While reading and writing about the Impressionists, I realized that the life and personality of Claude Monet, the most popular artist of all time, remain largely unknown. He seems to have vanished into his pictures. Yet he lives on in two great novels: his friend Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (L’Oeuvre) and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Zola and Proust bring him out of the shadows and illuminate his life and genius.

Zola’s The Masterpiece (1886) is—with Balzac’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (1831), James’s “The Madonna of the Future” (1873), and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)—one of the greatest portraits of the artist in nineteenth-century fiction. Zola said that his doomed hero, Claude Lantier, a failed artist, was based on several painters, “un Manet, un Cézanne dramatisé, plus près...


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