Claude Monet died December 5, 1926, I heard on the radio recently. Yet NPR’s vivid 90th anniversary remembrance took me not into his lush gardens of waterlilies, but into the prickly thickets of despair. The radio piece transported me, and I daresay, thousands of other listeners to Giverny, which triggered memories of Gene’s and my visit some ten years ago. Like our guide, the NPR piece mentioned that Monet had diverted a local stream to feed his thirsty gardens, leaving his neighbors deprived and disgruntled. “They didn’t like him much,” the guide had put it.
He had grown wealthy, the piece continued, but seemed impoverished, not leaving his property much in the last years of his life. He set out to paint the beloved waterlilies every morning, bundling up in the cold weather to keep his routine going. His large-scale canvases were dragged back to his house and studio where he would continue to work on them. To my ear, this information, though factual, sounded as if the narrator were questioning why the old man continued with this practice day after day, his subject matter so limited, his world so small.
This was the moment when I found myself glaring at the radio, the waterlilies turned into thickets that sting and trap. I had been working on the last chapter of my memoir-non-memoir, Smoke of a Great Fire, that includes Monet’s angry letters to his ophthalmologists—letters replete with descriptions of fear and anguish tangled with details of his struggling vision in the aftermath of different treatments and surgeries. Monet rode a roller coaster between the promise and cruelty of hope.
I ride the same roller coaster, harassed by “chloropsia” among other symptoms—seeing green—where he was plagued by “cyanopsia,” seeing blue-green. As vision deteriorates and uncertainty fills the gaps, I, too, find myself sticking closer to home. I understand why he would haul his paint and canvases to the waterlilies morning after morning, each new day raising the question of what—how—will I see today? What is possible? Monet, I suspect, drew upon his memories of color and detail, used them to test his perception day by day, used them to fill in the gaps when he returned to work in his studio. I suspect because I recognize, I know. This much is straightforward.
What lands me in the thicket, leaves me punctured and lost is that the NPR piece did not include any mention of Monet’s visual hell, the furious letters written a few years before his death, the one memorialized in the radio piece. Monet was not remembered as an artist who painted despite a serious visual impairment. He is known as an artist, famously as the instigator, if not leader of the Impressionist movement. Perhaps this is as it should be. A great, and much beloved painter no matter what, no matter his neighbors’ resentment, his creditors left unpaid, no matter how poor, how compromised his vision. His work is judged on the merits, not by handicaps, its place in history secure regardless of personal or physical circumstance.
This is what I have argued for, how I want my work to be judged, how I hope my legacy, such as it is, will be secured. Yet... here I am, stung by my own hypocrisy, left in the thicket to ponder the question: how can I have it both ways? I wanted the NPR piece to mention Monet’s eyes, demanded that it to do so, enlighten the audience with an insight about what it was like, why he would withdraw to home and gardens, why he would paint the known waterlilies, the comforting reflections and colors he could clearly remember, see in his mind’s eye. What would it change if the listening audience were informed, if the multitudes of admirers knew about the eyes that made him remarkable for what they could and couldn’t see? Would it pit questions of weakness and vulnerability against claims of strength and mastery?
Would art historians and admirers alike believe Monet to be an impostor, a “partially-sighted” artist who painted blurs and bits because that’s all he could see? And where am I, but twisting in the thicket, eaten up by my own worries of having been an impostor all these years—the art major, the art teacher, university art educator who was no genius, but tried to inhabit the world of visual art despite my own serious impairment. Art is the province of the mind, a mirror held up to reality that the brain must interpret, Cezanne told us—his own eyes struck down by diabetic retinopathy, which again, is rarely, if ever mentioned. This is also true of Goya, Degas, Cassatt, Pissarro, and Munch, artists who left us gifts of their ideas, conceptual workings of their minds, not of their debilitating visual pathologies.
I twist again among the thorns, thorns meant to scrape me out of hypocrisy’s stranglehold. The thicket that will punish me until I believe my own words, sentences carrying the theme of the last chapter meant to make everything in Smoke of a Great Fire clear. Writers are impostors, too; how well we know, those of us who attempt the page. And memories lie, which makes them more interesting.