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What the lives of the wives tell us about the art of their men

The influence of Camille Monet and Effie Gray compared and contrasted

Claude Monet, "Camille Monet and Child in the Garden", 1875 and right, Thomas Richmond, "Euphemia (“Effie”) Chalmers ( née Gray), Lady Millais", 1851. Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The idea of collaboration has been one of the most creative catalysts for modern art. A collaborative ideal first emerged from the 19th-century cult of the Middle Ages, and the belief that medieval artisans co-operated with each other (as well as with God) to produce the great cathedrals. The socialised anonymity of the medieval artisan was contrasted with the soulless, atomised individualism of the modern “artist-genius”. These theories stimulated the formation of many avant-garde groups, from the Arts and Crafts Movement to the Bauhaus and beyond: during the development of cubism, Picasso and Braque dressed down in workmen’s overalls, and painted indistinguishable, unsigned pictures. Picasso later stressed the importance of team work and anonymity.

That said, these groups and double-acts were far from being conventional mirrors of society. They tended to be brotherhoods (Picasso joked that Braque was his wife), and the collaborative aspects were often somewhat fetishistic or attenuated. Underpinning the doctrine of “truth to materials”, espoused by Henry Moore and many others, was the idea that you “collaborated” with the material, respecting its “natural” proclivities. In other words, the inspiration came as much from the material as from the artist. For Duchamp, art was a collaborative act between the artist, artefact and spectators, whose interpretation and presence completed the work.

Feminism has recently added a newish component to the collaborative ideal: the wife, lover or model as muse and co-author. More often than not (as in the case of Camille Claudel, the sculptress mistress of Rodin), the female “partner” is claimed to be—pace Shelley—an “unacknowledged legislator” of the artist’s world. One of the most striking consequences of this phenomenon is the way in which Christo and Claes Oldenburg have latterly given their project-manager wives equal billing. More mis­chiev­ously, Patrick Brill trades under the name of Bob and Rob­erta Smith, and before their acri­monious divorce, Jeff Koons dubbed Cicciolina “one of the greatest artists in the world”.

The latest to pursue this line is American clinical psychologist and art historian Mary Mathews Gedo, who claims in Monet and his Muse that Camille Doncieux, Monet’s model and first wife, “assumed the status of his first artistic partner”. As Camille died in 1879, about 13 years after she first sat for the artist, and as Monet’s second wife had him destroy all Camille’s papers and effects, proving this is a tall order, but psychoanalysis has rarely been unduly concerned by lack of evidence. Any portrait or figure painting requires the collaboration of the sitter or model, but it is quite another thing to claim them as muse—especially when the artist is not primarily considered a figure painter, and when his figures are not massively individualised.

In Monet’s mural-scaled Luncheon on the Grass, 1865-66, Camille “bears mute testimony to the forceful impact of Camille’s continuous presence on the quality of her lover’s artistic production”. So why then did Monet fail to complete the picture, deeming it a failure, and then cut it up, transforming it into what Gedo now calls “the most mutilated of the children of his fancy”? Camille remains mute throughout, a blank screen for Gedo’s increasingly colourful projections. Meanwhile Monet is prey to oedipal rivalries and narcissism; his blindness “originated in his psyche”; he exploits the “crybaby technique” when he sees his parents (has Gedo been subconsciously influenced by the American pronunciation of the artist’s name—moan-ay?).

At the outset Gedo briefly notes that the central characters of Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre, 1886, are based on Monet and Camille. If this were the case—and Cézanne is the most likely inspiration for the doomed painter who repeatedly slashes, and finally destroys his masterpiece—it would undermine her argument, for the painter in the novel loves the nude woman depicted in his picture more than his wife. His human wife is duly horrified when she finds out she means nothing to him. This is a brutal reworking of the Pygmalion myth. Zola was satirising the idea, popularised in Cesare Lombroso’s Genius and Madness, 1863, that many great men and women remain unmarried and/or childless, with their work being their one true love and offspring. Some artists, Rodin included, believed ejaculation entailed a loss of creative energy: Vasari had credited Raphael’s premature death and decline to excessive love-making.

John Ruskin is one of the great childless “bachelors”, barely laying a finger on the gorgeous Effie from their marriage in 1848 to their divorce in 1854 on the grounds the marriage had never been consummated. On their Venetian honeymoon, Ruskin notoriously preferred clambering over medieval buildings and poring over books and papers to mapping the body of his new wife. Suzanne Fagence Cooper retreads this well-worn terrain with her biography of Effie, The Model Wife: the Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais. For the most part it is efficiently done, even if there are too many Mills & Boon moments (“The answer lies hidden behind the curtains drawn tight around her canopied bed”; “Effie held her breath as her maid laced her corsets a little tighter”).

Cooper has been given access to Effie’s family photographs, and to letters from the time of her marriage to Millais, but these tend to confirm the existing picture of social whirl and climbing as Millais sold out and became a society portraitist. When Effie is not being a hostess and mother, she researches details of historical costumes and runs them up, thus becoming “an essential part of the production process”. Although Cooper has previously written about the pre-Raphaelites, her concern here is primarily with social history. She claims that Effie’s bold repudiation of Ruskin, and her success in gaining an annulment, helped to “reshape Victorian femininity”. This thesis ends with a whimper rather than a bang, however, as Effie has no time for the late Victorian “new woman”, attending university astride a bicycle and forging a professional career.

Cooper regrets that Ruskin was such a negligent husband, but can posterity? “Sadly,” she writes, “he was so bound up with the big picture [writing The Stones of Venice], he failed to see what was needed on a domestic scale.” True enough, but would he have written so well or so much through a post-coital haze? He and Millais are textbook demonstrations of Lombroso’s theories. The Effie-resistant Ruskin produced a succession of towering masterpieces, while the Effie-ravishing Millais became a vapid face-painter. Aspiring geniuses of both sexes still have a clear choice.

James Hall

Art critic, art historian, and author of The World as Sculpture, two books on Michelangelo and, most recently, The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art (OUP)

Monet and his Muse: Camille Monet in the Artist’s Life

Mary Mathews Gedo, Chicago University Press, 272 pp, $55 (hb)

The Model Wife: the Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais

Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Duckworth, 312 pp, £25 (hb)

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