Mad Enchantment

by Ross King, Bloomsbury, £25

By the time Claude Monet embarked on his daring series of water lily canvases he was a celebrated and extremely wealthy man. Decades earlier, Monet’s experiments had provoked more than their share of outrage and insult – one critic described a seascape as “less skilful than crude wallpaper” – but Monet’s brand of Impressionism was now part of the artistic mainstream. Some even regarded it as rather passé: Matisse was always a fan, but the cocksure Cubists and Pointillists were markedly less enthusiastic.

Not that Monet had to worry. In 1912 his paintings raked in 369,000 francs at a time when a labourer in Paris could expect to earn just a thousand francs per annum. Monet could easily afford to lavish 40,000 francs each year on the gardens at Giverny and to indulge his passion for the newfangled automobile (he had secured his first speeding ticket back in 1904).

Regrettably, Monet was not in the mood to create new masterpieces. His wife, Alice, had died from leukaemia in 1911, causing, Monet confessed, “the terrible grief that breaks the heart and ravages the mind”.

He lost his son Jean, aged just 46, in 1914. Adding to his woes, Monet’s eyesight had begun to fail, so his vision was sometimes, as Ross King puts it, muddy, bland and indistinct.

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