Arts: Monsieur Monet, Jr

Jean-Marie Toulgouat grew up surrounded by his great-grandfather's work. Now he too is a painter. But does the influence run any deeper?
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The Independent Culture
Jean-Marie Toulgouat grew up in one of the most famous gardens in the world. Even those who have never heard of Giverny know the dramatic paintings of water-lilies and the Japanese bridge by Toulgouat's great-grandfather - Claude Monet.

As a child, Toulgouat ran through the walkways which thousands have already booked to survey in canvas form at the Royal Academy in London. He cycled from the lily pond to the house where Monet painted, not far from the one where Toulgouat was born. The scenes which the great Impressionist captured in shimmering greens and purples were the surroundings of his youth.

"It was a very nice place as a boy," Toulgouat, now 71, recalls fondly. Then, Giverny was a village with some 15 farms where the farmers' sons were Toulgouat's playmates, even as he lived surrounded by works by some of the greatest Impressionist painters - Monet himself (actually the young boy's step great-grandfather), Manet, Cezanne.

Now the farms have gone, transport links have diminished the 50-mile distance to Paris ("It's a little bit too close now," he says) and 400,000 people a year pay pilgrimage to see the "original" garden laid down by Monet, then immortalised by him. "Monet created a world," Toulgouat says.

Monet's garden was itself like a canvas. Supported by a staff of six, he cultivated four acres, bringing plants and flowers from as far afield as Japan to create the rich textures and swathes of colour which typify his late paintings. He kept his famous water-lilies safe in greenhouses over the winter.

These images stayed with Toulgouat into adulthood and, in the Sixties, helped provide detail to the restoration of the gardens, which had fallen into disrepair. An uncle who was a botanist pinpointed plant species, recreating as much of Monet's vision as possible. "The restoration is not bad although it's difficult for a garden to be exactly the same. It's an evolution," he says.

Touring the RA exhibition, he surveys with evident pride and affection the 80 works on show, the majority of which were not shown in Monet's lifetime, some of which have not been seen before.

Three hundred or more were left in his studios in Giverny when he died in 1926, the year before Toulgouat was born. "I played around all these works," he smiles. "It was when I was eight, nine, 10 that I think I began to be impressed by them because I was beginning to understand how difficult it was to paint. It is very important work."

Yet Jean-Marie Toulgouat points out that despite Monet's huge international following today, "nobody" was interested in his late dramatic flowerings for a long time. They were not acclaimed, he says, as earlier works had been. But eventually, two groups of people began to pay attention - the Americans and the Japanese. "Not the French, not the British," he notes.

It is curious listening to Toulgouat speak. He has been so close to Monet all his life you almost forget they never met. He speaks of a man who did not discuss art with his family, apart from his second wife, Alice Hoschede (Toulgouat's great-grandmother). He would say hello to friends in Giverny, but never to those who simply recognised the great artist in the street. When he stayed at the Savoy Hotel in London, painting the scenes now on show at the RA, he loved roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Though his English was not as fluent as his great-grandson's, Monet understood a great deal and loved the theatre.

When Toulgouat first picked up a paintbrush at around the age of seven, even his palette was the same as Monet's because he was guided by his great-aunt Blanche, Monet's step-daughter, who was the only person ever to accompany the master on his painting excursions. "You have to take these kind of colours," she would tell Toulgouat. During the Second World War, when materials were hard to come by, she even gave the younger artist some of Monet's last tubes of paint.

Their works, however, are quite different. Only in scenes of trees is there any similarity, according to Francis Kyle, the London dealer who has shown Toulgouat for the last 15 years. Yet both are more popular in Britain than in their native country. With the crowds queueing in London's Piccadilly, Toulgouat notes sadly that the Monet exhibition will not be seen in France.

Jean-Marie Toulgouat at Francis Kyle gallery, London, from 24 May