Claude & Camille: A Review

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?


1391. These are very desirable for the household, because the inmates are made happier by refined and ingenious arts and pursuits, and are fitted to improve the taste of others.

If you haven’t heard, a wonderful new novel came out on April 7th, Stephanie Cowell‘s Claude and Camille, a novel about Claude Monet as a young, struggling artist and his muse, Camille Doncieux.  Two people drawn from different worlds, his of Le Havre and his father’s nautical supply shop and hers of upper class aspirations, they come together at the unfolding art movement later called Impressionist.  She will become his model and his muse, enduring evictions, family disapproval and poverty.  She will bear him two sons.

Their first encounter is seen through Claude’s eyes:

“… sitting on his box near the ticket windows in the great Gare Saint-Lazare … he had sketched the tobacco and new-journal kiosk.  When he looked up to catch the shadows of the stacked news journals, three women stood there, one older and the other two likely her daughters, both still in their adolescence. The younger yet taller girl was weeping beneath her blue hat veil… (S)he gazed about, her lovely, long desperate face wistful as if she hoped someone would rescue her.  He turned the page and surreptitiously sketched her.”

He wouldn’t see her again until four years later.  By then, his circle of friends encompassed Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet, struggling artists all, attempting to get their art into the annual State Salon at the Palais de L’Industrie.  After one failed submission, Monet paints her in a lovely green and black promenade dress.  It is accepted and their attachment grows.

The lives of these two people are central to Claude and Camille. Their love is both illuminating and tragic, but Cowell brings something more to their little known story: an effortless attention to detail that draws the reader to a world long gone.  Her descriptions of Monet’s boyhood town, Le Havre, and the pull of nature into his work at an early age as he goes out with his mentor Eugène Boudin to paint; his father’s nautical shop and the cluttered studios in Paris he shared with his friends, mirrored companions in some way.  Everyone seems to be pulling away from old France into something new that the 1860s are offering.  Stephanie paints Paris at this time with its cafés and theater, a bustling artist scene, but she also brings to life the confusion of the 1870s when Paris is under attack during the Franco-Prussian War.  The gardens at Argenteuil hint at Giverny.  Drawing through it all are the interludes of an older Monet as he readied his lily pads paintings for an exhibition and the development of his paintings of his “Minou” as a younger man.

When I was girl, my parents took to me to the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh. I believe that was the first time I had actually seen a real Monet painting. Many years later, I saw them in Paris, one of the lily pad paintings in a room of its own. But I never knew the story of Camille Doncieux.

Claude and Camille is a wonderful read. I will never look at Monet’s paintings of her the same way ever again.

4 thoughts on “Claude & Camille: A Review

  1. Janet — Enticing review for CLAUDE & CAMILLE. Look forward to your interview with Stephanie tomorrow. In her praise, you cite her “effortless attention to detail” — and I wonder if she’d agree! Her work sounds very carefully detailed, for an effortlessly fascinating read! Look forward to more.

  2. This does sound quite fascinating! It’s a testament to the author’s hard work and skill that the details and writing seem effortless. We, as writers, know about that!

    Good review, Janet.

  3. Great review and interview, Janet. I am off to buy the book. And thanks to Heidi for sending email to alert.

    Janet, I hope you will have time to review my upcoming book “The Legacy of Ida Lillbroända: Finnish Emigrant to America 1893” to be released 22 September 2010. Sun thoughts,

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