When visiting the Sistine Chapel and beholding Michelangelo’s magnificent paintings, most people experience a sense of awe, and wonder about the history and symbolism of the images.
But for Ross King, the award-winning historical novelist and non-fiction writer, that experience was more immediate and personal. “I wondered how he judged things from the floor, how he built his scaffold, sometimes mundane things,” Ross said during his visit to Montreal in September to promote his latest book, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (Bond Street Books, 416 pages, $35.25)
“The key word is curiosity. I am incredibly curious about the past and how everything was done then. [The guide] would talk about iconography and meaning but never for one moment did we consider that it was done by a human being, 90 feet off the ground, when there was a war on. The backstory and personal history of the artist and historical circumstances make me appreciate the work even more.”
That kind of penetrating imagination fueled King’s previous works, including his first non-fiction book Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000), The Judgement of Paris (Governor General’s Award 2006) and Leonardo and the Last Supper (Governor General’s Award 2012).
In Mad Enchantment, Ross turns toward Monet and the last chapter of the artist’s life, which he dedicated mainly to completing the renowned paintings of his famous garden. “In the last 12 years, Monet became obsessed with his water lilies and the pond and plants. He painted almost nothing else for the rest of his life,” King said.
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Monet had discovered the town Giverny in 1883 and first rented, then bought a home where he remained even through the years of World War I when the fighting was so close you could hear the gunshots. The years before and during the war were marked by the death of his second wife Alice in 1911 and his eldest son Jean in 1914. He was also diagnosed with cataracts that could have potentially blinded him. But his artistic vision of the Water Lilies series — some 300 oil paintings — sustained him. “One instant, one aspect of nature contains it all,” Monet once said, describing his “Water Landscapes” depicting the surface of water. Already in 1897 he told a journalist about his idea of a circular room “in which the walls above the baseboard would be covered with paintings of water, dotted with these plants to the very horizon, walls of transparency by turns toned green and mauve, the still waters calm and silence reflecting the opened blossoms. The tones are vague, lovingly nuanced, as delicate as a dream.”
Ross brings the reader into Monet’s world without anything ringing false. His use of footnotes is worthy of a textbook, yet the work reads like a novel. “Footnotes maybe clutter up the text a little bit, but some people want to know where I got [my information] from. I want to prove I am not making any of this up. What I try to do is show that the real story can be more interesting than myths which hide things and sometimes do a disservice to the painters themselves.”
Monet’s artistic process was not without struggle. He destroyed much of his work.
It was said of Monet that he painted the colour of time, and Édouard Manet called him the “Raphael of water,” King said.
“Monet said the light changed every seven minutes and he wanted to show how objects were caught in a river of time. This is what drove him: he was chasing a dream, trying to do the impossible, to freeze time. He destroyed many canvases and found it incredibly difficult to paint the reflective surface of water. He really used it as a microcosm —
he would stare into the luminous abyss as he stood in front of the water lily pond.”
In 1918, Monet offered to donate the final panels of his series to the French State, as a monument of peace, but continued perfecting them until his death in 1926. Since 1927 they are on display in specially built rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.