Profile: Claude Monet - The soul of suburbia raised to great art

Martin Gayford on the genius who was always a crowd-pleaser

OF ALL THE artists who have ever lived, is Oscar-Claude Monet now the most popular? There are signs that he is. The last big Monet show at the Royal Academy - "Monet in the Nineties" at the beginning of the decade - still holds the all-time attendance record for a London exhibition, with over 600,000 visitors. However, "Monet In The 20th Century", which opened yesterday, may exceed that. Even the private views for Friends of the RA drew queues that snaked out of the Burlington House forecourt and down Piccadilly.

Meanwhile, Monet's house and garden in Giverny are now among the world's most powerful tourist magnets. At any even slightly floral season of the year, visitors are obliged to form lines in order to inspect each bed of irises, or to take photographs at attractive angles of the water-lily pond. Every few minutes, a tour bus arrives from Paris. In France, only Versailles pulls more people. But the Rough Guide - speaking for today's travelling punter - advises that most will find this unassuming private house and medium-sized garden more rewarding than the palace of the Kings of France. It is a remarkable posthumous triumph - all the more so for an artist reputedly reviled by the critics and half-starved for lack of patronage during much of his career.

Or at least so we have been led to believe by what might be termed the black legend of Impressionism. It has been widely assumed - by art historians, as well as the general public - that the Impressionists, with Monet prominent among them, were fiercely rejected by the smugly conventional taste of the times, and as a result spent much of their lives starving in garrets or rural hovels. Monet's correspondence, rich in complaints of various kinds, certainly lends colour to that idea - he has not enough money to buy materials or support his family, he is in despair, he cannot work. But Monet's kvetching should be taken with a pinch of salt, on this and other matters.

In fact, he was recognised as an exceptional talent pretty well from the start. He was born in 1840 into a prosperous, bourgeois family which traded in ship's supplies in Le Havre. Although his father may not have been delighted by young Claude deciding to become an artist, Monet senior seems to have been more displeased when, in traditional bohemian style, his son turned up with a mistress. Already, in his teens, Monet was producing remarkably accomplished landscapes and caricatures. His work was accepted by the Salon when he was in his mid-twenties, which was good going for a young painter. By the time he was living in Argenteuil in the 1870s - his thirties - he was earning annually considerably more than the average Parisian doctor or lawyer. If he was sometimes short of cash, it was because he liked to live in big houses, eat good food and drink good wine.

Later on he was far more affluent, partly because of the high prices his work commanded, partly because - not what you might expect of a misty, nature-loving Impressionist, this - he played the stock exchange. The gardens at Giverny - though not as big as those at Versailles - cost vast sums to lay out. When he came to London with his second wife, Alice, in 1899 they took a large suite at the Savoy for six weeks. If Monet talked a lot about money, it was, in the words of the biographer Virginia Spate, because he was "obsessed by it, chronically mean but a huge spender, and even when he was very rich, irrationally fearful of losing everything".

Similarly, he was not rejected by the purblind critics. Certainly, he got some bad reviews - one writer famously compared his "Impression, Sunrise", shown at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, to "wallpaper in an embryonic state". But more comment was positive than negative, and there was plenty of it: some 50 newspaper pieces, a level of attention that many artists would envy today. By the end of his long life in 1926 he was a national figure and close friend of Georges Clemenceau, former president of France.

There is reason to suppose that Monet himself was instrumental in creating what today we would call his image. He is one of the first artists whose literary remains contain a substantial number of press interviews. Even at that first Impressionist show, Monet distinguished himself by gaining entry to the galleries in advance, and painting a view from one of the windows - the Boulevard des Capucines - which could then be compared by visitors with reality, a clear case of a publicity stunt. Were he alive today he would doubtless be delighted by all the hoopla surrounding his exhibition - Giverny shoulder-bags and cuddly stuffed lily-pond frogs included - and a willing subject of South Bank Show specials and colour magazine interviews. In truth, Monet was an example of a phenomenon later much more common - the avant-garde artist who cleverly handles his career and ends up far ahead of his more conventional colleagues in fame and wealth.

If there is a sour note in the chorus that greeted Monet's work, it comes as much from fellow artists as from hostile critics. He was generally recognised and revered as one of the major figures in Impressionism, no question about that. But Cezanne notoriously remarked, "Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!", which is a double-edged kind of compliment. Degas put the same point in a more feline manner. Personally, he said, with regard to Monet's approach, he "did not feel the need to lose consciousness in front of nature". There is a suggestion here that Monet's painting is all very well in its way but a shade, well, unintellectual. That was a common view in the decades after his death, in which he went out of fashion. It is a line that is still heard today. Monet's vast popularity, this criticism argues, owes a lot to the fact that his art was fundamentally bland, pretty, but unchallenging. How much truth is there in that?

It is true that Monet is, par excellence, the visual poet of suburbia - and thus appeals greatly to suburban people, which these days means just about all of us. He was one of the first to discover beauty and interest in a landscape marked by modern life. Consequently, when we see a river dotted with weekend yachts, strollers on the towpath, railway bridge in the distance, Monet's is the name that comes to mind. Part of the attraction of Giverny is that it is an attainable idyll - medium-sized, self-contained, unwelcome intrusions foiled by enfolding vegetation. It is the suburban garden raised to a higher power.

In Monet's later works, human beings disappear, which helps to give them that joyful, soothing quality, that sense of merging with nature (probably what Degas objected to). But Monet himself perhaps was not that interested in people. Though he could be a warm and encouraging friend, many found him elusive and remote. He lived at Giverny, surrounded by his family, the ideal bearded pater familias, but he could be a patriarch in a less amiable fashion. When work was not going well, as it frequently didn't, everyone trembled at his rages.

As his first wife, Camille, lay on her death bed, he took out pigments and canvas and painted her. Was that an act of grieving, or evidence of strange detachment? Opinions are divided. Monet's private life was a little odd. While Camille was suffering her final illness, he moved his second wife to be, Alice Hoschede, her husband, and their six children into his house, to form with the Monet family and servants, what another biographer, Paul Hayes Tucker, has called a "strange menage a douze".

Possibly, when it came down to it, it was constantly shifting flux of light and atmosphere, what he called the enveloppe, which excited him more than his fellow man. And it was the difficulty of pinning down this torturingly difficult quarry in paint that drove him to exasperated rage. He was eaten away by self-doubt and despondency - another theme of his letters. "I realise how factitious," he wrote to his dealer in 1912, "the unmerited success is that has been accorded me. I always hope to arrive at something better, but age and troubles have exhausted my strength." This from an artist who - as one can see in the current exhibition - was about to enter a phase of bold and radical experimentation that in some ways anticipates the abstract painting of the 1940s and 1950s.

Monet's doubts were unfounded, as are the carpings of his detractors (although he did, of course, like most major artists, paint many a dud). He was able to transform the most casual aspects of everyday life into paintings of miraculous beauty. His art developed, bravely and steadily, from a position not far from Corot to one not much short of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He deserves his popularity. He is one of the great painters of all time. The only difficulty will be getting into Burlington House to see the evidence.

Tim Hilton, Culture, page 10

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