PARIS—At the French capital’s Musée Rodin, a vestige of a decades-long friendship between two of France’s most legendary artists is easy to miss.
On the building’s second floor, Belle-Île by Claude Monet is displayed in a small, gilded frame. The painting was one of a series devoted to the rugged shoreline of a small island off the coast of Brittany, where the Impressionist great spent almost three months in the fall of 1886.
“I am in a wonderfully wild region, with terrifying rocks and a sea of unbelievable colors; I am truly thrilled,” Monet wrote in a letter to fellow French painter Gustave Caillebotte.
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Monet ended up painting 39 works devoted to the striking vistas, mercurial climate, and changing light of Belle-Île-en mer, one of which he gave to Rodin in exchange for a copy of the sculptor’s Jeune mère dans la grotte.
Born just two days apart, it’s unclear exactly how and when the Impressionist painter first encountered the master sculptor. Art historians tend to agree that it was likely through the artistic circles both men frequented in the late 19th century, which included the writers and critics Octave Mirbeau and Gustave Geoffroy. They bonded over a shared pursuit of nature in their works—“I am fencing, wrestling with the sun,” Monet wrote to Rodin from Provence— and Rodin credited Monet for “helping me understand light, the clouds and the sea.”
At the end of the 19th century, several other paintings in Monet’s Belle-Île-en-mer series were exhibited together with Rodin’s works at a prestigious Paris gallery, which is where the longtime friendship between the two men hit a snag.
The gallery belonged to a prominent art dealer named Georges Petit, who was one of turn-of-the-century France’s key art world players. His eponymous gallery located on the Rue de Sèze not far from the Madeleine Church had already exhibited the works of several notable Impressionist painters, including Monet’s, as well as some of Rodin’s sculptures. In 1889, the Galerie Georges Petit organized a double exhibition in the space, which featured 145 of Monet’s paintings and three dozen works by Rodin.
Even though Rodin was the more established of the two at that time, he wasn’t about to be upstaged—even by his good friend. During an early morning visit to the gallery on the day of the show’s opening, he embarked on a surreptitious reorganization project, which resulted in the prominent display of his monumental Les Bourgeois de Calais in front of a large wall of Monet’s canvases.
“My display in the back, the best of my works, is completely lost because of the placement of Rodin’s group,” Monet complained in a bitter letter to Petit. “The damage is done… it’s devastating for me.”
He added that the two artists could have cooperated on the placement of the works resulting in “a beautiful arrangement without harming each other.”
But Rodin was having none of it. On the contrary, he was more than willing to throw his buddy under the proverbial bus.
“I don’t give a damn about Monet,” he told the writer Edmond de Goncourt. “I don’t give a damn about anyone! The only thing I’m concerned about is myself.”
The Galerie Georges Petit closed in the early 1930s (the space is currently occupied by a massage therapy office), and the 145 Monet works displayed at the friendship-altering joint show are scattered around the world either in museums or as part of private collections. I was able to get ahold of a copy of the original exhibition guide and was surprised to find that just a handful of the Monets are in France. Among them are La Gare Saint-Lazare, which is displayed at the Musée D’Orsay and Vetheuil dans le Brouillard, which hangs at the Musée Marmottan.
Many of Rodin’s pieces from the fateful show have found a home in his museum, including Tête coupée de Saint Jean and Galatée, the latter of which, when viewed in profile, seems to gaze dreamily out a second-floor window. The oeuvre behind the fallout, Les Bourgeois de Calais, is displayed in the museum’s gardens.
But Rodin’s slights against Monet apparently went beyond his egocentric hijinks at the exhibition. The sculptor was almost as famed for being a tireless womanizer (satyr was a more apt word during his time) as he was for his art. In addition to his tempestuous, decade-long affair with Camille Claudel, he was rumored to have had liaisons with numerous models, dancers, and various hangers-on—all while remaining coupled with his long-suffering partner, Rose Beuret.
Apparently, the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s mother Agnes, then a young American abroad, had a #MeToo-esque run-in with Rodin as well.
“…She felt threatened one day when he locked the door of the studio, turned off the telephone, and started to embrace her,” Graham wrote in her autobiography. “She pleaded with him that she loved him for his great art and his teaching, which she didn’t want to lose, and, amazingly, he accepted this.”
Graham added that Rodin nevertheless couldn’t understand why the young woman refused to pose nude on horseback while holding a javelin.
But back to Monet, whose progeny were reportedly also subjected to his friend’s lecherous whims. Recalling a dinner at the painter’s house, their mutual friend Mirbeau claimed that Rodin “stared so insistently at Monet’s four beautiful daughters” that one by one they left the table.
However, despite Rodin’s exhibition subterfuge and libidinous gazes at his offspring, Monet appears to have eventually forgiven his frenemy. Rodin continued to visit Monet at his home in Giverny, where, in 1894, Monet introduced him to another giant of French painting, Paul Cézanne.
“I was delighted by your letter,” Rodin wrote to Monet in 1897. “Because you know that being as preoccupied as we both are with our pursuit of nature, expressions of friendship may suffer, but the same sentiment of brotherhood, the same love of art, makes us friends forever.”
Monet in turn wrote the preface for the catalogue of Rodin’s solo show in Paris 11 years after the fallout from their joint show. In the catalogue, Monet described him as “a man unique in his time—great even among the greatest.”
During my visit, the museum was hosting a joint Picasso-Rodin exhibition and I couldn’t help but wonder how Rodin and his infamously oversized ego would have reacted to his works sharing space with those of another of history’s megalomaniacal master artists. Given his conduct at the Georges Petit Galerie some 130 years ago, I tend to think it wouldn’t have gone over too well.
The Rodin-Picasso show is on until early January, after which Le Baiser and other works by the father of Cubism will be transported back across town to the Musée National Picasso-Paris. Monet’s Belle-Île, like other pieces in the museum’s permanent collection, will remain where it is, however.
On its website, the Musée Rodin describes the relationship between Rodin and Monet as une amitié fidèle (a loyal friendship). But I find it fitting that Rodin, whose association with Monet had at least one stormy moment of its own, would end up with a canvas inspired by jagged cliffs and turbulent seas.