If you imagined Claude Monet at work on his late masterpieces, the Water Lilies, you might picture him seated in his garden in Giverny, France, placidly dabbing blues and purples onto canvas, capturing watery impressions with ease. The portrait that Ross King offers in Mad Enchantment is far more complicated. In 1914, Monet was 73 and the world’s highest-paid artist. He’d already spent several years painting views of his pond, but now he envisioned a grouping of massive canvases that would evoke a “watery aquarium.” It took him the rest of his life.
King, the author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and The Judgment of Paris, has done his research—the book contains 40 pages of endnotes—but he spins a readable narrative. Mad Enchantment tells the story of Monet’s efforts to bring his vision to reality, even as the Great War and all its privations interrupted. King details Monet’s struggles, how he approached technical concerns such as displaying the enormous canvases in an oval gallery, and how he coped as his “prodigious” eyes began to fail. And contrary to popular belief (and Monet’s claims), he didn’t just dash off his paintings en plein air—he reworked them at length in his studio, often adding layers of paint.
This is also the story of Monet’s enduring friendship with Georges Clemenceau, who led France in the Great War. It was Clemenceau who persuaded Monet to donate his unfinished Water Lilies to France and to complete them (and to stop being a pain in the behind about it, as Clemenceau termed it). King uses the lens of this friendship to show Monet’s often-cantankerous personality (“frightful old hedgehog,” Clemenceau called him) as well as his abiding love for his family and friends.