Eighty-four years after his death, Claude Monet, one of the world's favourite Frenchmen, may finally leave his beloved village of Giverny and return to the centre of Paris. President Nicolas Sarkozy is considering whether to honour a promise made by his predecessor, and move the remains of the Impressionist painter to the Panthéon, the last resting place of France's official heroes.
The idea has been revived by the art critic and gallery owner, Guy Wildenstein, to coincide with a vast Monet exhibition that will take place at the Grand Palais in Paris from September this year to January 2011. This will be the largest Monet exhibition in France for 30 years, assembling over 200 paintings from museums and private collections all over the world.
In 1999, former President Chirac promised Mr Wildenstein's father, Daniel Wildenstein – the leading expert on Monet – that he would have the painter's remains moved to the Pantheon. The idea was dropped after the then-culture minister insisted Monet (1840-1926) should remain buried in Normandy in the village churchyard in Giverny, 60 miles west of Paris, close to his celebrated house and water lily garden.
Mr Wildenstein Jr, who owns a leading New York art gallery, has re-opened the issue in a letter to Mr Sarkozy. He points out that the Panthéon's claim to be the last resting place of the official Great and Good of France is undermined by one surprising omission: it contains no celebrated artist, and just one painter, the obscure neo-classicist Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), a favourite of Napoleon. "I don't want to denigrate (Vien's) talent but all the same," Mr Wildenstein said. "Monet was an artist of the greatest importance, who influenced an entire generation."
Mr Sarkozy was said yesterday to be studying the idea seriously. Late last year, he was accused of a form of political grave digging after he suggested that the body of the novelist Albert Camus should be moved into the Panthéon. Left-wing politicians accused the centre-right president of trying to snatch the body of one of their heroes. Literary critics complained that a spiritual rebel like Camus should not be placed among the official heroes of the French republic.
Proposing the removal of Claude Monet's remains to the Panthéon might help Mr Sarkozy to turn the page – or start a new canvas. Although Monet and his fellow Impressionists were rejected and lampooned by the French art establishment when they emerged in the early 1870s, they have long since been accepted as one of the greatest symbols of French creativity.
Only the President can officially propose a new Panthéon resident but even he has to win the approval of the candidate's family. In 1999, President Chirac gave a solemn promise to Daniel Wildenstein that he would have Monet's remains removed to the domed building on the Paris left-bank. Nothing happened before the older Mr Wildenstein, who spent 50 years drawing up the official catalogue of Monet's works, died in 2001.
The centre-right President Chirac was sharing power at the time with a Socialist-led government. The then culture minister, Catherine Trautmann, rejected the idea of moving Monet's body for artistic and sentimental reasons. In a reply to a parliamentary question in 1999, she wrote that Monet was "passionately attached to Giverny where he lived for many years and is buried beside his wife. Claude Monet was a man of the light and all who appreciate the joy and beauty given by this great artist would wish to see him left in peace in Giverny".