It is normally said that the Impressionist School of painting developed as a protest against the academic conventions of the day in France, and as a new means of self-expression. But a recently discovered conversation between Monet and Degas suggests things may not have been so simple.
Monet: Morning, Edgar.
Degas: Morning, Claude. What have you got there?
Monet: It's a lily.
Degas: Present for someone?
Monet: No, just taking it to the studio to paint. Doing a picture called Lilies in the Garden.
Degas: So why don't you paint it in the garden?
Monet: Too freezing cold, mon vieux.
Degas: Hmm. Good job you aren't English, that's all I can say.
Monet: Well, I agree, but what makes you say that?
Degas: If you go down the street in England carrying a lily, they put you in prison.
Monet: Is that a satirical reference to poor old Oscar Wilde?
Degas: That was the intention.
Monet: Oh, very topical. Not very funny, but very topical.
Degas: Thanks a million. Incidentally, what's that under your other arm?
Monet: That? Oh, that's an Impressionist painting.
Degas: And what might that be when it's at home?
Monet: It's something I've invented recently. Want to see?
Degas: Try me.
Monet: There! What do you think?
Degas: Blimey! It's sort of... blurry, isn't it?
Monet: Yes. That's the idea.
Degas: What's it meant to be, if you don't mind me asking?
Monet: High tide at Honfleur.
Degas: You could have fooled me.
Monet: Maybe it's low tide at Honfleur. I'm not much of a sailor.
Degas: But it is Honfleur?
Monet: Oh, yes! Or maybe it's Deauville.
Degas: Hmm... What's it for?
Monet: Well, you just write on the back ''Thanks for a lovely dinner – we must have you round to us as soon as is humanly possible, and as soon as Julian's crazy workload eases off a bit!'' and then you send it off to the people you had dinner with.
Degas: I beg your pardon?
Monet: You write on the back "Thanks for a lovely dinner – we must have you round to us..."
Degas: Yes, I heard that. It's just that... well, it's a bit big to send round to someone's house after a dinner party as a thank you note, isn't it? And somewhat expensive to send a whole painting?
Monet: Sure. This is the clever thing. You don't send the painting. You send a photograph of the painting!
Degas: Hold on, hold on, let me get this straight. You take a photo of the painting and write on the back "Thanks for the lovely dinner..." and send it round?
Monet: That's it.
Degas: I don't believe it.
Monet: We've done the research. There's a vast market for tiny photographic reproductions of big paintings which people can use to send each other thanks for dinner parties.
Degas: You're joking!
Monet: I kid you not.
Degas: If you say so, Claude.
Monet: Here's another thing. A lot of these Impressionist paintings actually look better when reduced to the size of a postcard. That's why they are so blurry. Look, go over there and have a look from 20 metres away at my high tide at Honfleur...
Degas (shouting): You're right! All those blurry blots of paint actually look like little boats from here! Not much, but a bit...
Monet: Well, they'll look better on postcards, too.
Degas (returning): So people will be able to buy photos of the painting without owning the painting?
Monet: Without even seeing it. I don't suppose more than one in a million will ever come face to face with the original painting. They will just send each other postcards of a painting they have never seen. And the reproduction rights will make us a fortune!
Degas: Hmm... I think you're on to something, Claude. Mind if I jump on the bandwagon?
Monet: Plenty of room on board, old chap. Just one hint, though. Make the paintings wider than they're long – landscape, not portrait. Market research shows that people don't like buying upright postcards so much.
Degas: Right-ho. Thanks for the tip... You'd better hurry. That lily's wilting.
Monet: You're right. A bientot.
Degas: Hasta la vista.
Authentic copies of this early Impressionist conversation are available from me. Just send me your name, address and a blank cheque.