Why we love it: Ross King’s latest biography, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, is an intriguing insight into the world of the French Impressionist artist Claude Monet and his best-loved works.
Who, more than 100 years after their painting, isn’t aware of Monet’s Water Lilies, their distinctive mauve and green colours, the Japanese bridge, the weeping willows? But fewer know the compelling story behind the passion that drove Monet, in his seventies, to create them.
Monet had already made money and achieved considerable fame – even in his own lifetime his work hung in the Louvre, an honour previously held by dead artists – and had made his mark on the international art scene as one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. But even so Monet was driven to achieve more, beginning work on what would become some of the most recognisable paintings of the twentieth century, the Water Lilies. In the midst of the First World War that held such horrors for France, afflicted by personal grief after losing his second wife and his eldest son, and anguished by failing vision – he who was famed for colour perception – Monet became consumed by what Ross King calls his ‘Mad Enchantment’.
As well as focusing on this fascinating time, this thoroughly researching and absorbing biography sweeps back to Monet’s earlier life and the exciting art world of his day – including insights into many of his peers, including artists Rodin, Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne, and Manet, as well as the major politicians of his day – central to this story is Monet’s enduring friendship with the ‘Tiger’ Georges Clemenceau who became Prime Minister again in the dark days at the end of the war.
Mad Enchantment recalls how the Impressionist movement revolutionised painting in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century France. Monet’s new ambition to render his new paintings on massive canvases for public viewing was also unprecedented. And, with Monet’s earlier move to Giverny in the French countryside his major landscaping project of bridges, ponds, flowers and water lilies was an unusual and hugely ambitious undertaking for an artist. While, to the modern eye these paintings that may not appear revolutionary, in the context of their time they very much were and many of the Impressionists, including Monet, had endured scathing criticism in their earlier years.
King has thoroughly captured the essence of a time, and gives us new insight into Monet, the man and the artist, and his most enduring works.
Ross King is a Canadian author known for his books on Italian, French and Canadian art history including Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, The Judgment of Paris (Governor General’s Award, 2006), and Leonardo and The Last Supper (Governor General’s Award, 2012). He has also published two novels (Domino and Ex-Libris), a biography of Niccolò Machiavelli, and a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s fables, jokes and riddles. He is the co-author with Anja Grebe of Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743 (2015), the most comprehensive book ever undertaken on the art of Florence.