Claude and Camille Along the Seine

On the Banks of the Seine, Bennecourt, oil on canvas by Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection

On the Banks of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868), oil on canvas by Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection

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:

A roadside sign on the banks of the Seine in Bennecourt, France.

Along D100 in Bennecourt

Along D100 in Bennecourt

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.

Camille Doncieux grave in Venteuil, France

Camille Doncieux grave in Véteuil, France

The new grave marker installed by a group of donors, Friends of Camille

The new grave marker installed by a group of donors, Friends of Véteuil

The old grave marker. There is no mention of her married name.

The old grave marker. There is no mention of her married name.

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.

Camille on her Deathbed by Claude Monet (187) Musée d'Orsay

Camille on her Deathbed by Claude Monet (187) Musée d’Orsay

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.

Claude and Camille in paperback by Stephanie Cowell

Claude and Camille in paperback by Stephanie Cowell

Say Yes To The Dress: Claude and Camille and Fashion

So, I have to admit I’m a little nuts about the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. In my last months in Paris, I went four times. I had a lot of American visitors who wanted to go, but I truly did want to keep going back. Each time I found something new.

One of my favorite rooms of the exhibit was the last room, decorated to look like a park. That’s where you could find Monet’s oversized plein air paintings with Camille in her huge, fabulous dresses. I grabbed my visitors, and said, that’s Camille! Like I knew her.

But I kind of do. A couple of years ago, I read Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell, and I even hosted Stephanie at a literary luncheon at the Downtown Glen Ellyn BookFest, an annual event sponsored by my local library and bookstore. The book is all about Claude Monet and his first wife Camille. How they met, how she posed, where he painted.

So when I saw this painting (below) at the exhibit, a study of Bazille and Camille (1865), on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., I stopped and gaped. It was Camille and Bazille, shortly after she’d met Claude. I’d read about their summer trip to Fountainbleu in Claude and Camille. How the 18 year-old Camille had snuck out of the house without her parents’ permission, bringing along her older sister as a chaperone.

Claude Monet, Camille and Bazille (Study for Luncheon on the Grass) 1865. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This painting was just a study, painted quickly en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest, but I think it’s almost better than the final painting, Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), shown below. It feels fresh and immediate, as if you’re standing right there spying on this couple from the dappled shade behind the bushes. According to the article Fashion En Plein Air by Birgit Haase in the Exhibit Catalog, the dress that Camille is wearing would have been a highly fashionable outfit for women on trips to the countryside that year. Camille, who left her corset at home, is the perfect model for modern leisure wear in 1865. Monet obviously said yes to this dress – the embroidery, the cut and draping of the back of the dress and jacket seems to be the focus of the whole painting.

After the summer in Fountainbleu, Monet went back to Paris with the plan of turning his small plein air studies into a bold large canvas suitable for the Paris Salon. He made all kinds of changes to the dresses and the poses, but was so dissatisfied that he abandoned the project. What is left of the final painting appears in two giant panels at the Musée d’Orsay.










The story of how this celebrated painting got divided into separate panels is a good one. In Stephanie Cowell’s novel, Monet struggled all winter trying to paint Luncheon on the Grass, but he was so disappointed with the result that he decides not to enter it in the next Salon:

What he had seen so clearly on a summer’s day in the forest was not on the canvas before him. People were clumsily placed; the brushstrokes were all wrong. It had been repainted many times and he had never found the balance of human form and light, It was not a masterpiece at all. How could he not have seen it before? How could he have made such a mess of it?

In the novel Claude and Camille, Monet rips the canvas off the frame, rolls it up and moves on to the next painting. Thanks to the Musée d’Orsay, we have Monet’s own explanation for what happened next:

I had to pay my rent, I gave [Luncheon on the Grass] to the landlord as security and he rolled it up and put in the cellar. When I finally had enough money to get it back, as you can see, it had gone mouldy.

Monet retrieved the painting in 1884 and cut it into separate panels. Two of the three panels have survived and are included in the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit.

After abandoning Luncheon of the Grass, Monet decided to ask Camille into pose again, this time in a green and black striped taffeta silk dress with an enormous train. Art historians don’t know exactly where this dress came from. They speculate that because of its sumptuous fabric and fur, it would have been beyond the financial means of either Monet or Camille. Stephanie Cowell imagines that Monet’s friend Bazille rented it for a painting of his own, and was willing to loan it to Monet. In fact, there is evidence to support Stephanie’s theory. In an 1866 letter to his mother, Bazille mentions a green satin dress that he had rented.

Wherever it came from, it was a dress that inspired a painting. In the novel, Claude whispers to Camille: “I could make an unforgettable picture of you in that dress.”

Claude Monet. Camille (1866). Kunsthalle Bremen, on loan to the Impressionism and Fashion  Exhibit in New York and Chicago.

Camille said yes to the dress. She added with a fur-trimmed jacket and empire hat, and posed as if she was heading out the door. Once again, she appeared to lack a corset, a sign of independence and modernity.

Stephanie Cowell’s book goes on to describe the days that Monet spent in his studio, painting Camille in the green dress, the attraction between them building each day. Claude and Camille would later marry over the strong objections of her parents. Camille died in 1879 at the age of 32.

The painting would become known as Camille, The Green Dress (1866). It was accepted at the 1866 Salon.

This painting did not appear in Paris, but it will travel to New York and Chicago as part of the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit, along with a real green tafetta dress from 1865, thanks to the costume collection of the Manchester Gallery of Art in England.

I can’t imagine a better book club pick than Claude and Camille, paired with a field trip to see the Impressionism and Fashion Exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay (September 25, 2012 – January 20, 2013), the Metropolitan Museum of New York (February 26- May 27, 2013) or the Art Institute of Chicago (June 26- September 22, 2013).

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity: Highly recommended

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell: Highly recommended