Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Water lilies dominated the last 30 years of Monet’s life. ‘These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me’, he wrote to a friend in 1909. ‘It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel’. It was his beloved garden at his home in Giverny, about 60km northeast of Paris that became the focus of this obsession. ‘Apart from painting and gardening, I am good for nothing’, said Monet; ‘My greatest masterpiece is my garden’.
Monet’s love of gardens first developed in the 1870s while living in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris, where his friend the painter and noted gardener Gustave Caillebotte would visit to discuss their shared passions. From that time, everywhere Monet lived he created gardens and bucolic landscapes that would find their way into his art. When a journalist once asked to visit his studio, Monet replied: ‘My studio! I have never had a studio, and I simply cannot understand how one can lock oneself into a room. Maybe to draw; but to paint … never! Look, that is my studio…’, making a dramatic gesture towards the landscape.
Giverny would become his primary muse. Surrounded by marshland, meadows and woods, Monet loved Giverny from the first time he saw it. He rented a house there in 1883 for himself and his partner, Alice Hoschedé, her six children and his two sons. Seven years later he bought it convinced that he ‘would never again find such accommodations and such a beautiful region’. Monet transformed the property’s simple gardens into a magnificent oasis. He damned a stream which ran through part of the garden, risking the ire of his neighbours to create a water lily pond surrounded by weeping willows, poplars, bamboo, rhododendrons, irises and more. A long time collector of Japanese art, Monet had a Japanese bridge built and painted it his favourite colour: green. The whole garden had an Asian flavour, especially as water lilies were rare in France at the time. As he became more successful, he spent more and more on the garden importing exotic plants and hiring 6 gardeners, one of whose sole tasks was to care for the water lilies. It is unsurprising that Marcel Proust once said Monet’s garden was as dear to him as a favourite wife to a king.
It was in these gardens near the water lily pond that Monet most often set up his easel. He made over 300 paintings of the ponds, the culmination of which were a panoramic series of paintings of water lilies begun when Monet was 76. He worked on the series from 1914 to his death in 1926 and bequeathed them to the French state (with the help of his friend, President Clemenceau). Since 1927 they have been displayed in the custom-built rooms within the Musée de l’Orangerie where 20 huge canvasses fixed together to make eight designs, fill the walls of two large oval halls, giving visitors the sensation of being surrounded by Giverny’s shimmering ponds. The image reproduced here is a section of one of these huge paintings from the first hall.
In it, Monet includes no horizon or land but instead fills the canvas with a shimmering liquid surface scattered with water lilies that seem to float in infinite space. Up close these ethereal flowers, formed by swirling, broad strokes of textured pigment, seem to dissolve into pure colour and light and point towards lyrical abstraction.
Yet Monet’s aim was not abstraction but something more spiritual. He approached the motif with an almost Buddhist sense of tranquil contemplation from which he developed his visual sensitivity to the tiniest nuances. In his garden he would watch for hours the slow process of growth, seasons, weather and then try to capture his experience on canvas. In this last water lily series, he creates a hymn to colour and light and the ultimate expression of his profound love of the natural world.
1914 Giorgio de Chirico: The Song of Love, New York, MOMA
1916 Gustav Klimt: Houses at Unterach on the Attersee, Vienna, Belvedere
1920 Max Beckmann: Carnival, London, Tate
1923 Pablo Picasso: Harlequin, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou
1924 Max Ernst: Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale, New York, MOMA