Michel Monet’s rich legacy of art had been casually, not to say carelessly, stacked about his house since 1926. His own tastes ran to hunting trophies and garish African souvenirs. The inheritors had to scramble from attic to cellar, and even under the beds, the find the ninety-two canvases that became the property of the nation. Such is the story of Michel Monet, son and sole heir of Claude Monet, one of the first and greatest impressionists.
Stacked in his cellar, piled up anywhere, were ninety-two works by Jongkind, Boudin, Signac, Renoir, Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot, Delacroix, and Monet himself. Forty-two of them were his own canvases. For sentimental reasons, Monet had kept his portraits of his sons and the enchanting Women On a Beach, featuring his first wife, Camille. A conservative estimate, in early 1960’s prices was over five and a half million dollars. And that despite the fact that Miche Monet cared little for his father’s paintings, and sold one whenever he needed money, probably for cash.
That these masterpieces should not have tempted burglars is less surprising than it seems: for a quarter of a century after Monet’s death, they did not even tempt connoissieurs. Monet’s retirement to Giverny coincided with the emergence of a “last manner” which specialists of impressionism considered a decline. Indeed, the bold freedom and radical power of the “Nympheas,” as the water-lilly paintings were called, has often been attributed- Michel Monet’s own opinion-to his failing eyesight. Fauvism, cubism, surrealism, and geometric abstraction further contributed to plunge Monet into oblivion.
After World War I, France’s grand old statesman, Clemenceau, who commissioned the climactic Nympheas series for the Orangerie and forced them upon the state, was practically his sole defender.