Joe Byrd has worked in the publishing industry for 50 years. As a McGraw-Hill editor, he managed a computer publishing system and was motivated to become a pioneer in electronic publishing. His new book, Monet & Oscar, is the first in a planned series of historical novels. Here, Byrd discusses this labor of love and his years-long research into the life of French Impressionist painter Claude Monet.
I first found Claude Monet while sitting among 300 students in a college Humanities 101 class. He spoke to me. He told me about color, brush strokes, and impressions rather than photographic reproduction of live scenes. He became a lifelong friend who helped a boy from West Virginia's coal region learn about art.
10 years later, I was riding in a 1950 Cadillac sedan, the kind the mob bosses used, into Paris to deliver it to the French film industry. It was late at night when we arrived at a small smoky restaurant in the Contrescarpe neighborhood. I woke under a glass ceiling covering a porch/bedroom blinded by the spring sun the following day. I fell in love with Paris and the cobblestone streets and the ancient buildings that surrounded me from that moment on.
Monet and I didn't visit on that trip, but when I returned home to California, I saw Monet's paintings in person for the first time at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. I was hooked on his paintings. We have been close friends ever since. I attended every exhibit I could find and visited many of our nation's top museums, from San Francisco to Chicago to New York and Washington.
I was in Chicago on a business trip when I discovered that a Monet exhibit was being held at the Art Institute. I was turned away at the entrance because all tickets were sold out. Disheartened, I was descending the steps from the exhibit when I saw a booth offering memberships. Memberships included two tickets to the exhibit. I immediately became a member.
On another occasion, I learned that an exhibit of Monet’s series paintings was being offered in New Orleans. I purchased tickets and booked a weekend to attend the exhibition. One highlight of the trip was eating in a restaurant that served a sumptuous meal based upon some of Monet’s favorite dishes including his favorite dessert, vert-vert cake.
At every stop, I purchased books about Monet.
Each book was a revelation about his life and art. Only one thing was missing: the authors didn't devote enough space to describing Monet as a person. I scrutinized each one looking for the motivations and personality of the artist who created such masterpieces.
I traveled to Paris to learn more. The Musée d'Orsay was my first stop. There were many fine paintings and several books I didn't have in my collection. But I thought there must be more. By chance, I found the Musée Marmottan where Monet's private collection was housed. I boarded the Metro that took me to 2 Rue Louis Boilly, where I walked through a park full of excited children to this Empire period townhouse that contains 300 of Monet's finest work and many paintings from his later life that I hadn't seen before. But still there was little about Monet, the man.
I visited his home at Giverny and spent the night in his son, Michael's home. I found Monet in his garden, around his lily pond. At dawn the following day, I walked the fields where he painted to feel and see what he experienced. When I returned to Monet's garden, I found him sitting on a bench staring at the lilies in his pond. We didn't speak. I was reluctant to disturb his focus on the scene that he spent the last decades of his life painting. The essence of light reflected by the flowers and water seems to have captured his soul, and there was little time for him to paint anything else.
As I roamed his house and studio, I began to feel the presence of the master. With each return trip, I thought I understood him better. The Japanese woodblock prints in his dining room shocked me. I was bedeviled by three questions. What were these prints? Why were they here? What role did they play in his art? From then on, I was also searching for answers to these questions to help me understand the Japanese connection to Impressionism. This search led me to a greater understanding of Monet and the Impressionist movement, included in the book I was to write years later.
I returned to California and began reading and re-reading the research material I had collected. I purchased more. Most notably, Daniel Wildenstein's Monet: The Triumph of Impressionism, a four-volume set that contains every one of Monet's paintings plus an extensive history of Monet's life. Ross King's Mad Enchantment was another revealing account of Monet's final years. I also attended Japanese woodblock print exhibitions in San Francisco and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. At last, I was getting a clearer picture of Monet and his fellow painters.
After 60 years, I began studying French again to be able to read Monet’s letters to his wife Alice and his numerous friends. I also wanted to read Monet’s biography, Claude Monet: Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre. I was beginning to understand more about Monet, the man behind his art.
This 30-year research project led me to commit to writing a book about Monet, the man, and his family. After 10 years of writing and rewriting the opening scene in my head, I finally sat down to write it in 2019. I chose to write a novel instead of a biography because I feel fiction is a more accessible way for readers to understand history.
I wanted readers to get to know Monet as a real person, not just as a famous artist. I chose to focus on Monet as a family man with a large and dynamic family. He was the quintessential starving artist that spent one winter surviving on a diet of only potatoes. He borrowed money from everyone he knew because he was consumed by debt. He continually battled with the art establishment as he strived to gain acceptance for Impressionism, the art form he was instrumental in creating. In other words, he was a flawed and courageous man who strived all his life to gain the acceptance he finally achieved.
I chose to tell this story through the eyes of a fictional character who was able to join Monet’s inner circle and relate the facts of his life in very human terms. Although the main character is fictional, the details of the story are mostly based upon fact. The real characters are as accurate as I could make them given the facts available. Monet’s garden description is based upon research and personal visits. The sumptuous meals that Monet enjoys are based upon recipes from those who prepared them for him. His various travels that allowed him to paint many of the significant scenes from France to England, the Netherlands, Italy and Norway are well documented.
This novel is the result of my years of discovery. I hope you will feel my effort has been worth it and that your time has been well spent reading Monet & Oscar: Essence of Light and getting to know Claude Monet, the man behind his painting.
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