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Camille Monet (1847–1879) on a Garden Bench, 1873

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Artist Monet, Oscar-Claude

Toward the end of December 1871, Monet , his wife Camille  Doncieux (1847-1879), and their four-and-a-half-year-old son Jean left Paris for the neighbouring suburb of Argenteuil, where they would live for the next seven years. For the substantial sum of one thousand francs per annum, they rented a large villa for three years on the boulevard Saint-Denis (fig. 73) from Emilie-Jeanne Aubry, to whom Manet had recommended them.' Monet remembered immediately removing the screens from the windows of the large atelier at the Maison Aubry—the previous tenant, the realist painter Théodule Ribot (1823-1891), had converted this room into an “obscure dungeon”—and he recalled with delight the view from the windows that looked onto the Seine. Yet, of all the vistas, it was the view of the extensive garden, some two thousand square meters in size, that appealed particularly to him, and he would paint it from a variety of aspects during the three years he and his family remained in this house.

In The Bench, the garden is at its most formal and orderly. Walled in on two sides, with geraniums planted in a neatly trimmed border, the garden becomes the setting for one of Monet’s rare plein-air figure paintings. Camille Monet, elegantly attired and seated on a garden bench, leans forward with her elbow resting on her lap. She appears to turn toward an unexpected observer, and holds a letter in her gloved hand. Discarded to her left is a bouquet of flowers, presumably offered by the man who leans languidly against the bench and gazes down at her, his eyes crinkled by a smile hidden beneath his beard. The identity of this gentleman caller has caused endless speculation; Monet, in old age, remembered him simply as a neighbour from Argenteuil.

Monet recorded the afternoon light in spectacular intensity. The geraniums and the featureless woman to the left are portrayed in direct sunlight, and the vibrancy of the background is maintained through the optical mixture of reds and greens. The colours darken somewhat on the right, where the shrubbery is shaded by the over-hanging tree. By contrast, the figures in the foreground are in shade, but so bright is the afternoon sky that they are practically modelled in blue. The slats of the green bench reflect the full force of the afternoon sky and are painted sky blue; the grey trousers of the smiling visitor are edged with a stripe of the same hue, as is the upper part of his hand. The bridge of the man’s nose is described in blue grey, as is Camille's. Her hair, peeking out from under her little hat, is painted blue black.
Never before had Monet translated his observations of the way sunlight models form with such precision. In this highly analytical painting, he explored how the effects of both filtered and direct light modify and, in some instances, eliminate local colour. In achieving this, he experimented with a register of hues so heightened that it allowed him no extension.

Monet's handling of paint is similarly audacious and assured. Rich, unmediated colour is applied in swift dabs and strokes, and his technique is succinct: only in the mound of geraniums did he create surface by using successive layers of paint. The cream ground, visible in patches under Camille's dress and in the lower section of the bench to her left, has no pictorial function here; it is not yet employed to suggest space or structure. The artist tackled a variety of forms with impressive confidence: his vocabulary changed from the tight, concentrated dabs of colour on the flora in the background to the quickly brushed sweeps of blue grey and black on the costumes of the figures in front. The bouquet of flowers was painted wet on wet with no revision; the ribs of the bench still bear the marks of the brush swiftly trailing across the canvas. Yet, if the flounce of Camille’s crinolines and the kaleidoscope of geraniums are bravura effects, Monet's touch became suddenly tender and feathery in the painting of her face and hat: Camille’s features are enlivened by the most delicate hatching strokes of pink, blue, and red.

However, the boldness and economy of Monet’ language cannot disguise an inarticulateness that is at the very core of this composition. For all its solidity of form—the unhesitating touch, the joyous colour, the monumentality of the central figure—The Bench remains one of the most enigmatic and disconcerting works in Monet'soeuvre. The use of language is masterful; but what is Monet trying to say?

Certainly the genre itself was not new to him. Monet's ambitious decoration inspired by Manet’ painting of the same title, Le Déjeunersur Uherbe (Musée @Orsay, Paris), in which Courbet had appeared, had been painted eight years earlier. The lush depiction of a family garden had provided the subject for such great works as Terrace at Sainte-Adresse, 1867 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Jeanne-Marguerite in the Garden, 1868 (The Hermitage, Saint-Petersburg). With these paintings in mind, Zola had praised this strain in Monet's work as the richest and most promising: “Like a true Parisian, he brings Paris to the country and is incapable of painting  landscape without including well-dressed men and women. He loses interest in nature once it no longer bears the mark of everyday life.” Although Zola’s insight dates from 1868, and would become less relevant for Monet's work as it developed after the mid-1870s, it serves nonetheless as a starting point for discussion of The Bench. For what distinguishes this painting from Monet’ earlier figure paintings of the 1860s is a transformation in milieu. Monet is no longer the artist who brings Paris to the countryside: he brings Paris to the suburbs.” By the 1870s, Argenteuil—with its regattas, bicycle races, and fifteen-minute train journey from the Gare de 'Quest—was not merely the capital of Parisian recreation. It was being colonized by members of the Parisian middle classes, who established both primary and secondary residences there, much to the annoyance of older inhabitants, who complained of large amounts of land being sold off to build “bourgeois houses with stylish gardens surrounded by walls and closed off on their facades by iron gates." The Maison Aubry, enclosed in its spacious grounds, was such a property. It is the house on the far left in Monet's painting of the boulevard Saint-Denis. Although Monet was only a tenant, and frequently
late with his rent, his allegiances were to this Parisian world, and his aspirations were impeccably bourgeois. So respectable and manicured is the garden in The Bench, so far removed from the wind-swept, untidy corner of the same garden Monet painted again. The same year, that it seems legitimate to question Monet's naturalism here. The discomfort and malaise of his two figures only reinforce the tension that pervades this highly coloured scene.

This sense of deep unease has frequently been explained in simple biographical terms. Argenteuil, the argument runs, provided Monet with an escape, a retreat, from the rigors of city life, allowing him a “personal dialogue with nature.” Yet this newly found harmony of existence was undermined by the emptiness and boredom of his marriage and by the isolation and alienation he experienced as an effect of burgeoning industrialization and urban development. Thus interpreted, The Bench communicates the marital tensions Monet and Camille experienced; but it has also been read as an essay on courtship.” Alternatively, it represents amorous flirtation," and yet another interpretation sees the smiling, rather sinister man as Monet's “smug proprietor”.

This sense of deep unease has frequently been explained in simple biographical terms. Argenteuil, the argument runs, provided Monet with an escape, a retreat, from the rigors of city life, allowing him a “personal dialogue with nature.” Yet this newly found harmony of existence was undermined by the emptiness and boredom of his marriage and by the isolation and alienation he experienced as an effect of burgeoning industrialization and urban development. Thus interpreted, The Bench communicates the marital tensions Monet and Camille experienced; but it has also been read as an essay on courtship.” Alternatively, it represents amorous flirtation," and yet another interpretation sees the smiling, rather sinister man as Monet's “smug proprietor"

One of the more suggestive biographical readings has attempted to relate The Bench to a firmly documented event: the death of Camille's father, Charles-Claude Doncieux. Writing to Pissarro on September 23, 1873, Monet informed him: “A piece of bad news awaited my wife on her return from Pontoise: her father died yesterday. Of course, we are obliged to go into mourning.” Thus, Camille is portrayed in The Bench wearing mourning dress; her somber expression is explained by her grief; and the mysterious visitor either offers condolences (in the form of a bouquet) or may be seen as a symbol of death itself.

Joel Isaacson also sought a clue to The Bench’s ambiguous narrative by examining its pendant, the striking Camille in the Garden with Jean  and His Nurse, in which Camille confronts the spectator with a gaze that is almost insolent. There, he argued, Camille was dressed in half mourning, in a costume appropriate for the second half of the year of mourning prescribed for a daughter, and on the strength of this he proposed a date of around June 1874 for both paintings. Not only does this argument overlook the evidence of the signature on Camille in the Garden with Jean and His  Nurse—which is signed and dated 1873—but it fails to acknowledge the byzantine customs of mourning dress in France. Nineteenth-century mourning dress was not a specific costume, for which one could locate designated prototypes. Rather, it was a reordering of the wardrobe to stress certain elements and to display as much black as possible. In a suburban town such as Argenteuil, the wearing of elaborate mourning dress would communicate not only bereavement but status, and servants would be expected to wear attire of a similar nature. If Monet did indeed paint Camille in mourning dress in The Bench, this would be consistent with the other elements of bourgeois existence that are emphasized here: the well-tended walled garden, the black frock coat and top hat, the fashionable crinolines.

It is, however, impossible to prove that The Bench is a testament to Camilles mourning, although it is intriguing that Camille is also shown in a black dress in Monet’ celebrated Poppies at Argenteuil (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), purchased by Durand-Ruel in December 1873, and possibly painted while she was in mourning. It is also clear that a strictly biographical reading diminishes the painting and fails to explain the uncertainty and agitation that create its singular mood. Even so, Isaacson’s discussion focuses attention on the major issues—costume and narrative—and it is here that some key to the painting's meaning might be discovered.

Elegant Parisians enjoying the pleasures of the country: even if the realities of Argenteuil intervened to complicate this bucolic image, the theme itself was not new in nineteenth-century art. Yet it had rarely been confronted with any seriousness. Daumier’s lithographs of the 1850s had ridiculed overdressed Parisians sweltering in unshaded fields, portraying them as intrepid explorers venturing forth into uncharted terrain. By the 1860s, the journalist Eugene Chapus observed: “Everyone in the middle class wants to have his little house with trees, roses, dahlias, his big or little garden, his rural argentea mediocritas”. Daumier’s amusing squibs attacked this pretension with like scorn, and thus the subject of The Bench was introduced, a generation earlier, on the pages of the illustrated ournal. But where Daumier satirized, Monet equivocated. Camilles wide-eyed and troubled expression—but one that is ultimately meaningless, given the problems of narrative—recalls the staring mannequins of the fashion plate, a source of popular imagery with a more elegant resonance than the mocking lithographs in Le Charivari Indeed, she and her companion might have been modelling their ostumes for the latest edition of La Mode Illustrée, in which the garden setting with bench was a favourite motif. For Monet, the fashion plate takes the place of the old master print: in the development of this figure painting, La Mode Illustrée has a function similar to Marcantonio Raimondi’s Judgment of Paris in the creation of Manet’s Déjeuner sur Uherbe.

Monet does not acknowledge the gulf between the ephemeral publications of Paris fashion and the exalted genre of narrative painting. He takes fashion very seriously, not as Baudelaire’s fléneur —detached and objective—but as consumer. In The Bench, the costume Camille wears is very much a la mode. Her toque is trimmed with lace and flowers, a ribbon hanging from behind. Her hands are gloved; she wears an overskirt, trimmed with velvet, above a more  fully tiered and layered  underskirt, and a jacket with oversized cuffs of velvet. This up-to-date ensemble (the dress can be dated c. March 1873) is very close to the spring costume advertised in La Mode Ilustrée and described as “a dress of velvet and damask, in olive green, with a pleated, flounced skirt, the tunic made of damask and similar in colour to the velvet.” Yet, the transition from fashion plate to figure painting is unmediated, and thus falters. Monet’s commitment to the heroism of everyday life is literal: he has no time for Daumier’s derision and breaks equally with the insinuating clarity of painters of fashion such as Tissot. But despite his deep concern for costume and property, and his willingness to ennoble them, The Bench conveys no lucid message; it merely hints at drama.

Monet's attempt to revitalize narrative figure painting through a truly modern idiom is a poignant and grandiose undertaking that finally fails. Rarely had he struggled to fuse so many disparate elements to convey what Zola had termed “the exact analysis and interesting study of the present.” In doing this, he had also looked back toa tradition well established in the history of art, but characteristic above all of eighteenth-century French painting: the pairing of images in pendants, works linked by size, subject, and composition. Both The Bench and its companion of almost identical dimensions, Camille in the Garden with Jean and His Nurse, portray the same spot in the garden of the Maison Aubry (in the latter, Monet has moved back a little to include more of the garden wall). The paintings must have been painted within days of each other and were probably meant to hang together. Many years later Monet hinted as much, in a reply to an inquiry about the identity of the figures in The Bench. Writing in June 1921 to Georges Durand-Ruel, he noted, “There  must be two paintings of the same genre." The two paintings satisfy the requirements of pendants at almost every level: they each have three figures; the colour harmonies are the same (black against red and green); and the compositions balance one another—Camille in the Garden with Jean is weighted to the left, The Bench to the right. Even the signatures are symmetrical. Yet the pendants provide no mutual reinforcement of narrative; they do not relate in terms of “before” and “after,” an anecdotal trait much employed in conventional genre painting of the period. They share simply an aspiration toward legibility, each portraying a moment pregnant with meaning, yet rendered inexplicable by Monet's confident brush.

A lucid and sensitive appraisal of The Bench has recently described this painting as one in which Monet came closest “to the kind of modern conversation piece that was so important to both Manet and Degas, although it has none of their wit or nervousness.”  An investigation of the painting's disparate sources, as well as the context in which it was painted, further helps to identify its powerful irresolution. For The Bench marks a watershed: Monet's great Luncheon (Argenteuil), painted shortly after the pendants, rearranges the same elements on a far larger scale, and he finally resolves the challenge of narrative, by virtually suppressing the figures altogether. Here the women are reduced to staffage, barely visible behind the branches of the overhanging trees; Jean plays contentedly by the same garden bench, but his presence there is an afterthought. Setting has finally triumphed over sitter, and the shift toward landscape would thenceforth be irresistible in Monet's work.

Yet, in the final analysis, the self-referential qualities of The Benchare overwhelming. Something of the painting’s enigma may be explained by the ambiguities inherent in Monet’s own position as an artist during the latter part of 1873, and here the crucial text is Duranty’s program for an conography of modernity, published as a review of the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1876. In his encouragement of “modern conversation pieces” very much in the manner of The Bench, Duranty wrote: “As we are solidly embracing nature, we will no longer separate the figure from the background of an apartment or the street. In actuality, a person never appears against neutral or vague backgrounds. Instead, surrounding him and behind him are the furniture, fireplaces, curtains, and walls that indicate his financial position, class, and profession.” Transposed to the gardens of his rented villa at Argenteuil, The Bench makes a statement on Monet’ “financial position, class and profession.” The artist's income for the years 1872 and 1873 had been unprecedented: largely through Durand-Ruel’s patronage, he received 12,100 francs for thirty-eight paintings sold in 1872 and more than double that amount—24,800 francs—the following year Such recent affluence is mirrored in the elegant setting of The Bench—the impeccable frock coat and walking dress, the reluctant assertiveness of Camille, at age twenty-six the well-to-do maitresse de maison. Furthermore, as a member of the provincial bourgeoisie, whose parents were more tolerant of their son's aspirations as an artist than of his liaison with his obscure “mistress” from Lyon, Monet may have felt more com- fortable in the Parisian colony at Argenteuil than he cared to admit.However, all of this was compounded by another activity that fully engaged Monet during much of 1873: his organizing a painter's cooperative with Pissarro, the “Société anonyme cooperative dartistes peintres, sculpteurs, etc.,” whose charter, based on a baker’s union, was finally drawn up in December 1873. The syndicalist structure of the Impressionists’ founding organization linked the enterprise to a radical constituency that proved increasingly uncomfortable for all the charter members except Pissarro. It was certainly at odds with the image of domestic tension and bourgeois complacency that is so forcefully conveyed in The Bench.

Thus the provincial newlyweds and their illegitimate son have become Parisians established in the better section of Argenteuil, the factories and chemical stench out of sight. The mistress from Lyon is transformed into the lady of the manor. The painter of everyday life, armed with Zola’s and Manet blessings, has courted and organized opposition as an artiste indépendant. This accretion of personal contradictions strained the amalgam of conflicting sources to the breaking point: The Bench contains these elements precariously—mystifying in its narrative intentions, disconcerting in its promiscuous appropriation of old and new. The Bench is Monet's genre painting as Interior (Philadelphia Museum of Art) is Degas’s: it represents the brief moment when he took on a subject category that was created by Manet and Degas. Despite his command of their syntax and his forceful expression of it, this painting lacks the psychological acuity of their best work. The Bench remains, nonetheless, an extraordinary painting, but one that was without progeny and without solution.

Although it is unclear for whom The Bench and its companion were painted, the two paintings were divided early on, The Bench entering the prestigious collection of Eduard Arnhold (1849-1925) by 1903, when it appeared in public exhibition in Berlin for the first time. This accounts for its reproduction in several unlikely German publications, and the absence of commentary on the painting in early French studies on Monet. A recently discovered photograph of Arnhold’s picture gallery shows that The Bench hung in exalted company, between Manet’s The Artist: Portrait of Marcellin Desboutin, 1875 (Museu de Arte Moderna, Sao Paulo,) and Young Woman in Spanish Costume, 1862 (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), and as a pair to one of his versions of La Grenouillére.



Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 55 x 65 cm













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