Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog
Information from electronic data provided by the publisher. May be incomplete or contain other coding. Copyrighted text used with permission of the publisher.
The Taste of an Era
A Turn of the Century Table
February 4, 1884.
Tasted a banana for the first time in my life,
I won't do it again until purgatory.
JULES RENARD, DIARY.
If a house has character, the fact is obvious immediately. Claude Monet's house at Giverny certainly did, down to the smallest details of its kitchen. With its essentially bourgeois character, this house and its large, walled garden became for Monet a perfect haven. It was his own separate world, from which he drew continual inspiration for over 40 years.
Monet always retained the predilection for over-indulgence that was characteristic of the French middle class at this period, and Giverny provided a place where he could enjoy his taste for the good life to the full. This instinctive, physical enjoyment of life was also the basis for Monet's painting. For him, painting was never applied theory -- it was a practical reality. Heedless of references to the past, he lived for the present he was very much a man of his times.
Monet's cooking journals do contain a few faint traces of unconscious nostalgia, a flavor of the Restoration or the Second Empire, which, of course, was recent history in those days. Yet the journals mostly contain innovations of the Third Republic, combined with a few old favorites, and seasoned with those exotic touches people have craved since ships conquered the spice route on the high seas.
Eating well was something to which Monet had always been accustomed. There is little information available about the meals that were eaten in the family home in Le Havre, where he spent most of his childhood. By all accounts, his boyhood was spent in bourgeois comfort. His father was in business as a supplier to the navy, and his mother is supposed to have been an excellent hostess and to have entertained her guests with after-dinner songs, as she had a very pretty voice. Monet was less than 20 years old when she disappeared, and all the memories of the rituals of Le Havre faded into oblivion with her.
In 1860, Monet drew an unlucky number in the lottery for selective military service and served with the Chasseurs d'Afrique regiment in Algeria. The landscape and light did not prove too harsh for his liking, and, in fact, he claimed that Algeria inspired the earliest of his visual impressions. Yet he never discussed the food he ate there. It is impossible to believe that he never tasted and enjoyed that aromatic cuisine, simmered in earthenware pots on rudimentary little hearths, those delicious dishes so skillfully cooked over charcoal.
Monet was only 20 when he went to North Africa, but he had already held exhibitions of his works and he had established friendships with Boudin, Pissarro, Ce;zanne, Courbet, and a number of other young men who were destined to become leading figures in the arts in the coming years.
After his return from Algeria in 1862, Monet began to work with Boudin, Jongkind, Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley. His rebellion against the art establishment was becoming apparent, and his family responded to his seeming intransigence by cutting off his allowance. Poverty began to bite, as he had as yet very little income from his work. But though accustomed to a degree of comfort, and passionate about his food, Monet was prepared to make any sacrifice, undergo any discomfort for the sake of his art.
It was at about this time, in the mid 1860s, that Monet painted Camille Doncieux. They began living together, had a child, Jean, and married in 1870. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Monet went to England, where he was influenced by the paintings of Turner and Constable, and where he developed a taste for a number of English dishes. He returned to France the following year, via the Netherlands, discovering more dishes that were to remain firm favorites.
In 1871, Monet, Camille and Jean settled in Argenteuil, a village on the Seine near Paris, famous for its boating. They remained there for six years. This marked a turning point in Monet's life, the restless, poverty-stricken bohemian existence of the previous decade being replaced by stability and relative comfort. Though always short of cash and continually in debt, Monet had actually begun to earn a reasonable living from his paintings. He acquired a sailboat, which he used as a studio for painting trips on the river, pursuing his fascination with water. It was at the charming, vine-covered cottage in Argenteuil that Monet created his first garden, reflecting his lifelong delight in flowers. Here, too, no doubt, he was able to indulge his other great passion, food.
1874 was another landmark in Monet's life, when Monet and his friends, including Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, and Berthe Morisot, staged their first group exhibition. In all, there were 165 canvases from about 30 artists. The uniformly hostile reaction of the press, who christened the group "Impressionists," was a clear indication of the resistance the new movement would encounter over the coming years.
From 1878 through 1881, Monet rented a house at Ve;theuil, further down the Seine, about 40 miles from Paris. Camille was by this time very ill. Monet, Camille, Jean, and their second son, Michel, shared the house with Alice Hoschede and her six children Alice and her husband, former patrons of Monet, had recently been financially ruined and had separated. Following the death of Camille in 1879, the family lived as one, and Alice Hoschede became Monet's second wife in 1892, after her estranged husband's death.
In his continuous struggle to impose his painting style, Monet was inhibited by the ever-present financial worries and the frustrating absence of a space large enough for him to work in comfortably. It was only at Giverny, which he discovered in 1883, that Monet was able to establish the lifestyle that really suited him. It was here that his ideas about food took shape, and Alice Hoschede was to be their principal interpreter. Between them, Monet and Alice created their own art of living, something that today would be called style.
Their sole culinary ambition was to serve beautifully prepared dishes using whatever the kitchen-garden or the farmyard could supply. This was their food, homemade but often making use of recipes invented by the great restaurants they patronized, or even dishes created by their friends, who included writers, art collectors, painters and actors.
Many of the dishes can, of course, be found in other cookbooks, but the recipe for the Monets' bouillabaisse came from Paul Ce;zanne, the recipe for their bread rolls from Jean Millet. Their tarte Tatin was a souvenir of their visits to the Tatin sisters themselves, to sample this famous dish. Origins such as these add zest to the dishes for us today, just as they undoubtedly did for the Monets a century ago.
Monet and Alice had decided to live out of town but not actually in the provinces. The house at Giverny was not one of those lonely country houses where one can relax far from the exhausting frenzy of the big city. Their life was a charming amalgam of a deliberately simple, rustic lifestyle, with all its attendant pursuits, combined with the tolerant, but totally independent attitude to life typical of the inhabitants of a vast metropolis. It was a rural idyll in which urban values had been transposed to the countryside.
In the magnificent era of fin-de-siècle France, eating habits were still somewhat in a state of confusion the art of good living only emerged with difficulty after much trial and error. Haute cuisine was still in its infancy, and even the compilation of menus was of recent invention.
During this period, in which France's constitution changed more frequently than her eating habits, quantity reigned supreme. A few eccentrics -- whom some complimented with the epithet "esthete," but who were, in fact, the precursors of our modern dieticians -- urged greater sobriety and discernment, but in vain.
It is remarkable how much was accomplished in matters of custom and taste in a relatively short time. This applies not only to eating habits but also to the ingredients. The dishes Monet so enjoyed, such assoles à la normande, were born at virtually the same time as he was.
Taste is a complex subject. Not only is t highly personal but it also must always be considered in context. For example, in 1888, the desserts which Monet and everyone else liked and which seem to us today to be rather heavy, such as the galette de plomb (a flat cake made with cream), featured in the menu served to President Carnot in the train which took him to the Dauphine region. In an era that was rather slow-moving, when it took eight hours to travel by train to a town that today is only two hours away, this was a perfectly suitable menu. The same applies to the secret recipes of the Maison Dore;e, the Cafe Anglais or Chez Hardy, which took their time to percolate down to the tables of the middle classes or along the length of the Seine Valley. In any case, local shops needed to be stocked, and the markets provisioned with the right ingredients.
Even though this style of cooking may be complicated, requiring the mistress of the house to be a master of organization, what a reward it is to be served food that is fresh and in season!
From the vantage point of our modern age -- in which Japanese dine in Paris with Venetians from London or Americans from Brussels -- looking back on these more parochial times inevitably creates a certain nostalgia. In those days, green peas were not sent great distances if it could be helped because it was believed that they would lose their sweetness. There is a lot of truth in this. We have come a long way from that lost luxury of freshness. Nevertheless, against all odds, a few diehards have continued to worship at the almost abandoned shrine of the "homemade."
The Rotunda Drawing Room
"And that bleached velum gilded by Clovis Eve Evokes who knows what faded charm The soul of their fragrance and the shadow their dream."
Some houses rule us more than we rule hem. The shape of a room in the great Château de Rottenbourg was to throw everyone's life into confusion, for it was the rotunda drawing-room here that brought Monet and Alice together.
Paris at the time was in the grip of a frenzy. Albert Wolf wrote in Le Figaro that five or six rebels, including a woman -- who was none other than Berthe Morisot -- had become involved in an exhibition organized by the art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. The lurid details included the account of a man who had to be arrested at the exit because he was biting the passers-by. One hostile critic, seizing upon the unassuming title of Monet's painting, Impression: Sunrise, had christened the group "Impressionists." In fact, the label was so apt that it was quickly adopted by the artists themselves.
Every hostess who prided herself on being avant-garde vied for the company of these rebels. Ernest Hoschede;, an art-collector and patron of the arts to his very soul, was immune to this kind of flamboyance. But although he knew that Impressionist painting did not necessarily cause the beholder to fly into a rage, he had not yet discovered that painting in general can actually lead to one's downfall.
Alice, his wife, was an extremely wellheeled young lady. Her family, the Raingos, sold art bronzes and expensive clocks to the Royal courts of Europe, including the Tuileries Palace. They also reproduced Jacob Petit models and were, in effect, the "movers and shakers" in Belgian society in Paris. On her father's death, Alice had inherited the Château de Rottenbourg, located at Mongeron, in Normandy, and Ernest had devoted much time to refurbishing it. When it came to redecorating the large rotunda drawingroom, he thought of Monet. On that fateful September day in 1876, Monet was anxiously awaited and his arrival caused a sensation. It was this arrival which Blanche Hoschede;, Alice and Ernest's daughter, chose to recall in her all-too-brief memoirs.
Of course, no one detected the first crack which threatened the whole structure. Monet, who so loved the countryside, was penniless once again and had every reason to rejoice in the opportunity of exchanging his money worries for the serenity of spacious grounds in which to paint, and the carefree life at the château.
The garden at Montgeron was a confusion of styles but displayed a certain gauche charm with its angular flower-beds, its Medici urns, and its romantic style of landscaping.
The Hoschede;s were lavish hosts, and set a fast pace, literally driving their families crazy with the confusion in which they left their finances.
Ernest spent a lot of time in Paris, as busy unearthing rare art treasures as he was attending to his business affairs. Alice and her children spent more time at Rottenbourg she loved it there. A socialite, quite excitable, very pious and something of a mystic, Alice was an attentive hostess and very lively, but sensitive, and easily tired. Today she might be described as a cyclical manic depressive. She loved the countryside but had great need for company Rottenbourg, with its proximity to Paris, attracted many visitors.
Ernest was one of the first collectors of the new schools of painting for which he paid high prices because he was a generous man, as Monet knew only too well. Unfortunately, he had to part with a few of his treasures to ward off the abyss which was threatening to -- and did eventually -- engulf him.
At Montgeron, the Hoschede;s lived a life which combined frivolity with intellectual pursuits and which could be considered avant-garde. Ernest, the ostentatious playboy, would bring his guests from the Gare de Lyon in Paris by private train. Ernest and Alice seemed to be living in a daydream. Life was a mad whirlwind, everything glittered, perhaps a little too much so.
The frequent visitors who were traditionalists mingled happily with those who were avant-garde. Impressionists such as Sisley, Manet, or Monet did not displace the family portraits, of which the most recent were signed by J.J. Henner, Carolus Duran, Benjamin Constant, and Baudry.
Carolus Duran was one of the traditionalist painters who frequented Montgeron. Carolus was amusing, had no doubts about anything, especially not himself, and he was quite right because he was extremely talented. He frequented numerous salons of which he was often the official portraitist. In fact, he has left us one of the rare existing portraits of Monet. He was incredibly charming, and fascinated everyone by his conversation which was something of a monolog. He danced, rode horses, sang, played the piano like everyone else, but also played the organ like James Tissot and was an excellent pistol shot. He lived quite close by and often came over to pay a neighborly call and enliven the evenings. He remained close friends with Monet.
On the avant-garde side, there was Georges Charpentier, the publisher, who founded La Vie Moderne, an excellent magazine condemned by its very quality to a short lifespan. Charpentier had the brilliant idea of organizing one-man shows of paintings at the magazine's offices, an extremely daring move for the times. Renoir exhibited there, as did Monet.
It was difficult to work in that atmosphere of a perpetual carnival. Yet Ernest, ever the attentive host, had thought of everything and a pavilion originally built as an orangery, away from the house, served Monet as a studio. In wanting to immortalize Rottenbourg, Ernest might almost have had a premonition.
He left it to Monet to choose the subject matter that seemed best to express the spirit of the place. Monet decided to decorate the rotunda drawing room with representations of the white turkeys who strutted through the park, the massed dahlias by the pool, and the pool itself. He later added a hunting scene, depicting figures in the undergrowth, including Ernest himself in the foreground.
Monet remained at Rottenbourg for a long time, and managed to produce a lot of work there, but it is not known if Camille ever came to join him. It was only when they returned to Paris that the Hoschede and Monet families -- parents and children --became really close friends. There is at least one park engraved in the memories of the youngest members of the family. It is the Parc Monceau in which Marcel Proust and the beautiful Be;nardaky sisters would come to play a few years later, as described in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
While Monet was staying at Montgeron, Alice perceived the unmistakable signs of shaky finances. Ernest was spending less and less time at Rottenbourg and seemed to be increasingly preoccupied. She was gradually left more alone with her children, the servants and the company of an artist who produced very brilliant work. This gave her plenty of time in which to eventually compare her overgrown child of a husband with this simple but reliable man.
The specter of ruin hovered in the background. Nevertheless, Ernest, ever an enthusiastic supporter of the Impressionists, bought three new canvases from Monet in the following year, 1877. Then, in August of that year, he was declared bankrupt. The whole of that summer through September, passed in inventory-takings, court-ordered auctions, and other horrors. About 50 Impressionist paintings in his collection were sold, all at ridiculously low prices. The twelve canvases by Monet were sold at an average of only 184 francs each.
After some terrible tribulations including some humiliating episodes, the ruined Hoschede;s with their six children, Marthe, Blanche, Suzanne, Jacques, Germaine and Jean-Pierre, plus a housemaid, governess and cook moved in with Camille and Claude Monet -- who were themselves impoverished -- at Ve;theuil.
Text and photographs copyright ©
1989 by Ste
Nlle des Editions du Chêne
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Cookery, French, Monet, Claude, 1840-1926