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100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Claude Monet: Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond - c1920

New York, Museum of Modern Art

In 1883, Monet rented a house in Giverny, about 18 miles from Rouen. Seven years later his financial position was such that he felt able to buy the property enabling him and his second wife Alice to continue with the creation of a magnificent garden which, in 1893, they extended through the acquisition of a further parcel of land across the road. He obtained permission to dam a stream which ran through this new plot enabling him to greatly enlarge an existing small pond and to begin the cultivation of the famous Nymphéas – a variety of white water lily. At one end of the pond he constructed a bridge based on a Japanese design. This garden increasingly became central to his art, providing the defining motifs for his work during the last two decades of his life.

Monet eventually emerged from a period of acute depression following the death of his wife in 1911 with a determination (although by now well into his seventies) to embark on a series of huge canvases depicting the water lilies in his garden pond. At the outset, he conceived these ‘Grandes Décorations’, as he called them, to be a project on such a scale that it would only be possible for them to be properly displayed in a public space. In this conviction he was encouraged by his friend Georges Clemenceau who at the inception of the project was minister of war and later prime minister of France. Without Clemenceau’s coaxing and constant support, which was forthcoming even in the darkest hours of the Great War, it is doubtful that Monet would have continued with the Grandes Décorations or that they would have eventually been suitably displayed by the state. As it was, Clemenceau’s influence ensured that, a year after Monet’s death, the Nymphéas cycle was triumphantly installed in purpose-built rooms in the Orangerie in Paris.

After Monet’s death in 1926 this water lilies triptych was one of the works which remained in the studio which he had constructed specially for his grand project. In the process of creating the (22) panels which eventually ended up in the Orangerie, Monet had painted a number of canvases which did not feature in the final installation, some of which he destroyed, but this triptych is one that mercifully survived.

It is a breathtakingly beautiful work, its dominant size demanding that the viewer immerse themselves in its resonant color. Monet said that his aim was to create ‘the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon.’ The poet and dramatist Paul Claudel wrote that Monet, ‘by addressing himself to the element that is in itself the most docile and penetrable he concentrates on the almost invisible, spiritual surface that divides light from its own reflection. The blue of the sky imprisoned in liquid blue. The only evidence of a surface is the flowers … The light is beaten into blue through the chemistry of water.’

What we see here is Monet, the 20th-century artist, pursuing his own vision towards a personal approximation of the abstract. Unconcerned with the myriad groups and ‘isms’ of the Paris avant-garde, he nevertheless arrived, via a very different route, at a place not so far away from those younger painters who had simultaneously experimented with abstraction and new ways of representing reality. As Clement Greenberg wrote, Monet ‘arrived at a shadow of the traditional picture, the Cubists arrived at a skeleton’. Indeed one could argue that with the creation of rooms at the Orangerie in which his Nymphéas series are installed so that they completely surround the viewer he went even further, heralding the ‘installations’ of the later 20th century.

Contemporary Works

1920 Frantisek Kupka: The Coloured One, New York, Guggenheim Museum

1920 George Grosz: Republican Automata, New York, MOMA


Further Paintings of Interest

Nymphéas; Reflets vert (Waterlilies; Green Reflections)

Claude Monet

Lady at the Tea Table

Mary Cassatt

Dance Class

Edgar Degas