How do you write a nonfiction book about the lives of three women who were barely recognized in their own lifetimes? Hortense Fiquet, Camille Doncieux and Rose Beuret are not familiar historical names. Yet they were the wives of three of the most influential artists of the twentieth century: Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin.
Ruth Butler does a remarkable job of research and literary detective work to give personality and substance to these women who literally lived in the shadow of their husbands. For example, when Paul Cezanne met the woman he would marry is revealed in a letter he wrote to his sister. However, it is only through the birth certificate of their son born some three years later that we learn Hortense Fiquet's name; and she will not become Hortense Cezanne until 14 years later.
Similarly, Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux married some three years after their son was born, although their names appeared as husband and wife on Jean's birth certificate. For Auguste Rodin and Rose Beuret, their wedding did not take place until shortly before her death in 1917, though she was thought of as his wife almost from the beginning of their relationship in 1864.
All of these women began their relationships with these men as artists' models. In 1947 a discovery in some old boxes belonging to Monet indicates that Camille Doncieux had been his model for an unfinished painting much earlier than had been assumed. There are many paintings of Hortense Fiquet over many years. We find a somewhat different relationship with Rose Beuret and Auguste Rodin. Not only was she a model for many of his sculptures, but she also helped him with the art work—primarily making sure that the clay sculptures were kept moist with wet towels until he could preserve them in a plaster mold.
Hortense Fiquet and Camille Doncieux never really experienced the life of being married to a famous artist. Most of their lives were spent struggling to make ends meet. When paintings were sold, they had money; otherwise, their husbands relied on friends for support. This resulted in much moving about. On the other hand, Rose Beuret saw her husband become famous and for the most part they always had money—she was a seamstress and could help supplement their income in the early years. But, even with the money, they lived a very austere lifestyle.
These three women experienced living with men who were totally focused on their art almost to the exclusion of anything else. They all experienced living alone with their children for long periods of time. They all experienced other women in their husband's lives. And through all of this, they remained the family to whom these men returned.
As a docent who spends considerable time around art, I found this book to be fascinating. Even though Butler had to rely on second and third hand sources (letters, public records, books about their husbands, etc.), she makes each one of these women come alive and presents three distinctly different personalities who—even though they lived their lives in the shadow of their husbands—were women of substance.
Ruth Butler is professor emerita, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the author of the award-winning book Rodin: The Shape of Genius, published by Yale University Press.
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