Although I couldn’t be farther away from the streets of Paris or the gardens at Giverny, I’ve been completely transported to that world this Sunday morning as I sped through the last chapters of Claude and Camille, a brilliant and luminous novel by Stephanie Cowell. In it she imagines the life of the young painter, Claude Monet, the hardships he faced throughout most of his artistic life, the bond of friendship he shared with his compatriots in the new style of painting which would come to be known as Impressionism. Mostly, of course, it is the story of his love for Camille Doncieux, a young woman who captured his artistic eye and his masculine heart.
“All the world knows Monet as an old man in his gardens at Giverny,” Cowell writes in an afterword to the book, “but the genesis of that revered painter was a very determined and handsome young man: proud, sometimes haughty, and sometimes humble, in need of love and understanding and someone to buy his work.”
A glowing and poignant love story, Claude and Camille is also the portrait of an artist and his sometimes desperate compulsion to express himself on the canvas, a compulsion that doesn’t always lead to happiness. At a point when he had given up in despair, Monet’s old friend and mentor acknowledges the difficulties and encourages him with these words:
“It gets battered…The part of us that paints – if not by want of success, then by us always demanding more from it. Not enough to paint the same thing for us, but we always want to do better. And so we have to…let it rest wherever it’s hidden and after a while coax it a little. Coax it out.”
In Claude and Camille, Stephanie Cowell has “coaxed out” a graceful and insightful portrait of an artist, a great love, and a time when the artistic world was changed forever.