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Why are Monet’s 'Water Lilies' so popular?

Posted on 11 Mar 2020

Over the last three decades of his life, Claude Monet devoted himself to water lilies. The results are among the most famous works of the 20th century, hailed by the likes of Masson and Rothko. But what makes these paintings such a triumph?

Image: Monet, Water Lilies, 1905, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Over the last three decades of his life, in one ambitious canvas after another, Claude Monet sat before the lily pond he had created in his Giverny garden, and captured its ever-shifting effects of light, water, reflections, and atmosphere.

The results – totaling some 250 paintings – are among the most instantly-familiar artworks in the world. Most famous is the monumental series of mural-sized canvases he called his Grande Décoration, eight of which were donated to the French nation, and are housed to this day in the Orangerie of the Tuileries gardens in Paris.

What made these works such a triumph? Monet is, of course, beloved for his entire Impressionist oeuvre: the sunrises, the seascapes, the poppy fields, the ladies with white summer frocks and parasols. But the water lilies – or nymphéas – were something altogether more daring and defining.

Image: Monet, Water Lilies, 1907, The Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT

A triumph of creative old age

Monet was already 73 when he begun work on the vast Grande Décoration canvases – well beyond the life expectancy of men of his generation. He was ailing – with cataracts in one eye – and lacerated by the death of his wife, Alice in 1911, declaring himself “annihilated” and “inconsolable”. In 1912, he wrote to a friend “the painter is dead”. Two years later, his son Jean – often featured as a child in his earlier paintings, also died.

With plenty of cash in the bank, Monet could have readily retreated into affluent retirement – and was certainly not averse to lavish demands (employees and locals, as well as Alice, had referred to him as “the marquis”). But in summer 1914, Monet picked up his paintbrushes again: “I have thrown myself back into work,” he wrote to a friend in June, “and when I do that, I do it seriously, so much so that I am getting up at four a.m. and am grinding away all day long.” He would continue to paint through to his death in 1926, producing some of the most pioneering art of his career – and the century.

Image: Monet, Water Lilies, 1908, The Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

A masterwork of garden art

The art of the nymphéas was as much about gardening as painting. Before the canvas works could begin, there was the elaborate project of the Giverny pond itself. It was entirely man-made, with an elaborate range of plants shipped in from South America and Egypt, and carefully arranged by flowering season, colour, and form.

The pond was intended from the outset as an artistic subject: in his planning petition to the authorities Monet specified that the pond would serve “for the pleasure of the eyes and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint”.

Hardly a sustainable gardening project (apart from the non-native plants, he also had water supplies siphoned off from the village), the result was nevertheless a masterful composition, where botanical know-how synthesized with an extraordinary sense of colour. For Marcel Proust, it was “less an old flower garden than a colourist garden…dematerialized from anything but colour.” For the journalist Thiébault-Sisson, it was simply a “fairy garden.”

Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-15, The Portland Art Museum, Oregon

A blueprint for abstraction

“Monet taught me to understand what a revolution in painting can be,” proclaimed the surrealist painter André Masson. “Only with Monet does painting take a turn. He dispels the very notion of form that has dominated us for millennia. He bestows absolute poetry on color”.

In the water lily paintings, Monet eschewed traditional perspective, concentrating his gaze on the surface of the pond. The results were a dazzling, disintegrating, and for the time radically daring, vision. “The water-flowers themselves are far from being the whole scene,” Monet explained. “Really, they are just the accompaniment. The essence of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance alters at every moment.”

With the large-scale Nymphéas that he embarked on after 1914, Monet pushed this bold handling to a whole new scale. Photographs indicate that the artist had his vast canvases carted to the edge of the lily pond, where he would paint on them in the shade of his garden parasol, using new brushes and an oversized palette that he had procured especially for this project.

The works become less and less about constituent elements and orientation, and more about the energetic gestures of paintbrush and pigment. It’s the last, flurried hurrah of Impressionism, and for Rothko, Pollock and their Abstract Expressionist friends, a profound inspiration. There is no frame, no single resting place for the eye, only an immersion in planes and passages of colour. “All the normal markers have disappeared”, says MoMa curator Ann Temkin, “you become lost in this expanse of water and of light.”

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