Camille Monet (1847–1879) in the Garden at Argenteuil, 1876
In June 1874 Monet signed a six-and-a-half-year lease on a newly built villa in Argenteuil almost next door to the property he had been renting from Mme Aubry on the boulevard Saint-Denis. This house, into which he and his family moved the following October, was the property of a carpenter, Alexandre-Adonis Flament (1838- 1893)—"my landlord from Argenteuil to whom I still owe more than I realize,” as Monet wrote almost ten years later—who was to become the first owner of Monet's monumental Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The Pavillon Flament appears in the final stages of construction in the background of Camille in the Garden with Jean and Hi Nurse, its roof still unfinished, and it is just visible in the upper left-hand corner of The Bench. This house and its gardens, in which Monet felt so much at home, provided the subject for seven of his paintings in 1875 and ten the following year, making it the single most important motif of Monet’s final years in Argenteuil.
Camille Monet in the Garden at the House in Argenteuil belongs to the group of paintings done in the summer of 1876, and may have been among those from June, when Monet was working on “a series of rather interesting new things." Camille is shown standing in a long summer's dress and hat next to two saplings and an imposing cluster of hollyhocks. The “maison rose a volets verts,” which Cézanne and Victor Chocquet had visited in February of that year; dissolves in the background under the intense sunlight of the summer's afternoon, its spacious lawn just visible to the right, a patch of lime green washed out by the sun. Monet's handling is at its most energized here. The paint is applied in flickering stabs of colour that establish a constantly vibrating surface in which nothing is at rest. Characteristic of his technique in the mid-seventies, no single element is particularized or given preference: Monet’s abbreviated and fleeting touch pulsates evenly over the entire canvas. The simultaneous contrast of green and red in the flower beds creates a rhythm that is continued into the peripheries: note the deft touches of red on Camille’s face and hat; the crimson lake that describes the upper branches of the tree; the touches of vermilion that pick out the top of the roof from under the leaves and emphasize the rose bricks of the house below the upper green shutter. Such proto-pointillist handling is again apparent in the treatment of the sky behind the mass of foliage in the upper left of the canvas: the sky literally penetrates through, with dabs of blue and white paint placed on top of the greens throughout the branches and leaves.
It is possible to reconstruct Monet's garden from the group of paintings done in 1875 and 1876, in order to locate each view specifically and to suggest, in turn, both the degree of control and selection in his vision. Monet's garden was a circular affair, with a pathway bordered on both sides by flowers and a large lawn in the middle. At the far end of the garden were planted clusters of striking ornamental flowers—hollyhocks to the southwest, gladioli to the southeast—and beyond them a patch of land thick with trees. In the various views he painted, Monet's garden appears by turns manicured and lush, domestic and savage. Indeed, the same site can assume strikingly different aspects. In a Garden with Hollyhocks (private collection, London), Monet posed Camille next to the same hollyhocks as in this painting, but now she faces in the opposite direction, looking up toward the house, lost in an overpowering, almost threatening, vegetation, with no reassuring signs of the suburban home at hand.
In Camille Monet in the Garden at the House in Argenteuil, it is Monet who is looking up from the far end of the garden, his back to the trees, the widening curve of the pathway disappearing off to the right of the canvas. As comparison with a twentieth-century photograph confirms, he took great care with the two-story house in the background, indicating the bright green shutters, the corbels on the roof and the shadows they cast, and the veranda in front of the house. Yet the expanse of garden is telescoped, Camille appears waiflike and diminutive beside the young trees, and the most insistent element by far in the entire composition is the group of hollyhocks surrounded by other flowers. It is this motif that offers a clue to the significance of the painting.
Monet's garden paintings at Argenteuil have most recently been interpreted as a retreat from the harsher realities of the town itself, a return to nature, part of the artists growing disaffection for modern life in the suburbs. More generally, what more appropriate subject for an Impressionist? —the effects of light, the array of colour, the motif observed and recorded in plein air. Yet, the bourgeois flower garden was neither natural nor eternal: it was a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the French garden, and one whose popularity among the well-to-do middle class can be documented to the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Until this time, the extensive private flower garden simply did not exist as a respectable and self-sufficient entity, but by the 1860s the situation had changed. Ernouf and Alphand’s LArt des jardins, first published in 1868, proclaimed that in recent years a revolution in gardens had taken place that was as momentous as André Lendtre’s introduction of the formal garden to seventeenth-century France, namely the appearance of the private garden with an abundance of flowers.
Thus, the flower garden of the Pavillon Flament—laid out, it may be presumed, by Monet himself—offers another aspect of the artists impeccably bourgeois aspirations, his search for comfort and respectability. In its own way, it, too, is a symbol of modernity and progress, and therefore shares something with the Gare Saint-Lazare that Monet would paint repetitively the following year. Furthermore, Monet’s garden at Argenteuil followed the latest fashion: his choice of curving pathways and a circular lawn was in keeping with the then-current preference for “les lignes et les surfaces courbes,” a reaction against symmetry that would be found excessive by the 1880s. Similarly, Monet's planting of large circular clusters (corbeilles) of high-standing flowers surrounded by flower beds of distinctive colour was another convention that became firmly established in the 1870s and would become orthodox by the following decade. The cluster of hollyhocks that towers over Camille represents the latest trend in garden design.
In light of this, it is clear that Monet’s garden paintings make reference both to fashion and modernity, and are less “natural” than they first appear. The contrast with the subjects Monet would paint in Paris the following year becomes less marked, the break between Argenteuil and Paris less dramatic. As Théodore Duret would observe in 1878, “Above all [Monet] is drawn towards nature when it is embellished and towards urban scenes; from preference he paints flowery gardens, parks and groves.
|Institution||The Metropolitan Museum of Art|
|Medium||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||81.6 x 60 cm|