Early in 1971, Robert Hughes, recently appointed as Time magazine’s chief art critic, was ripping out his loft apartment at 143 Prince Street when he received an unexpected visitor. This was Henry Geldzahler, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum. Hughes, probably the most macho and combative critic in his profession, was, by his own account, sweaty, foul-tempered, sore-footed and ‘grey with ingrained dirt’. Geldzahler, a ‘happily smiling little roly-poly fonctionnaire … [was] immaculately jaunty in a pale blue suit’. He wanted to see the loft. Hughes told him there was nothing to see; Geldzahler insisted. They took the elevator to the fifth floor, where there was only dust and filth and dangling cables. The following exchange then took place:
‘Well, come on,’ he said, ‘I want to see it.’
‘This is it, Henry.’
‘No, no. Where do you keep it?’
‘Where do I keep what?’
‘Your collection. I want to have a peek. Is it in storage somewhere?’
‘There is no collection, Henry. I’m not a collector. I’m sorry, I don’t have a goddamn collection.’
Geldzahler peered at me incredulously.
‘Well,’ he exhaled at last. ‘Someone in here is going to die poor, isn’t he?’
This exchange is recorded in Hughes’s trenchant essay about the New York art scene, ‘Graft – Things You Didn’t Know’. He describes a place where money, or potential money, was sloshing around, and where ‘the whole domain of relations between artists and critics, critics and curators – indeed, of everything that bears upon the art market and its insiders – was then and largely remains today an ethical slide area.’ The high-priest critic Clement Greenberg ‘didn’t believe in buying art, but he liked receiving it,’ from artists and art dealers whom his words had assisted or would assist. But ‘by far the most corrupt art-world figure I knew in New York … was Henry Geldzahler.’ When the director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, wanted to put on an Andrew Wyeth show, Geldzahler was against it – Wyeth’s figurative paintings were the very opposite of the art he believed in and succoured. But when it became clear the show would go ahead, Geldzahler ‘wrote privately to Wyeth himself, offering to curate the show in return for a nice Wyeth watercolour that Henry would personally select. Much to the flinty Wyeth’s credit, this overture was rebuffed.’
Nearer home, there was the case of David Sylvester, perhaps the leading British art critic of the second half of the 20th century. Hughes valued him as a friend and a fine analyst; he was also the best exhibition installer of his time. But he was a very slow writer with ‘an indurated laziness’. And he liked fine things, so privately dealt in antiquities, rugs and modernist drawings, as ‘a purveyor of semi-masterpieces to the rich and fastidious’. As Hughes put it: ‘He would demand gifts from an artist whose work he was about to honour with a review – according to Lucian Freud, who knew Sylvester for decades, the expected rate was usually two pieces, which could be small as long as they were choice, for one article.’
This is all very shocking, the more so as it involves critics and curators at the top of their profession. These men weren’t struggling for the rent, occasionally stretching the rules to put food on the table; they were, or had become, institutionally – and constitutionally – corrupt. But is it surprising? The art market is international and barely regulated; its products are easily transportable, squirrelled away in freeports or swiftly turned into cash. Grifters, fakers and thieves naturally abound. There is often a cosy nexus between artists, dealers, gallerists and critics; value – or at least, price – is constantly moving, usually upwards; and there are an increasing number of very rich people for whom art is a status symbol. Authenticating a work is difficult, and a lot may depend on it. How might a grateful owner or potential purchaser reward such connoisseurship? The classic example is that of Bernard Berenson – in Hughes’s mocking words, ‘the disinterested, Goethean sage of I Tatti’ – who charged his employer 25 per cent on the sale of any work he had authenticated. Today there are art advisers at the shoulder of new money; the deference might be difficult, but parts of the job must be pretty easy. Warhol, tick; Koons, tick; Basquiat, tick; Picasso, tick; Freud, tick; Banksy and Bacon, tick tick; and so on.
When and where did it all start? Probably in Paris; more unexpectedly, when the Impressionists came along. For centuries, the Salon had ruled over taste, over what was and wasn’t art, and therefore over most artists’ incomes. There had been the famous Salon des Refusés in 1863, but that experiment in imperial permissiveness was not to be repeated. So the Impressionists, following Courbet’s example, put on their own exhibitions, the first in 1874. They made little money but received a good deal of publicity. Gradually, the stranglehold of the Salon was loosened: it had traditionally been such that some collectors, seeing a work in an artist’s studio, might offer to buy it as long as the Salon jury found it good enough (and uncontentious enough) to be hung on their walls. At the same time, a younger generation of more imaginative dealers came along, looking for new buyers not just on the home market but abroad, especially in London and New York. Then there was the press: both the critics themselves and the hacks who sought scandal and sensation. Critical mass had arrived: that nexus of artist, dealer, critic and curator, plus shock value and a rising market. Monet, as leader of the Impressionists and the group’s highest earner, was at the heart of this new world. At one point he had three or four different dealers, and delighted in playing them off one against the other. There is no direct evidence of graft in Jackie Wullschläger’s new book, but all the conditions for Hughes’s ‘ethical slide area’ were now in place.
It can seem as though Monet has always been around. In my teens I had a poster of one of his greyer Rouen Cathedral pictures on my bedroom wall; around the same time, I bought a classical LP with The Poppy Field as cover art. In my thirties, after Monet’s house was opened to the public, I came back with two ‘Japanese’ dinner plates from the gift shop (Limoges white, with a yellow rim – the yellow of his dining room – and a fine blue edging), which I still use today. He is one of those artists I have consistently admired while complacently assuming that I had mastered his extent; also, without being at all curious about his life. The first response is the mild (if lingering) sin of youth: the artists you first see and admire can sometimes get cocooned away without re-examination. The second blankness is perhaps more understandable: there was and is no personal myth of Monet. He didn’t die young, or cut off his ear, or even travel to exotic places: London (which he loved, but only in winter, when there was fog) and Venice (also pleasingly foggy) were about the furthest he took his brushes. He also painted at such a consistently high level that it comes as a relief when he produces as ferociously awful a picture as La Japonaise (1876). He knew and admitted that this was ‘a piece of junk’ and presumably saved it from destruction only because it was an image of his first wife, Camille.
In seventeen years it will be the 200th anniversary of Monet’s birth, yet he might still be the best way to introduce someone young to art – and not just modern art. This is partly because of what he didn’t paint. He didn’t do historical or religious subjects: no need to know what is happening at the Annunciation (let alone the Assumption of the Virgin) or what Oedipus said to the Sphinx or why so many naked women are attending the death of Sardanapalus. He never painted a literary scene for which you need to know the story. None of his paintings refers to an earlier painting. He was the first great artist since the Renaissance never to paint a nude. He painted portraits but it didn’t matter (except to him) whom they were of. You don’t need to know the history of art to appreciate a Monet picture because he wasn’t much interested in the history of art himself (though he revered Watteau and Delacroix and Velázquez). He had even less interest in the science of visual perception. His art was secular and apolitical.
In Britain, we like to believe that Turner was a precursor to the Impressionists; Monet always denied that influence. He started afresh, a new eye in a new head (but what an eye, and what a head!). Manet had spent six years in the studio of Thomas Couture; Monet dismissed him as not worth studying under. He never set up an easel in the Louvre to copy from the masters. He went briefly to the sort of art school where you paid a small fee to sit and draw from life models, with a weekly visit from an older artist who made comments. He painted what he saw around him, much of which (the river, the landscape, the sea, trees, gardens, snowscapes, a lunch table in the sunlight, figures walking through a field, haystacks) are still to be found – or at least, their equivalents can still be found; even the cities he portrayed, or the parts that he portrayed, are not much altered. So the way into Monet’s art is comparatively smooth.
And the final, central thing (as with the art of most of the Impressionists): it is cheerful. Truthful, deeply truthful, the result of long looking, but a cheerful truth. Reporting back to Monet on the success of the Fourth Impressionist exhibition, Gustave Caillebotte commented: ‘The public is cheerful, people have a good time with us.’ In 1864, Monet spent six months in Honfleur, initially with his friend and fellow Impressionist Frédéric Bazille, working from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Bazille returned to Paris after a few weeks, and Monet urged him to come back: ‘Here, my dear friend, it’s adorable, and every day I discover still more beautiful things.’ Two decades later, Pissarro summed up Monet’s first set of serial paintings, Haystacks, with the words: ‘These canvases breathe contentment.’ Not complacency – there is not a grain of this sentiment anywhere in Wullschläger’s account – but the contentment of getting it right after a long struggle. Almost his last written words were a shaky scribble in the autograph album of Paul Valéry’s daughter, Agathe: ‘All I can say is that painting is terribly difficult.’
Monet will also present an instructive case for that putative student: a critic of the first Impressionist Exhibition described the whole movement as ‘a war on beauty’, yet now, if asked to define or exemplify beauty, we might well start with Monet’s Impression, Sunrise of 1872 and continue through his oeuvre. And if the student replies that they would rather not start so far back as Monet, let alone with ‘beauty’; but instead with something ‘harder’, perhaps Expressionism or abstraction or the New York School, then the reply would be: a) When Kandinsky saw a Monet Haystack for the first time in Moscow in the 1890s, he began to conceive of abstraction (‘Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour. And albeit unconsciously, objects were discredited as an essential element’); and b) Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, and yes, even Clement Greenberg, all declared that Monet was the chief precursor of modern American abstraction.
The two things ‘everyone knows’ about Monet are that he painted his first wife on her deathbed, watching ‘the degradation of the colours that death had just imposed on the motionless face’; and Cézanne’s deprecating claim that ‘Monet is only an eye, but what an eye.’ Wullschläger quotes them both in her prologue, presumably to defuse them. For they are both easily misinterpreted. Monet’s extraordinary painting of Camille, being dragged away from life in a torrent of blue and pink brushstrokes, is no cold professional distraction from the event, but rather an expression of great grief by means of great looking. As for Cézanne, the Impressionists were, like most artistic groups, often snippy about one another, Cézanne more than most; but this is his only reported comment on Monet which is at all critical. Even so, the target would remember it for the rest of his life. In old age, when going blind, Monet regretted the three operations he’d had to prolong his sight, because if he were fully blind, then he wouldn’t be able to see the paintings he was currently destroying. ‘Yes, I’m difficult,’ he commented wryly. ‘They say of me, Claude Monet is only an eye, but what an eye. It’s no longer worth much now, that eye.’
Perhaps those two anecdotes stand out because his true biography, as Wullschläger understands, is the biography of his art. Of course, he had a life as well, with many struggles, two wives at whose deathbeds he sat, unsatisfactory sons, adoring stepdaughters and so on. But his private life was never public, even when fame meant that journalists tried to follow him when he took off into the fields to paint. Degas expressed the desire to be ‘illustrious yet unknown’, but Monet probably achieved this better than Degas. Wullschläger’s biography describes him excellently and makes shrewd deductions, while leaving a hard centre of unknowability (of which Monet would doubtless have approved). His early life, of ‘uneventful ordinariness’, is comparatively obscure. There is no photograph or painting of him as a child. Readers of biography who experience pre-weariness when faced with chapters of genealogy and ‘early years’ will delight in the discovery that François Ochard, drawing master at the Collège du Havre, ‘left no opinion of his disruptive pupil’. Monet was a self-described ‘vagabond’ child who for forty years never spoke of his mother. The written records are largely one-sided: he threw away other people’s letters while they kept his. Camille exists only in people’s comments about her: there is a single photograph, and only a scrap of her handwriting survives. Monet was both elusive and contradictory when talking about his career. He liked to push the myth that he only ever painted outdoors, when many of his paintings required substantial studio work after he brought them home. As he became more famous, he knew instinctively how to play the press, befriending them while misleading them. The point of the process for him was that column inches might lead to new collectors.
His essential character was powerful yet enclosed: ‘Monet the taciturn’ according to Thadée Natanson. He was intensely single-minded about his art, often absent from home; but when there, he was (fairly) single-minded about that too. There seems to have been not a week of delinquency, let alone philandering. He had a docile first wife, and a combative second one, Alice, whom he addressed as vous for ten years, until he married her, then switched to tu. Though he lived ‘in sin’ with both his wives before marrying them, his instincts and actions as a father and stepfather were quite bourgeois. When Germaine, the only one of Alice’s daughters still living at home, wanted to marry Pierre Sisley (son of Alfred, and therefore a boy Monet had known from birth), Monet and Alice forbade it. Pierre, ‘a painter even less successful than his father’, was regarded by them as little more than a charity case. Not that this attitude had made their own sons – Monet and Alice had two each – any more focused. They rivalled one another in fecklessness and frittering. Jean, Monet’s elder boy, even failed as a fish-farmer.
But the sons had their excuses. As Wullschläger puts it, they were ‘overwhelmed into inaction by the force of Monet’s personality’. Their father was an intermittent presence, but an overbearing one. He had a ‘tremendous ego’ whose downside expressed itself in fits of enormous self-pity. For her part, Alice was a ‘cyclical manic depressive’ full of tristes humeurs, idées noires and ‘terrible rages’. She described her husband’s ‘extreme leaps’ of mood; he was ‘so hard that it’s upsetting for me. In spite of all the kindness of his heart, he hurts you a lot.’ His stepdaughter Blanche called him ‘a violent character, very lively, but a good heart’; she was also a painter, and often sat alongside him, but he would never allow her to use the same size canvas as he did. The villagers of Giverny, unsurprisingly, found him ‘aloof’.
Monet was always more than just an eye. He was a painter of heart and brain, feeling and memory. Late in life, when working on his Water Lilies, he told his friend Gustave Geffroy: ‘They’re beyond the strength of an old man, but I want to succeed in rendering what I feel.’ He was the only Impressionist who made the full journey from realistic social subjects (which was as far as Zola was able to go with him) to looser-brushed landscapes with purple shadows, to gradually increasing explosions of colour, to the sudden originality of series painting with its cumulative effects, to the shimmering, evanescent, vertiginously beautiful near-expressionism of the Water Lilies. This was an art that pushed against its own limits, so that many (including Monet himself) reached for comparisons with poetry and music – specifically, Mallarmé and Debussy. Monet increasingly exemplified Mallarmé’s famous poetic dictum ‘to paint not the thing itself, but the effect that it produces’.
When he was poor, Monet behaved like a bad rich man: a glamorous dresser with an imperious manner, who regularly did midnight flits from hotels and left bills unpaid, even those of his framer and his laundrywoman. His tailor was ‘the prestigious Auld Reekie’ in rue Neuve des Capucines. While Camille was pawning her jewellery, he would be ordering ‘twenty to thirty litres’ of best cognac for the household. But when he became rich, he behaved like a good rich man. Where once he had shamelessly and aggressively cadged off wealthier painters such as Bazille and Caillebotte, he was now generous to those like Pissarro who had fallen on hard times. He kept his friends, even when they fell on the other side of the Dreyfus Affair. He was public-spirited, running a campaign to raise 20,000 francs to secure Manet’s Olympia for the nation. He enjoyed luxury: the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel said that you got ‘the best cuisine in France’ at his house in Giverny. There, he employed six gardeners, one of whom had the job of dusting and washing the water lilies (Monet also paid for the public road alongside the water-garden to be tarmacked, thus reducing the dust). He took to motoring and sumptuous fur coats – Alice nicknamed him ‘the Marquis’. Being famous, he now met other famous people: for instance, Winnaretta Singer, the sewing-machine heiress who only married princes. She bought two of his pictures and gave the largest donation – two thousand francs – to the Olympia fund. But he seems to have trodden among them without much involvement or trace. In 1901 he was in London and Sargent arranged for him to watch Queen Victoria’s funeral from a house opposite Buckingham Palace. There his translator was none other than Henry James. What a potentially fascinating encounter – and yet it isn’t mentioned in any of the main biographies of James. Nor did this social life diminish Monet’s enduring sense of artistic discipline: in his late fifties, he was still leaving the house at 3.30 a.m. to paint his Mornings on the Seine.
In 1900, Renoir accepted the Légion d’honneur. He knew that Monet disdained such baubles, and wrote him a fretful letter hoping that a strip of silk wouldn’t impair their friendship. A few days later he regretted it and wrote again: ‘I realised today and even before that I’d written you a stupid letter … I wonder what it matters to you whether I’m decorated or not … You must know me better than I know myself, since I very probably know you better than yourself.’ This last remark is deeply wise, pertinent not just to their Impressionist friendship, but also to the writing of biography, and beyond that, to the rest of us.
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