Article by Anne Lesage, following an interview conducted by Florence Briat-Soulié with Alexandre Duval-Stalla, author of Claude Monet – Georges Clémenceau : une histoire, deux caractères. Folio. 2013.
Last night, the Orangerie opened its doors for us. The event began with citrus-flavored aperitifs in the new café adjacent to the bookstore. Perhaps a sign of the times, we were finally standing face to face with real, whole masterpieces and no longer were we staring at a screen. We were there meeting our peers, and not simply our followers online…
Laurence des Cars, the lively director of the Orangerie museum , welcomed us and announced the noteworthy events of the coming season. I specifically remember “Who is afraid of women photographers?” which is a major exhibition to be unveiled in two parts this fall and will be simultaneously displayed at the Musée d’Orsay (for the 20th-century portion) as well as at the Orangerie (for the 19th-century portion).
Can one speak of photography done by women who were, in fact, quite adept with this artistic medium since its beginnings? For instance, we have the Musée du Jeu de Paume, a neighbor to the Place de la Concorde that has for many years possessed a remarkable line-up of women photographers: Diane Arbus, Claude Cahun, Florence Henri, Vivian Maier, Laure Albin Guillot, and Germaine Krull. Now, we really cannot wait to discover who the real pioneers of photography are…
Laurence des Cars alluded to the next Nuit Blanche on October 3rd and the launch of an interesting live event that will take place approximately every two months: in situ piano concerts among Monet’s water lilies, with music ranging from Debussy to Philip Glass. Amazing!
Contemporary artists will also be invited to continue this dialogue with the water lilies: Gérard Garouste, Agnès Varda, and Claire Tabouret…a very lovely casting fixed to debut in spring 2016…
Now, back to the water lilies where I began this private visit, a room that I simply will never grow tired of and in which I wished to take my time. The circumstances are lovely, as we are so few in number. These magnificent works, offered to a victorious France by Claude Monet and supported by Clemenceau, are far more valuable than any war medal. A work first loved because of its sequential nature in which Monet manages to capture the impossible: time. Here, where some would speak of a conceptual approach, we understand that Monet’s determination to do, redo, and even destroy things (proof of his high standards) is nothing but an aspiration to a pure art. Monet, who painted his water lilies in the midst of chaos—the death of his wife followed by that of his son, an apocalyptic war, and his cataract—came to design a pond to observe the lilies and a studio in which to paint them, followed by a showcase to display them…
At Giverny, the motif is bright while the outside world transitions dramatically into darkness. The waterfall filters the perception of the painter that then folds in on himself, persists, hesitates…all alone with his personal landscape and above all with the encouragement of Clemenceau without whom nothing would have been possible. The rooms of the Orangerie were originally designed to accommodate great ornamentations, and they have not since changed. We tend to keep certain things at a distance, like the tumult and chaos of our contemporary world, like Monet at Giverny. A timeless place where nature and painting collide, outside the walls of a museum…and what does one think today upon observing water lilies in the middle of nature, if not Monet the painter? He who looked at his water lilies with painting in mind…
Thus, Laurence des Cars had much reason to start this event around a series of concerts where the sounds illustrate the tones. Evidently, the goal is the amusement of the viewers…I certainly intend to take a moment to listen to the works of Philip Glass!
Finally, we visited the rooms where the collection of Paul Guillaume and his wife, the diabolical Domenica-Juliette, is displayed. It was unfortunate that the African sculptures, the cubist masterpieces done by Picasso, and the Fautriers were sold by Domenica-Juliette after the untimely death of her husband and her subsequent remarriage to the architect Walter. Yet there still remain Cézanne, Derain, and a sublime Matisse (odalisk).
Through this collection and its incredible story, one observes the shattered destinies of Guillaume and Walter, and the role played by the Prime Minister of culture, André Malraux.
At the Orangerie, the French state has emerged as a great patron of the 20th century…
To learn more about the conditions of these donations to the French state, read this fantastic article written by Vincent Noce in 2010:
…And don’t stop reading about the friendship that connected Monet and Clemenceau and that was behind this donation to the French state.
Interview with Alexandre Duval-Stalla. Claude Monet – Georges Clemenceau : une histoire, deux caractères. Folio. 2013.
Florence Briat Soulie : Why did you decide to write about Monet and Clemenceau?
Alexandre Duval-Stalla : I had already written a first book on de Gaulle and Malraux, and I wanted to write about impressionism and about Manet who I like a lot. His use of the color black is extraordinary—I was a big fan—but even though he painted a portrait of Clemenceau, he was never as close to him as Monet was.
This story was never truly told, only mentioned in passing. A very fraternal friendship, one can see upon reading their letters that they were really quite an incredible pair. This relationship allowed them to combine their distinct political and pictorial backgrounds.
With Monet, there was a history of his painting, his battles, and of his close ties with the impressionists and the Third Republic.
This allowed for a recounting of impressionism, how the movement emerged and revolutionized modern painting and at the same time told of this lovely friendship between these two personalities.
FBS: Their friendship began very early; they had met each other very young…
ADS: Both of them were 20 years old, one a student of medicine and the other of art. Monet during this era didn’t do much of anything except hang around in cafés, engaging in discussions with his peers for hours and hours while drinking and smoking. They would eventually meet in the Latin Quarter, home to a certain republican agitation under the Second Empire, and there they would forge bonds between a young generation that wants to succeed and do things and to cling to their freedom of thinking and creating. In my opinion, it’s a rebuilt friendship because Clemenceau had said: “Already we said: it’s a Monet,” although at the time Monet painted very little.
FBS: Clemenceau always supported Monet?
ADS: Between the ages of 20 and 50, they would no longer see each other, and Monet’s revival happened after he turned 50. Around 1880, he was surpassed by the neo-impressionists and Signac pointillists, and for him, the need to reinvent himself arose, so as to avoid always doing the same thing. So, that’s the real challenge with Monet and with Paul Durand Ruel who asked him what he did, because they realize his work was no longer at the height of his reputation. Monet’s genius actually managed to reinvent itself through his series. For instance, the series of Rouen cathedrals eventually allowed for the renewal of his friendship with Clemenceau. A three-part story because Gustave Joffroy, art critic of Clemenceau’s newspaper “La Justice” was on Belle-Isle where Monet was in the middle of doing his series, and there they would ultimately meet one other by chance, get along right away, and spend their Sundays as a group of three.
FBS: Clemenceau, what did he love about painting?
ADS: Clemenceau spent his life in politics, but just after the Panama Canal Affair, he loses the elections, and so he spends 10 years there, where he will go on to be a journalist, and this will be the 10 years that are going to allow him to experience something else: the Dreyfus affair. But also takes an interest in other things, notably painting and impressionists. He took out many, became very enthusiastic about Monet’s painting. He wrote a very lovely first article on the “Cathédrales” in 1895 because it’s something very beautiful and not simply something of circumstance. We see that he reflected a lot on this aesthetic question.
FBS: Who are the other painters that he liked?
ADS: He was friends with other artists, but he never had the same relationship with them that he had with Monet; he supported Manet quite a bit, and he defended Olympia, despite disapproving critics. Later there will be a public subscription so that Olympia can return to the collections of the state, the painting will be placed first at the Musée du Luxembourg and finally at the Louvre, and, after its opening, at the Musée d’Orsay which will allow the impressionists to reunite once more.
FBS: Maybe it’s the Malraux of the era?
ADS: Olympia is 1867, and when he returns to the collections it’s after 1900, so we got used to impressionist paintings.
FBS: How did you gather your sources to write about all this?
ADS: A lot of things have been published, like a ton of incredibly dense biographies. For example, there’s Wilderstein’s well thought-out catalog, which in its fifth tome are published many letters. There’s also a book of correspondences between Clemenceau and Monet.
The only problem is that Clemenceau burned his letters.
Translated by Erica DeMichel, Wesleyan University, Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2015