky [and like Proust himself], begins with the cause, shows us first of all the effect, the illusion that strikes us." These crucial passages, the very heart of Proust's aesthetics of fiction, explain his ambiguous, even contradictory characterization of Elstir, and reveal how much he took from Monet, the main model for Elstir, Marcel's "favorite painter."
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Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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