Claire Joyes : «Monet, a good but unbearable man!»

An experienced art historian and specialist of Impressionism, Claire Joyes is not a “givernoise” like any other. Her spouse, the painter Jean-Marie Toulgouat, who died in 2006, was the great grandson of Alice Hoschedé-Monet and the grandson of the American artist Theodore Butler. Over tea, Claire Joyes opened the book of her fantastic lineage …

You live in Lilly Butler’s house, which your mother-in-law, acquired to raise Jean-Marie, born in 1927…

Absolutely ! This house has a soul. They lived here ! When Lilly bought this property, it was a farm. She wanted to be near her father Theodore, who lived next door. Lilly, who died in August 1949, raised my husband there. He didn’t grow up in Claude Monet’s house, as some have written ! However, he would go there every Thursday to see his great-aunt, Blanche Hoschedé-Monet. …

So… was it Blanch who gave him his passion for painting ?

It was first his grandfather, Theodore. He had made him an easel for his height. They painted side by side. Then Blanche became his teacher. Because she had no children, Jean-Marie was her favourite. And because he had a disability, she made a fuss of him. Even too much ! I have a picture taken during the war, representing Blanche, Lilly and Jean-Marie in front of the fireplace. All three were very close…

As a teenager, it has been said that Jean-Maris built a small boat and used old Claude Monet’s canvases to repair it. Is this anecdote true ?

He possessed, indeed, a very beautiful Canadian Peterborough canoe. The bottom was damaged and so, it needed to be recovered. It was Blanche who suggested he use pieces of paintings which were to be burnt ! Claude Monet used to stack, in the garage, canvases with he was dissatisfied. When he had enough of them, he burnt them. How heart-breaking for Blanche to burn these sacred souvenirs ! So, she gave them to Jean-Marie. I myself used this canoe ! Much later, the small boat burnt accidentally in a warehouse…

Blanche was, for Jean-Marie, a precious oral source. What did she transmit to him about Claude Monet ?

Jean-Marie was born nine months after Monet’s death. He knew him only through Blanche. What is certain is that Monet was good but with a bad-temper ! Marguerite, his Berry cook often said “Ah Madam Blanche, she wept so often !” He gave everybody hell… he was unbearable ! What I reproach Claude Monet for, is leaving nothing to Blanche. When in 1897, she married Jean, his elder son, Blanche signed a wedding contract: an amateur thing, total nonsense ! If she had children, she would inherit this. If she had no children, she wouldn’t inherit that. And she had no children ! But who took care, at the end of this life, of Claude Monet and his house ? Of course, Michel was there. But Blanch was there too !

Some gossip related to the relationship between Blanche and Claude Monet disgusts you…

Some suggest indeed they were lovers. It’s outrageous ! If I were a Hoschedé by blood, I would take these people to court ! A maid have found hairpins in Claude Monet’s bed ? These are rumours ! This woman surely never went into the painter’s bedroom ! She propably came just for the day to help permanent domestic staff. And so would never have had access to the private quarters. To even repeat such rumours shows total ignorance of life in society !

You disapprove also of the portrait generally painted of Michel Monet, the artist’s younger son…

In some guides, we can read he didn’t get on at all with Claude Monet. But it’s wrong ! He loved his father and this father loved his son. He is always described as a bear. False again ! He was modest, reserved. Marguerite, the cook who I knew very well, told me he tried to go unnoticed ! He was very shy. When they received guests who he didn’t know very well, he asked for a picnic basket and left for the hills with Jean-Pierre Hoschedé. Michel was very kind and was always there when Jean-Marie needed him. The last time I saw him, it was the year of his death. He was 88. He had come to pay the gardener and was on the way to have tea with his “half-sister”, Germaine (one of Alice’s daughters), called “Maine”, with whom he was also very generous…

It would seem that Michel had a daughter who didn’t acknowledge, Rolande Verneiges. And her descendants are in possession of unreleased work of art and memorabilia of the Impressionist painter, soon to put up for auction, in Hong-Kong, at Christie’s ! What do you think ?

This rumour sullies Michel’s name. In my opinion, Rolande is not his daughter ! Michel married Gabrielle Bonaventure, called Gaby, a model. Rolande’s mother was also a model and moved in the same circles as Gaby. And that’s all !

Between Michel’s death and the beginning of the Restauration led by Gerald Van der Kemp, did you have the opportunity to come inside Claude Monet’s property ?

The first time I entered in the house, it actually was with Gerald Van der Kemp. Just before the Restauration. I didn’t feel I should enter prior to being officially invited ! The walls were damp but the house tidy. I remember on the second studio’s stairs, we walked on Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters ! Viewed from the gate, the garden simply consisted of lawns. There was no structure at all and the flowerbeds were not planted. The biggest problem ? The big water lilies studio where a volleyball net had been installed ! There were prints and books on the floor… children had not respected the place !

How did your husband help with the restauration of the Impressionist painter’s property ?

As an architect he mapped out the garden with precision ! For the plants, James Butler, Lilly’s brother, I mean Jean-Marie’s uncle, was of precious assistance with his memories. A great botanist who spoke ten languages ! James was 33 when Monet died. His memories were therefore very precise and easy to recall for such a knowledgeable man. It was unbelievable ! Jean-Marie also gave precious information. In the house, the colours on the walls are the true colours ! Today, the display of the copies inside the studio living-room and the bedroom enable one to become immersed in the yesteryear atmosphere. Visitors appreciate this because they realize in particular how fantastic Claude Monet’s private collection was…

The original paintings are, by the way, in the Marmottan museum exhibition – «Monet collectionneur»- until the 14th January !

It’s a wonderful exhibition. I lent two works of art: Ernest Hoschedé’s portrait and the one of Marthe (one of Alice’s daughters). Marianne Mathieu, the curator, has in particular visited Gabrielle Bonaventure’s descendants. She had indeed a daughter that she always claimed she was her niece ! She found a beautiful photo of Monet sitting on a sofa in the studio living-room. Nobody knew this picture. It is superb !

Besides these works of art, do you possess epistolary or photographic documents ?

There are some of James’ letters addressed to his aunt Germaine. But it is the Piguet clan who have possession of the most epistolary documents. Why ? Germaine, Philippe Piguet’s grandmother had left Giverny and wrote to her mother Alice almost every day ! Between the Piguets and us, the ties are close. The two cousins, Sissi (Germaine’s daughter) got on already marvellously ! They both got married in 1926, in the presence of Claude Monet… I also have numerous documents and photos that I regularly lend for exhibitions.

Without forgetting Alice and Claude Monet’s recipe notebooks of which you have made a book (“Monet’s cookbook”) !

Jean-Marie had a recipe book from his great aunt, Marthe, who was Theodore Butler’s second wife. They now belong to me. Originally, I didn’t want to do this book. It was not my field. But one day, I received a call from Honey Rodgers, whose husband was the ambassador of the United States in France (1985-1989). She told me “I saw an American woman who would like to write Monet’s recipes. But I know, the recipes are at your home ! What does this history mean ?” This woman had no recipes, no editor, no photographer, nothing. She wanted to do something fake. So I did this book, dedicating it to Marguerite the cook. And I’m glad I did it ! Today, it is published around the world.

You are also the author of several books on Claude Monet (“Claude Monet in Giverny”, Ed. Gourcuff Gradenigo…). Do you envisage to write more ?

I would like to work again on the spirit of the series because it seems very important to me. I would also like to write on Monet and the State. And there are two questions I would like to resolve: why Debussy was not connected to Monet ? And why Albert Kahn and Monet didn’t know each other ? I also want to give more lectures. In the past, I spoke in Washington and in the museum of Savannah (Georgia). What memories !

You wrote about Giverny yesteryear, what do you think about Giverny today ?

It is so exploited. The history of the village needs to be respected. When you think the poet Vladimir Maïakovski stayed here ! As did Aragon, I met him and he stayed at La Dîme, the guest house which was owned by my father-in-law Teddy Toulgouat. In “Aurélien”, he refers to Giverny ! What worries me today, is the style of people who buy beautiful houses. Theodore Butler’s has been totally wrecked by those who bought it in 1953. The façade has become like a suburban house ! As for La Dîme, it should have been classified. Some buildings are now too manicured. So stylish. At that time, all kids used to play together. It was a world without snobbery !