Claude Monet's first breakthrough was not the 'impression' of a sunrise that lent its name to a movement but a full-length figure in contemporary dress that he submitted to the Salon of 1866 under the title Camille. Posed against a red curtain on a canvas more than seven feet high, a woman in a green and black striped gown and a black jacket trimmed with fur stands with her back angled towards the viewer, her face partly visible as she turns her head over her shoulder and raises one gloved hand in a gesture both elegant and ambiguous. Though one critic complained that the body beneath the dress was poorly modelled and another implied she was little better than a courtesan, Monet's woman was certainly an attention-getter. A poem in L'Artiste addressed her as the queen of Paris; a friendly caricature of her made the cover of another journal; and Zola, writing under a pseudonym, hailed the 25-year-old artist, whom he had yet to meet, as 'a man in a crowd of eunuchs'. The liberal critic Théophile Thoré (then publishing as William Bürger) contributed to the buzz by reporting that the entire canvas had taken only four days. That wasn't true; but, like another of his claims for the picture, it stuck. 'Henceforth,' he declared, 'Camille is immortal and will be called The Woman in the Green Dress.'
LRB 23 October 2008 | PDF Download