Cowell beautifully recreates the tortured life of French Impressionist Claude Monet, emphasizing the early years with his muse and lover, Camille Doncieux. A member of a fraternity of struggling artists who embrace a new vision, this group of friends consists of many names now familiar to art lovers: Degas, Pissarro, Edouard Manet, Cezanne, Frederic Bazille.
Bound together by their shared passion for a technique that is consistently rejected by the Palais de l’Institute Paris Salon, this band of brothers exists in poverty and squalor, desiring only to paint, supporting one another to the exclusion of all else. Monet’s father, a ship’s chandler, hopes his son will join him in the family business, but Claude is unable to resist the siren call of paint and canvas.
Once he has set eyes upon the beautiful Camille, art and obsession meld, inextricable. Against the opposition of her parents and sister, Camille leaves the security of a wealthy family to throw her lot in with Claude, enduring his hardships and disappointments, unwilling to leave his side. Theirs is a haunting passion, in spite of the daunting circumstances under which Monet paints his vision.
Cowell focuses on Monet’s obsession with Camille, his need to render her image on canvas and inability to let her go even when the sacrifices of his work leave them in dire straits, which over the years are quite extreme. Moving house as finances and opportunity dictate, Monet and Camille spend many years in Paris or the country, Claude never able to keep pace with his debts, his small successes fleeting until his later years.
The passion between artist and muse is fused in their daily struggles, their children, and deep friendships with other struggling Impressionists, virtually inexhaustible - and emotionally exhausting - often flawed as Claude is driven by his. In spite of absences and recriminations, Camille bears two children, and the couple eventually marries before Monet loses his muse.
Cowell’s gift is in entering the mindscape of the artist, his love of light and color and his inability to turn to the practical, even when survival depends upon it: the hallmark of a true genius. Claude and his fellow Impressionists are sorely tested by poverty, a lack of recognition and a war with Prussia. Claude’s longtime friendship with Frederic Bazille defines the complexities of the artist’s life, hardships made bearable by a true and generous friend. Even when their loyalty is tested, Frederic’s importance in Claude’s struggle is significant.
It is hard to imagine the difficulty of such an existence, or the euphoria of setting brush to canvas, capturing the light and movement of these extraordinary paintings. Cowell ushers her reader into this rarified world, the glory, frustrations, bitter disappointments, unabated struggles, the absolute despair of having your work continually criticized and rejected. For all his failings, Monet comes vividly to life on these pages, the agony of his journey, the truth of his vision and the love that sustains him.
From the yearly days in Paris, the seduction of Camille, the long friendship with Bazille and the loss of that relationship, the panic of war and the grinding poverty of everyday existence, Monet is a symbol of the great artist, a man unable to ignore his gifts or the woman who torments him with her beauty, a life of creativity and despair, the flame of genius.