Our Sainte-Adresse lighthouse postcard match took us to such a remarkable view point we thought Monet, once an occasional resident here, must have been inspired by the sun setting on this vast seascape.
So we looked into his life at Sainte-Adresse only to find a shocking story.
Behind ‘The garden at Sainte-Adresse’
There is nothing in the delightful painting ‘The garden at Sainte-Adresse’ painted in 1867, to suggest Claude Monet’s life was anything other than a peaceful pursuit of art.
The picture is big, nearly a metre high and over a metre wide, so he had time in the warm summer days of his 26th year to paint, not toil. The subject is delightful, reflecting a generous comfortable life.
But look for a while at the elegant figures and you will notice something very strange. They are all in a box. Hemmed into a square of formal respectability. He has illustrated a moment in the tidy life of the moderately wealthy French bourgeoisie.
‘The Garden’ has nothing of the energy, the experimentation with composition, colour and light seen in his paintings created at Honfleur just a few months before.
Here nature has been encouraged, but regimented. White clothing betrays women of ‘superior’ quality, unlikely to have sullied their hands in this pretty garden’s making.
The artist is distant from the group, slightly above, judging them? For Monet could be looking into his own future, and if he is he doesn’t seem to like the look of it much.
More than money on Monet’s mind
The son of a successful grocer, the life he paints here is one he could have walked back into at any moment, welcomed into the relieved open arms of his loving family. Instead his confident sense of creative entitlement, a single minded pursuit of art, had left him in shameless debt to landlords, shopkeepers and weary friends with little success to show for it.
He was in Sainte-Adresse that summer playing the good son because he needed cash. But Monet had more than money on his mind. Camille, the disapproved-of girlfriend, was in Paris, pregnant.
Delightful Camille Doncieux
Camille Doncieux, a pale, dark haired Parisian artist’s model had fallen in love with Monet age just 18, in 1865.
Her family rejected her as she lived with him in frequent poverty in Paris. Together they were young and invincible, living a perilous existence between the city and the countryside of Normandy. While Monet painted she waited, ready to pack their bags in an instant when unpaid bills left them unwelcome at the local inns.
Dark eyed Camille haunts the faces of women in Monet’s early paintings, she is his choice, his passion. But his family could not approve of a woman who lived her life and would not meet her.
A life of poverty and uncomfortable compromise
When his father discovered Camille was pregnant Monet’s allowance was stopped instantly. Short of rich friends and credit he was forced to return to his family in Sainte-Adresse, leaving Camille alone in their ground floor studio in Pigalle with nothing but the good will of friends to support her. He reassured his family that the relationship was over.
But in early August under some pretext he was in Paris as their son Jean was born. Within days he was in Sainte-Adesse, furiously painting the genteel world around him, desperate to escape.
Again at the end of 1867 Claude Monet was briefly back in Paris, staying with Camille and Jean in a tiny one room apartment. By 1868 he is living with them full time, a secret from his respectable family who had been happy he had abandoned the mother of his child and their young son.
Changes in an unconventional life
Claude and Camille married in a civil ceremony 1870, possibly a church would have looked askance at the already complete young family. Relieved, Camille’s family relented and blessed the union with a modest dowry. Monet’s father and Aunt did not attend.
Sands of time and happiness
Their honeymoon was spent in Trouville, Normandy. An oil sketch from this happy time hangs in the National Gallery, London. In the picture Camille is sitting on Trouville beach, a little hat of cheerful flowers balances in heaps of dark hair. She protects her fair skin with a parasol. Next to her a friend in dull colours reads, a mere foil to the glowing girl next to her. Look closely at the painting and you will see little souvenirs, real grains of sand blown on to the paint, shine.
A second son Michel was born in 1877 but happiness for Claude and Camille could not last.
Illness and fear
Poor, quiet Camille was unwell, the second pregnancy weakened her further. Her pelvis was riddled with cancer. What money he made Monet spent on medical care but it was often not enough to stop her pain. He tried to paint quick pictures to sell but, under stress and deeply unhappy, they were shoddy and raised little cash. Then he ran out of paint.
Monet wrote a begging letter to the collector De Bellio ‘’we can’t give her what she needs, we just don’t have the money….I’m just terrified by the sight of my poor wife’s life in jeopardy…” But fed up with frequent, dramatic requests for money, the response was unhelpful.
Like so many illnesses in the nineteenth century there was no hope for Camille and death took it’s time. By the summer of 1879 it was clear she did not have many days left. On August 31st Camille received the last rites and her marriage was sanctioned by a priest.
On 5 September 1879 she spoke for the last time to her young sons and, conscious until the last moment, she died. She was 32.
The Monet in the wardrobe, or How Robert stole the beach at Pourville