MONET’S WATER LANDSCAPES
Twentieth-century art is inconceivable without Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies.
They are, in many ways, as important in the history of artistic invention as the Analytic Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque or the decorative abstraction of Henri Matisse. Painted between 1899 and the painter’s death in 1926, they are among the greatest "late" works in the history of art, rivaling those of Titian, Rembrandt, Chardin, and Cezanne as landmarks in the history of easel painting. Monet himself was aware of the importance of his paintings of water lilies and contributed a good deal to our understanding of them. Indeed, he was obsessed by these paintings, which he called "water landscapes" and he painted little else during the last twenty-five years of his life.
Monet moved to his long, rustic farmhouse in Giverny in 1883. In 1890, he acquired more property and devoted himself to creating out of it an ideal garden, as distinct from the real, rural subjects he had painted and continued to paint until 1900. The garden was divided into two major parts: the flower garden near the house, and, in a swampy field, the water garden created by diverting a tributary of the Epte River. The flower garden was arranged in a rectilinear pattern of paths, while the water garden was completely curvilinear, encircling a peanut-shaped pond with a Japanese footbridge at the narrow focal point. The flower garden was useful as well as beautiful, providing flowers for the house and studio. The water garden’s only purpose was to be beautiful.
The earliest series of water landscapes was painted in 1899 and 1900 and represents the Japanese footbridge from the larger end of the pond. In these paintings, including the Art Institute’s Pool of Water Lilies, water lilies cover most of the surface of the pond and leave only small areas for actual reflections. The pictorial space of these early paintings is conventional — the horizon line is clearly fixed so that the water takes up the lower half of the pictorial field, while the bridge and trees that dominate the upper half act as a point of reference that makes the remainder of the space in the sunlit pool legible. These early water landscapes are bounded by trees at the end of the pool, keeping the viewer within the confines of Monet’s ideal world. Monet became less and less concerned with conventional pictorial space in his transcription of the water garden. By 1904, the horizon line of the water landscapes had crept to the very top of the canvas, and, by 1906, when Water Lilies was painted, there was no horizon line at all. For Monet, the subject of the paintings increasingly became the surface of the water. At once a mirror of the world above and a window into the world within the pool, Monet’s illusionistic surface was in every sense the ultimate pictorial surface.
Monet’s paintings of his water garden did not follow a clear progression from conventional landscapes to radical treatments of the surface of both pond and canvas. Monet worked in fits and starts. Sometimes, his eyes troubled him, and he was unable to see correctly. At other times, he was overcome by bouts of depression, boredom, or self-doubt. These had a dramatic effect on his work. We know, for example, that he started a good many more paintings than he finished in his latter years and that he also destroyed works of art because of what he perceived to be their failures. In fact, the painter destroyed at least fifteen major paintings of the water garden just before they were to be exhibited at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris in 1908. Few painters of his generation demanded as much of their paintings as did Monet.
Monet’s aim was not solely to create a viable pictorial surface. By 1910, he had transcended the conventional boundaries of easel painting and had begun to create immense decorations that culminated in the series of water lilies commissioned by the French government for two oval galleries in the Orangerie. Monet began the series in 1916 and worked on it until his death, creating a number of huge triptychs and other groups of canvases designed to be seen together. No longer was the painter interested in decorative series. Rather, he created immense, unified decorations.
The importance of these paintings cannot be overestimated. They were created at a time in the history of western painting when the conventions of representation, either of solid bodies in space or of illusionistic landscape space, were under scrutiny. It is amazing to be reminded that these canvases were painted nearly four years before Analytical Cubism changed forever concepts of the solidity of the figure in pictorial space, proving that the elderly Monet was as much a radical as the young Picasso or Braque.
The remarkable aspect of Monet’s late decorative painting is its facture — the rugged, almost pock-marked surface that Monet had developed by 1916. The hearty spring flowers in Iris by the Pond emanate from a surface so complex and dense that it resembles a roughened plaster wall. Gone is the subtle interplay between the canvas and the painter’s marks that was such an important part of Impressionist painting. Never completed, Iris by the Pond was in Monet’s studio at the time of his death in 1926. Unlike many of his late canvases, it was not finished by another hand to make it saleable. Hence, when we stand before it, we can experience with remarkable authenticity the inner workings of the artist’s mind as he struggled to push painting to a new, transcendent realm.
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