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Reconstructing Monet’s private collection

22 November 2017

In February 1966, on his way to Giverny to lay flowers at the family tomb, the 87-year-old Michel Monet was involved in a car crash and died from his injuries. The only surviving son of Claude Monet, with no children of his own, he left what remained of his father’s artistic legacy to the Musée Marmottan, endowing the private museum on the outskirts of Paris with the world’s leading collection of works by Monet.

Alongside paintings from the artist’s studio, the bequest included what was left of Monet’s art collection. In the 40 years since his father’s death, Michel had used paintings as capital to fund his expensive tastes in foreign travel, disposing of over 300 works. The private nature of most of these transactions, coupled with the destruction in the Second World War of Bernheim-Jeune’s inventory of the paintings Monet left at Giverny, makes it doubly difficult to reconstruct the collection as it was in the artist’s lifetime. Yet that is what the Musée Marmottan’s ambitious new exhibition sets out to do.

The show’s curators Marianne Mathieu and Dominique Lobstein estimate that Monet owned 120 works by other artists, excluding the Japanese prints decorating the first-floor reception rooms at Giverny. The rest of his collection was more personal and only shown to privileged visitors taken upstairs. ‘You are surprised to see in my house only my painting and my Japanese prints?’, the master would tease inquisitive guests. ‘I am an egotist. My collection is for myself alone…and for a handful of friends. I keep them in my bedroom, around my bed.’

Le Clocher de Sainte-Catherine, Honfleur

Le Clocher de Sainte-Catherine, Honfleur (c. 1897), Eugène Boudin. Musée Eugène Boudin, Honfleur. © Henri Brauner

So what would those admitted to this sanctuary have seen? By diligent detective work, Mathieu and Lobstein have retraced paintings dispersed to international collections and reunited them with the Marmottan’s own holdings to recreate the Giverny visitor experience. The difference is that the 100-odd works in the exhibition are not hung higgledy-piggledy on a bedroom wall but arranged methodically by theme and artist.

Monet’s acquisitive instinct manifested early. As a teenager in Le Havre he persuaded his aunt, an amateur painter, to give him a painting of grape-pickers at twilight that he had spotted in her studio; on cleaning the canvas he found Daubigny’s signature. ‘I was overjoyed to have discovered all on my own a canvas by a master,’ he boasted years later. ‘It was a certificate for my eye.’ During his bachelor years in Paris, the certificate was cashed in to pay for a night out; a similar fate may have befallen the pochade sketch he begged his former master Eugène Boudin to give him in 1860 ‘by way of a souvenir, and as advice’. The breezy Normandy views by Boudin in this exhibition were probably purchases, as were three small paintings by his other teacher, Johan Barthold Jongkind. Monet was drawn to predecessors he could learn from: one of two exquisite watercolours of the Normandy coast by Eugène Delacroix includes a favourite motif, Cliffs of Etretat, The Pied du Cheval (1838).

Monet’s early acquisitions were mainly gifts, many of them portraits: an unlikely image of the 20-year-old artist by Charles-Marie Lhuillier shows him in the undress uniform of the First Regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique before his posting to Algeria in 1861. In the 1870s, after Monet’s move to Argenteuil, Pierre Renoir used his friend’s new family for portrait practice: an impromptu oil sketch of Mme Monet and her son Jean in the garden at Argenteuil (1874) was painted with Monet’s borrowed palette and brushes. In the same year, a double portrait of Claude and Camille under the canopy of Monet’s studio boat was begun by Manet but left tantalisingly unfinished.

Paysannes plantant des rames

Paysannes plantant des rames (1891), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). Museums Sheffield

As well as gifts, there were swaps with fellow artists: after a joint exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1889, Rodin presented Monet with a bronze of Young Mother in a Grotto (1886) and Monet reciprocated with a seascape of Belle-Île (1886). There was an exchange with Berthe Morisot: Monet painted The Villas at Bordighera (1884) as a decoration for her new house; she gave him The Bath (1886) in 1891; he returned the favour in 1892 by paying an artist’s record of 1,500 francs to her dealers Boussod and Valadon for The Bowl of Milk (1890). In the same year, he struck a deal with Mme Pissarro for her husband’s Peasants Planting Pea Sticks (1891); Pissarro had given it to his wife but Monet persuaded her to part with it after lending the couple 15,000 francs to buy their house at Éragny.

Occasionally he traded paintings with dealers. He picked up his first Cézanne, the sunny Picnic on a Riverbank (1873–74), from Père Martin when the colour merchant was short of cash to pay for a canvas, so threw in the Cézanne for 50 francs. Monet would acquire 13 more works by Cézanne, the best represented artist in his collection alongside Renoir. Melting Snow at Fontainebleau (1879– 80) is an uncharacteristic subject more typical of Monet’s own repertoire, but he also acquired a fine example of male Bathers (c. 1890–92) and the stupendous early work, The Negro Scipio (c. 1867). Although primarily a painter of landscape, Monet admired good solid figure painting and he also showed a fondness for Renoir nudes, of which three luscious examples are in the show. But his most expensive Renoir purchase was The Mosque: Arab Festival (1881), for which he grumblingly stumped up 10,000 francs to Paul Durand Ruel in 1900. Perhaps it reminded him of his military service.

Le Nègre Scipion

Le Nègre Scipion (c. 1867), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand. © João Musa

He refrained from splurging large sums on the emerging artists he began supporting in the 1900s. A pearly watercolour of Venice by his young devotee Paul Signac – one of several Signac watercolours in his collection – cost him 250 francs from Josse and Gaston Bernheim in 1909. What’s interesting is that even when he knew the artists he nearly always bought through dealers; as a struggling artist in his youth he had learned the value of the artist-dealer relationship. But that doesn’t explain why he never bought at auction, preferring to pay what were often exorbitant mark-ups. Perhaps the ‘egotist’ in him wanted privacy at any price.

‘Monet Collector’ is at the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, until 14 January 2018.

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