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A Glimpse Inside Claude Monet’s Private Art World

Many works formerly owned by Degas were displayed in a 2016 exhibition titled “Painters’ Paintings,” which also featured artworks owned by Anthony van Dyck, Matisse and Lucian Freud.


Édouard Manet’s “The Painter Monet in His Studio” (1874) features Claude Monet and his wife, Camille.

BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais. Courtesy Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

“Looking at an artist’s collection can be compared to entering a mind, and accessing a usually overlooked dimension of his or her activities, yet it is one of the most essential, as it offers clues for a correct, deep and multifaceted understanding of their art,” Anne Robbins, a curator at the National Gallery, wrote in the exhibition catalog. “Painters’ paintings represent the very continuation of their artistic production.”

For the Marmottan, putting on an exhibition about Monet the collector proved difficult.

“Monet didn’t speak about his private life. His art collection, like his family life, was kept deeply private,” said Marianne Mathieu, the show’s curator, who in 2014-15 curated a groundbreaking Marmottan show on “Impression: Sunrise,” the 1872 Monet painting that engendered the term ‘Impressionism.’

Ms. Mathieu said that at Giverny, the collection hung in the private apartments upstairs, and was “rarely shown.” Nor did Monet keep records of his art collection, unlike Degas.

As a result, curating the exhibition was “like a police investigation,” she said. Complicating matters further, the inventory of Monet’s belongings at Giverny, which was drawn up at his death in 1926, was destroyed during World War II.

The Marmottan team has nonetheless managed to document 120 works as having unequivocally belonged to Monet.

The earliest portrait in the show is a caricature of the young Monet by his friend Charles Lhuillier, produced in the late 1850s when the 20-year-old artist had just left the northwestern port of Le Havre for Paris. Monet kept this and other portraits of his youth.

As Monet settled into his new life in Paris, he befriended Manet and Renoir. They produced numerous portraits of Monet and his wife Camille, an artist’s model. Some were produced at Monet’s new house in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, where he organized picnics and outdoor gatherings in the garden or along the banks of the nearby Seine.


Later in his life, Monet concentrated his purchases on works by Renoir and Cézanne, including Cézanne’s “Still Life With Milk Jug and Fruit.”

Courtesy National Gallery of Art

On one occasion, for example, Manet convinced Monet and Camille to pose together (something they had not done before) in Monet’s bateau-atelier, or studio boat. “The Painter Monet in his Studio” (1874), which Monet also kept his whole life, is on loan to the Marmottan exhibition from the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany.

Renoir painted individual portraits of the Monets and gave them the more artistically original ones, Ms. Mathieu said. One example is “Madame Monet and Her Son” (1874), on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which shows Camille seated on the grass as her young son lies beside her and a rooster looks on.

Once Monet could afford to buy art, he focused initially on works by his immediate forerunners: Delacroix (“Cliffs near Dieppe,” 1852-1855, a watercolor) and Corot (“Ariccia, Palazzo Chigi,” 1826-27, a view of a hilltop Italian town). He bought at auctions or from art dealers, discreetly. At the posthumous 1891 sale of works by Johan Barthold Jongkind, for instance, he had a friend buy on his behalf.

He made exceptions at public auctions where his notoriety could help the sale, such as when Alfred Sisley’s collections were auctioned after his death to benefit his struggling children, or when Cézanne’s “Neige fondante à Fontainebleau” (1879-80, now at MoMA), came up for auction. Monet paid 6,750 francs for it, a record for a Cézanne at the time.

By 1890, Monet was rich and famous, and he concentrated his purchases on two artists: Renoir and Cézanne — no doubt, according to Ms. Mathieu, because their art complemented his. He acquired masterpieces by each, such as Renoir’s “The Mosque (Arab Festival)” (1881), showing crowds spilling out of a North African mosque; and Cézanne’s male “Bathers” (1890-92, now at the St. Louis Art Museum).

“The collection resembles Monet himself: It’s the eye of Monet, it’s his selection,” said Ms. Mathieu, adding that while he was admiring of masters of the immediate past, he was also very much “of his time.”

“Monet also collected works that were nothing like him: works by Cézanne, by Renoir, bold paintings by Pissarro, and Signac paintings of the early period, even though people described him as being hostile to neo-Impressionism,” she said. “The collection reveals another reality: an artist with a very open mind.”

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