Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of the exceedingly small of group of artists known as the Impressionists in 1870’s Paris. They were interested in new scientific ideas and decided to incorporate them into their work. Most significant was the theory of color, proposed by Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889). His theory of color held that sunlight is not white, the color of paint artists used to lighten all colors. Nor was it black, the paint artists used to darken objects. Sunlight is composed of the colors of violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. The proof of his theory was that the rainbow or light shown through a prism contained these colors. This understanding of the nature of light was entirely new, and contrary to the long-held convention since the Renaissance.
When the Impressionists went outside to paint, made possible by the invention of the screw cap for paint tubes, they also became aware that water, wind, and the sun move all the time. To catch movement, their brush strokes needed to be shorter and more visible. Thus, the works tended to look, according to the critics of the time, messy and sketchy. We love the works today, but they were dismissed in their day.
Monet’s career proceeded with its ups and downs, but by the late1880’s, he began to concentrate more and more on the effects of light on objects that he painted over and over at different times of day and in different seasons of the year. The subject of the painting became more and more the colors of the light, not the object painted. He started painting his series of Haystacks and Poplar Trees in 1891, Rouen Cathedrals in1892-93, and Water Lilies (Nympheas) from1897 until 1926. He said, “color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.”
Monet’s career provided the funds needed to purchase a home in Giverny in 1890. His interest in horticulture grew. With a group of gardeners, he diverted a stream in his backyard, and in 1899 he began a water garden, including a Japanese footbridge. He painted 250 water lilies from 1897 until 1926.
Monet’s first series of water lily paintings (1897-99) featured close-up views of the flowers as in “Water Lilies” (1897). This first series was exhibited in 1900 at Galerie Durant-Ruel in Paris. From the beginning, the water lily painting had great success with the public.
Monet’s second series of 48 canvases, including “The Clouds” (1903) (29”x41.5’’), was exhibited in Paris in1907. In this painting, the lily pond and the distant riverbank take up the entire canvas. White clouds are reflected in the moving water.
In another painting in the second series, “Water Lilies” (1904), Monet painted the scene at a different time of day and different season of the year. In this painting the waterlilies are more colorful, and the reflection of trees on the river bank is evident. Monet wrote on August 11,1908, “These landscapes of water and reflection have become on obsession for me.”
This second series of water lily paintings was so popular that the French Government dedicated two rooms at the Musee de l’Orangerie to his paintings. Built in 1852 by Napoleon III, the Orangerie housed orange trees from the Tuileries Garden during the winter season. Monet began the eight water lily paintings for the Orangerie in1914, and he worked on them until his death in 1926.
By 1908, Monet’s eyesight was failing, and it worsened over time. His second wife Alice died in 1911, and he did not paint water lilies again until 1914. “Reflections of a Weeping Willow” (1916) (51.2”x79”) (Metropolitan Museum, New York City) it the result of some changes Monet made in the color palette of his paintings. He chose to paint the flowers with bright dots of color. Monet’s friend George Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France (1906-09 and 1917-20) encouraged Monet to paint larger canvases. The State commissioned 12 monumental paintings to be included in the Orangerie, and that resulted in a Paris exhibition in 1916.
The day after the Armistice (November 11, 1918), Monet offered the French State two large water lily panels as symbols of peace. He worked with the architect of the Orangerie to create two elliptical rooms to display the panels, giving the viewer the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave without horizon and without a shore.” Monet said of his later masterpieces that they were “one instant, one aspect of nature contained in it all.”
The 82 years-old Monet developed cataracts. In 1923 he had three operations., but his eyesight was severely impaired. “Water Lily Pond, Evening” (1926) is one of his last paintings. The colors are bright and fiery, painted with passion. He wrote, “I realized with terror that I could see nothing with my right eye…a specialist…told me that I had a cataract and the other eye was also lightly affected. It’s in vain that they tell me it’s not serious, that after the operation I will see as before, I am very disturbed and anxious.”
According to Clemenceau, Monet told him in early 1926 that the paintings were almost ready: he was “waiting for the paint to dry.” Monet died on December 5, 1926. He left 22 large panels to the French State. The paintings were taken from his studio and placed in the Orangerie. The museum was inaugurated on May 17, 1927, as the Musee Claude Monet. At Monet’s funeral, Clemenceau removed the black shroud covering the coffin and replaced it with a flowered cloth, crying “No black for Monet.”
Two statements by Monet sum up his life and his work: “I am only good at two things, and those are gardening and painting.” “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”
Note: This article is the 150th in the Looking at the Masters series in the SPY. The first article, published on April 14, 2020, was on Monet’s water lilies. That article contained only one picture of the water lilies. This 150th article contains additional information, and more important, a greater number of pictures of Monet’s wonderful water lilies (Nympheas) paintings.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.