Claude Monet

A Look Back to Monet’s Water Lilies Series

“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” artist Claude Monet once asserted. 80 years after the artist’s passing, Monet’s waterlily masterpiece is still on view in Giverny, France, where 500,000 visitors a year make the pilgrimage to see it during the seven months the display is open.

Claude Monet is considered one of the fathers of Impressionism, a movement which began in Paris during the mid-19th century and marked a revolutionary departure from the then-traditional art world by focusing on capturing light, atmosphere, and the environment rather than a realistic documentation of their subject. (Thus the name of the style is true to its derivation, which is an impression.)

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Claude Monet, 1840 - 1926 Water-Lilies after 1916 Oil on canvas, 200.7 x 426.7 cm Bought, 1963 NG6343 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6343

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Monet was born in Paris in 1840 but grew up in Normandy. After spending the majority of his artistic career in France’s capital, Monet and his family moved to Giverny, France– a place they had vacationed prior during the summers. There he built and tended to his garden with great pride, planting several types of flowers and plants, including agapanthus, imported vegetation, irises, and bamboo, which all became subjects for his paintings. (Maintaining the garden was a full time job for Monet, who also employed six other full-time gardeners: “Everything I have earned has gone into my gardens,” he once said.)

Monet divided the garden into two parts: the flower garden and the Japanese-inspired water garden, where he planted the waterlilies that later became the subject of his most well-known work.

Giverny nymphs Claude Monet Garden

Pierre-Étienne Nataf

Monet’s artistic style evolved considerably throughout his career. Early on, he painted Parisian life and metropolitan scenes, yet, in the early 1890’s, his focus shifted solely to a concern with capturing one subject during different times of day and in different seasons– often elements of the natural world and landscapes. He made dozens of paintings of the same church or landscape, and later, the water lilies in his garden.

From 1897 until his death in 1926, Monet worked on nothing else but painting subjects from his garden (he would later say, only partially in jest, that “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers”).

From 1897 until his death in 1926, Monet worked on nothing else but painting subjects from his garden (he would later say, only partially in jest, that “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers”).

Returning to the same water lilies again and again, Monet documented how their colors changed during different times of day, a study of the constantly-fleeting changes we all regularly observe in nature. His concern was not just to paint what the water lilies look like, but what everything surrounding them looked like. “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right,” he once wrote, “Since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life– the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

Claude Monet Water lilies

Claude Monet

By the end of his career, Monet became less interested in the conventional methods of depicting space. The canvases he used for his Water Lilies series are much larger in scale than his previous work, and he completely let go of a horizon line, focusing solely on his subject. There is no beginning or end; these works envelope the viewer. When I first learned about Monet’s paintings, I was most struck by his very persistence of capturing one subject in all its variety, returning to see, re-seeing, and questioning what is really in front of him. Given all the technology we have to capture images today, what would a contemporary version of Monet’s intense engagement with one subject look like?

Monet depicted the water lilies with such intensity and sensitivity that they verge on loosing their definition as water lilies, becoming mere abstractions. In trying to create and document the reality before him, Monet has simultaneously departed from it. In a way, he anticipated abstract art that would become popular only decades later, with his choice of large canvases, his aversion to spacial setting, and bold brush strokes.

Musee de l’Orangerie Claude Monet

Adrian Scottow

The Water Lilies paintings are owned by several museums around the world, but the most notable display can be found in Paris’ Musee de l’Orangerie. In a small, circular room devoted solely to this series, the canvases are displayed on each wall, complimenting the variations in color and tone between them. (The room is also available for virtual viewing through the Google Art Project). Monet’s work is both an intense depiction of, and a departure from, the garden he planted. As a result, his garden still holds as much significance in the Art World as the paintings it inspired.

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