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CAMILLE-LEONIE DONCIEUX Monet (1847-1879) died at 32 years of age after a protracted illness, most likely metastatic cervical cancer.1 She had been the inspiration and model for her husband, Claude Monet (1840-1926). In 1866, despite his youth, Monet's painting of Camille (Woman in Green Dress) was accepted and acclaimed at the annual Paris Salon, the conservative arbiter of subject matter and style in painting.2 In the ensuing 12 years, Camille, either alone or with her son, was the primary model for his paintings.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), French. Camille on Her Deathbed, 1879. Oil on canvas. Copyright Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Their relationship began when she was just 19 years of age and he was 25. She was said to be attractive and intelligent with beautiful eyes. During their life together she experienced poverty, rejection from his family, and his ambivalent feelings toward her; she tolerated his prolonged absences, lived with his depressions, and shared his successes. When she became pregnant out of wedlock and delivered a son, Jean, on August 8, 1867, his family disapproved. His father suggested that his son simply abandon Camille.3 Seeking not to upset his family, Monet secretly visited her.
They married 3 years later in a civil ceremony on June 28, 1870, at the onset the Franco-Prussian War. His family did not help him with the marriage and left him to negotiate with her family.
Four years later in 1874, Camille witnessed his leadership at the first independent exhibit in Paris, France—one that included 65 works by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and others. Among the paintings was Monet's Impression, Sunrise, which rather than emphasizing a realistic scene, captured the experience of the moment. She read the disparaging review of the exhibit that Louis Leroy published in the April issue of Le Charivari. He called it the "Exhibition of the Impressionists," giving this innovative movement its name, but wrote that "wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than this seascape."2
Camille delivered a second son on March 17, 1878. She had become ill the previous year, and although surgery had been recommended for "uterine ulceration," she was afraid and refused the proposed surgical procedure.1 Her condition worsened during and after the pregnancy, and she became terminally ill. Because their marriage ceremony had been a civil one, the Abbé Amaury, the local priest, was asked to meet with Camille and was requested to formally rehabilitate (consecrate) their marriage. He agreed to do so, and the following day, Camille received the last sacraments and was described as calmer. Four days after the priest's visit, Camille died: Friday, September 5, 1879, after bidding her last farewell to her children. As a final gesture, Monet retrieved Camille's pawned gold locket, the only keepsake that she had left, and placed it around her neck in death.3
Many years after Camille's passing, Monet spoke with his friend Georges Clemenceau, the former French prime minister, about her death:
I found myself staring at the tragic countenance, automatically trying to identify the sequence, the proportion of light and shade in the colors that death had imposed on the immobile face. Shades of blue, yellow, gray . . . Even before the thought occurred to memorize the face that meant so much to me, my first involuntary reflex was to tremble at the shock of the colors. In spite of myself, my reflexes drew me into the unconscious operation that is the daily order of my life. Pity me, my friend.4
These comments were made 40 years after Camille's death. Was it an early phase of bereavement with its accompanying denial and disbelief that allowed him the objectivity to complete this final portrait? His signature stands out starkly on the painting, but he did not sign it and it was never exhibited during his lifetime; the painting was stamped with Monet's signature after his death. Camille is shown veiled, as she is in other paintings of his, but here the veil is her shroud; she is dressed in blue in the style of the Impressionists. The details of her lips retracting at death give the portrait a sense of immediacy. Her face and body seem to dissolve into the lightly painted gray gauze of the shroud, and the only real glimpse of color is provided by the bouquet of flowers on her chest. Tucker suggests that the painting evokes both her passing and her physical presence, noting that the image is sweet, angelic, and passive yet energized. He writes, "The picture speaks not merely about Monet's being struck by the changing colors but also about his uncanny ability to evoke peace and pain, sorrow and celebration—essential conditions of those trying to deal with the reality of death."5(p103)
The winter after her death, when the River Seine froze and thawed, Monet painted the surface of the river cluttered with slabs of ice that had split off from huge ice floes. These landscapes are cold and empty of any living thing, desolate and silent.3 Nature had united with Monet's private melancholy. That year, 1879, signaled the breakup of the Impressionist group and was a turning point in Monet's private life. Camille's death marked the end of an era.
This file was posted with corrections May 30, 2003
Harris JC. Camille on Her Deathbed. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60(1):13. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.60.1.13
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