Interpretive Resource

Analysis: Monet's Iris

An in-depth look at the aging artist's large-scale painting of the lily-dappled surface of his Giverny pond.

Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 71-72.

Monet continually said that the task was too much. His eyesight was so poor that he often had to trust the labels on the painting tubes and his memories of light in choosing the right hue. By the time he began Iris, c. 1922-26, he had begun negotiations with Clemencean and other state officials for the donation of the huge unfinished waterscapes to the French nation, if a suitable building would be designated for them. Measuring some six-and-one-half feet square, Iris is the largest of three variations of a composition that Monet apparently developed (but never used) as a right-hand panel for one of the sectional murals destined to go to the state.

Iris captures the lily-dappled surface of the pond, with its continually changing reflections of light, mist, clouds, and sky, as well as its banks of perennial spring Irises and sun-streaked leaves. In the work we see the culmination of the motif of reflective water that Monet had begun to examine more than a half-century before in On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868. The radiant spring day, however, is no longer an Impressionist representation of nature — the image an eye sees in an instant, rendered in unmodulated, high-keyed color, with short, rapid brushstrokes. Just as Monet’s canvases increased in size, so too did his brushwork grow more expansive, his palette subtler and more complex. Using larger brushes and more sweeping gestures, skeins of color harmonies — of greens, purples, violets, oranges, yellows, and blues —are tossed, scribbled, and stroked on, one layer on top of another.

What seemed unfinished to the early critics of Impressionism has in the Iris painting taken on another dimension. Like the pond itself, the painting has depth: its scumbled surface is so thick, so grainy, that it resembles stucco. It is as if this complex and densely painted image merges with the flora-filled surface of the water. Reality and reflection are blurred. There are no ground planes or horizons; no concepts of near, far, up, or down. Gravity seems not to exist; space is defied. Instead of an Impressionist entity to behold, Monet shows us, in the Post-Impressionist manner, how he experienced the light, the water, these Irises, their leaves. Iris illustrates what Monet’s late great eye perceived: abstractions in color in which to immerse ourselves.

In 1922, Monet signed an agreement with the government to deliver twenty-two panels in two years. They would be housed at the Orangerie in the Tuileries gardens in two specially created elliptical galleries that were designed to mirror the shape of the pool at Giverny. Not only was the Orangerie in the heart of the modern city that had provided Monet and the Impressionists with so many of their early subjects, but Monet delighted in reminding interviewers that the Orangerie was also opposite the site of the old Salon, which had rejected his work so many years ago.

The following year, 1923, Monet had three cataract operations on his right eye. Deadlines came and went. Growing weaker, he nonetheless continued to work, revise, and work some more. On December 5, 1926, Claude Monet died at the age of eighty-six from respiratory illness, with Clemenceau at his side. He struggled to work until the end. Following Monet’s death, the Grandes Decorations were removed from Giverny and glued to the Orangerie walls, making immutable and enduring the artist’s "one instant, one aspect of nature." Despite his faded sight, Monet’s depiction of his final motif — the water lily gardens — is awe-inspiring evidence, ironically, of heeding the advice he gave to a young painter decades before: to see with the freshness of vision of one just granted sight.

The space-defying murals were unveiled May 17, 1927, less than one week before American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) conquered space in the first solo trans-Atlantic airplane flight. Artist Paul Signac (1863-1935) saw the panels just after their opening. He later wrote: "Monet was able to conduct his orchestra until the end. There is not the slightest discord... Generally, when I leave a painting exhibition, I am glad to see the sky, trees and streets again; when I left the Water Lilies, everything looked dry and flat to me." He then added, "I will go back often."

Impressionism, landscapes, water
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