This Monet painting has been a favorite of mine ever since my first bus trip to the Art Institute of Chicago as a young art student from Wisconsin. When I finally settled in Chicago as a young professional, I went back to the Art Institute again and again, always taking the time to stop in front of this Monet the longest. I even bought a poster reproduction and framed it in a bluish metal frame for my first Lincoln Park apartment.
So when I had a year to spend in Paris, I knew I wanted to try to track down the place this scene was painted. All I had to go on was “Bennecourt on the Seine.” Believe it or not, that was enough.
Bennecourt is about 16 miles from Giverny on some beautiful little back roads, and yes, it’s right on the river. So little remains the same along the banks of an old river like the Seine, I really didn’t expect to be able to recognize the exact spot where Monet painted. I just wanted to get out of the car and say I was there, that I was close.
In the painting, Claude’s first wife Camille is sitting on the Bennecourt side of the river, looking across at the inn they were staying at in Bonnieres-sur-Siene. The two-story inn is clearly reflected in the water, right in front of Camille’s face. The couple stayed here in 1868 when their first son Jean was only one or two. They weren’t yet married, and Monet was very much the struggling artist. He had not yet painted a single haystack or water lily.
My husband and I were driving along the Bennecourt side of the river, and I could sense the town was near. I was looking toward Bonnieres while my husband was talking away on an important international conference call. I practically screamed in his ear when to my sheer delight, I saw this sign, a part of the French government’s Path of the Impressionists:
Once we found our way to Bennecourt, it wasn’t much further to get to Vétheuil, the town where Claude and Camille lived toward the end of Camille’s short life. You just follow the little D913 road along the river from Bennecourt to Roche de Guyon and on to Vétheuil. There, in the old cemetery behind the church lies the sad and lonely grave of Camille Doncieux.
Vetheuil is a sad place to visit, knowing that Camille’s years here weren’t happy or healthy. By this time, Claude had already met his likely mistress and future wife, Alice Hoschedé, and their two families were living together in a strange mélange. Camille grew increasingly ill, suffering from an unknown ailment. Claude painted his last portrait of Camille on her deathbed in Venteuil.
If you haven’t already read Stephanie Cowell’s novel, Claude and Camille, I highly recommend it. Check out some of my other posts about Claude Monet in France, including Monet in Honfleur, A Guest Post by Stephanie Cowell, An Artist’s Weekend in Honfleur, and Say Yes To The Dress: Claude and Camille and Fashion.