Arts and Entertainment

Monet’s Water Lilies: Great Art Explained

Claude Monet is often criticised for 
being overexposed, too easy, too obvious.   Or worse a “chocolate box artist”. His last 
works, the enormous water lily canvases   are amongst the most popular artworks in the 
world. Yet there is nothing tame traditionalist   or cozy about these last paintings. 
These are his most radical works of all.   They turn the world upside down with their 
strange disorientating and immersive vision.   Monet’s “Water lilies” have come to be viewed as 
simply an aesthetic interpretation of the garden,   that obsessed him. But they are so much more .
These works were created as a direct response   to the most savage and apocalyptic period of 
modern history. They were in fact conceived as   a war memorial to the millions of lives 
tragically lost in the first world war.   In 1914 at the age of 74, Monet was 
a successful and very wealthy artist.   However, his friends were dying off, and he was 
still mourning his beloved wife’s death three   years earlier, when his son Jean died – then his 
legendary eyesight started to fail.   He should have just retired and enjoyed his old age.
Instead, this was precisely when Monet decided to undertake   a revolutionary new series of paintings, 
that would become his career defining work.   Monet’s last works are eight monumental 
curved panels, specifically designed for the   Orangerie in Paris. One of the greatest artistic 
achievements of early 20th century painting,   They cover a staggering 200 square metres of 
canvas, which surround and envelop the viewer,    with wild gestural abstractions. Monet himself described 
them perfectly when he said it “gives the illusion   of an endless whole. Of a wave with no horizon and 
no shore”. We see them today – or rather experience   them today – the same way viewers did in 1927, when 
they were installed according to Monet’s plans.   Monet worked closely with the architect of the 
two galleries. The paintings would be hung across   the curved walls of two egg-shaped rooms. He 
meticulously planned out the forms, positioning,   rhythm, and even the spaces between the various panels. They
would have filtered daylight coming in from above, that floods the space. The panels with sunrise hues would be positioned to the
galleries in the East, and the sun set scenes to the West. And so the nature of the pictures would change,
with the weather and the position of the sun.   In that sense, they could be considered
the world’s first “art installation”. And yet thirteen years before
these incredible paintings went on display, Monet had  no intention of ever picking up a brush again. Forty years had passed since the notorious 1874
group exhibition which introduced the Impressionists. 
The great Monet had accomplished everything he wanted to, and decided once and for all, to retire his paint brushes. He now claimed to find painting “unremitting torture”. Monet had had enough. Luckily for us, Georges Clemenceau visited Monet,
in his house in Giverny, in late August 1914. Clemenceau was a newspaper editor and
politician who would soon be made prime minister, to help lead France to victory in the First World War. He was an irrepressible force of nature. An art lover 
and a close friend of Monet for over 30 years.   They had gone from “enfants terribles” to grand old men. 
And were two of the most famous men in France.   Clemenceau would flatter and 
sweet talk the depressed Monet,   coax him out of retirement, and persuade him 
to paint again. For Clemenceau, art in general   and Monet’s paintings in particular, were the 
highest expression of French civilisation,   against the threat of German barbarism. In that 
sense – to keep painting was Monet’s “patriotic duty”.   While Monet had been painting his ponds and lilies 
since 1889, by 1914 there had been three years of   creative inactivity. Clemenceau’s visit inspired 
Monet to pick up his brush again, and he began   working intensely on, what he called: “The grand 
decorations”, a radical new departure.   Throughout the war, Clemenceau would nag Monet
to paint, and despite wartime rations, he would make sure Monet  had plenty of art supplies – and cigarettes. And in return, Monet would donate his works to the nation. Monet was deeply affected by the horrors of war.
His stepson was fighting at the front, and his own   son Michel was called up in 1915. He could 
hear the sound of gunfire 50 kilometers away   from his house in Giverny, as he painted. For Monet 
these works would be his very personal response   to the mass tragedy of the First World War. 
Following Armistice day, Monet contacted Clemenceau,   offering a gift of two panels of large-scale 
water lilies to the nation. The canny politician   would soon persuade Monet to extend the gift
to eight panels, by appealing to his ego. Clemenceau despised the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who
had once done an unflattering sculpture of him.   And Rodin, had just donated HIS works to France 
for the creation of the Rodin museum in Paris.   Clemenceau proposed a dedicated space to Monet 
for his “Grand decorations”. Was the rivalry between   the two artists, a reason that Monet was now also 
seeking artistic immortality in a dedicated space? The impressionists, once the radical and 
subversive young artists who scandalised Paris,   were now the mainstream. New Avant-garde 
movements, meant Monet, once the voice of   rebellion, now became the standard to rebel 
against. His new works needed to have an   impact, if Monet was to be as relevant in the 
20th century as he was in the 19th century.   He decided to work on a scale he’d never attempted 
before. His ambition was phenomenal. All eight   panels would be the same height, but differ in 
length. Together they would span a total length of   91 meters or 300 feet. The first task was to build 
a new studio, to accommodate the huge canvases,   with space enough for him to assess his work with 
maximum possible light from top lighting.  It is a myth that Monet painted all his canvases outside, 
A myth Monet himself propagated, when he famously   claimed to not even HAVE a studio. Most of Monet’s 
paintings were started outside, but finished off   in his studio. For these colossal paintings Monet 
worked on up to 12 canvases at the same time,   which were placed on easels fitted with caster 
wheels, and rotated according to the light he was   trying to capture. It also allowed one 
canvas to dry as he worked on another. A single canvas might take 60 sessions of 
intense work, and some were given as many   as 15 layers of paint. One visitor noted 
75 paint brushes and 40 boxes of pigments. Monet chose canvases with a pronounced weave 
whose “Weft” threads were thicker than the “Warp”. He then applied a series of undercoats, letting 
them dry, before applying another. He would often   scrape off paint to create an uneven surface, that 
he would paint over once again, to get a sculptural effect.   He brushed his paints on thickly, so that 
the canvas weave trapped more of the pigment.   and created what has been described as “A textural 
vibration”. He didn’t blend colours over large areas,   but rather did short strokes of colour side by 
side, allowing the eye to mix those spots of colour,   at a distance. Here we can see the action that 
produced these daubs and dashes of broken colour.   As we see, sometimes the strokes are fairly short 
dashes, others are longer vertical strokes. There is   no blending or rubbing, just thrusts of the brush. 
The water lilies themselves are simple strokes.   Then he uses pale yellows and greens, a spot of 
red or a dash of lilac. Then vague strokes of   blue – to suggest shadows. Our eyes do the rest. There 
is a key element missing from Monet’s water lilies:   The horizon. A fundamental element of Western 
painting since the Renaissance. In paintings,  particularly landscape paintings, the horizon 
orientates the viewer, and defines the space.   Showing the spatial relationships within 
the composition. By taking out the horizon,   the water takes up the whole of the canvas, from 
edge to edge. We are left with a vast field of   unfathomable nothingness, of light, air and water. We 
have no sense of scale. Monet somehow positions us   simultaneously floating above the water and 
looking at it head-on. As a viewer, your eyes   tend to roam the canvas, left and right, up and 
down. Looking for a place to settle and anchor,   wondering where the form you are focusing on, quite 
begins and ends, and how exactly it is constructed.   This for me, is why these works succeed so well as 
a war memorial. The image that often comes to mind   is the battle ravaged landscape, along the Western 
front. Like the paintings, those battlefields had no   beginning or end, and no horizons. Time and space 
was forgotten, as soldiers were enveloped in a   sea of mud, surrounded by waterlogged and surreal 
landscapes, which covered their field of vision.   There is a sense of mourning in the work, 
particularly with the truncated weeping willow trees,   gathering us up in their embrace. These paintings 
ARE as Monet intended, not only symbolic of   the loss of the glorious dead of the great war, 
but perhaps all those people Monet had lost too.   In 1912, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts, 
which worsened steadily over the years. For Monet   for whom colour was everything, this was a tragedy. 
Age-related cataracts manifest as a yellowing and   darkening of the lens, and have a major effect 
on colour perception, as well as visual sharpness.   If we look at this early painting by Monet, we 
can see that it is representative of the colours   and details of the actual bridge at Giverny. But 
if we take the Japanese bridge and add a filter,   we can get some idea of how Monet might have 
seen it tonally – after the cataracts developed.   Monet could either paint a yellowish world, or 
he could compensate and neutralise the yellow,   by adding more blue pigment. These late paintings 
show a predominant green blue tone that is quite   different from the subtle colour shading, that 
characterises Monet’s earlier Impressionistic work.   On top of this, his cataracts would blur his vision, 
which may explain why the application of paint is   more abstract, less clear than it once was. These 
are of course aesthetic choices, but we know from   Monet’s own words, that he could no longer see the 
details or make out colours. With all these issues,  it may explain his choice of working on 
such a large scale, as a way to compensate. Persuading monet to make the paintings was easy.
Persuading him to part with them was the difficult bit.   It was up to Clemenceau, to arrange 
the transfer of the artworks from Giverny.   A thankless task, that tested their friendship 
Clemenceau, who had negotiated the treaty   of Versailles, drew on all his diplomatic 
skills, negotiating with the difficult Monet.   The rooms at the Orangerie were completed and ready 
for installation, but Monet hadn’t delivered the paintings.  He was constantly “reworking” them, and 
seemed incapable of finishing. The “Setting Sun”   canvas for example, took him two years. It has 
been repainted over and over, but still Monet   left the lower right hand corner unfinished. 
Painting was keeping him alive. In the end, Monet didn’t let them out of his studio till after his death. Monet died on the 5th of december 1926 at the age of 86, with Georges Clemenceau
at his bedside – holding his hand. The “odd couple” had been friends for over six decades, and it
was, by far, the most profound relationship of both their lives.   The thing they had in common, was their belief 
in the transcendent power of art.   A few months after Monet’s death, the public
finally saw “The Grand Water Lilies” for the first time.   It was NOT a particularly glorious moment. And they were attacked by critics, as the work of
“an old man”, and “Devastatingly dull”. All those colourful smudges and loose brush work
seemed insubstantial and ephemeral, when you compared them to the rigorous
forms of the Cubists and Futurists.   Monet – rejected by the critics in the 19th
century for being TOO radical – was now being criticised in the 20th century, for not being radical enough. Clemenceau himself died in November 1929, devastated by the lack of public interest in his dream. And the works would be largely forgotten about for decades. However in the 1950s, a new generation of American artists, 
The Abstract Expressionists rediscovered Monet,  and these last works in particular, were seen
as a logical jumping off point for abstraction. Artists, including Mark Rothko and Jackson
Pollock were inspired by the last water lilies. Their epic scale, gripping energy,
and emotional impact, thrilled them. They saw them as, less about water lilies, or the morning sun, than they are about the
“pleasures of paint”, “The act of creation”. Nowadays the genius of Monet is indisputable,
the Orangerie, a shrine to his talent.  But although Monet, may have painted, what 
is now called “The Sistine chapel of Impressionism”,   he could never have done it, without 
the vision of Georges Clemenceau.
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