A key piece in the history of art and impressionism holds many mysteries.
Impressionism was the first artistic movement in history that was truly modern. It rejected the inherited canons of representation and pictorial styles, as well as the introduction of innovative techniques such as the behavior and lifestyle of the artist, important aspects that became inseparable from its artistic practices.
Claude Monet, a pioneer of this movement, introduced the fascination with light and its flexible qualities, as well as unusual visual angles as the main ideas expressed through the painting of outdoor landscapes by himself and other advocates. His revolutionary style reached its climax in the early 1870s, with the iconic painting: Rising Sun. However, The Water Lilies defined him as an artist.
Monet Didn’t Paint His Garden; He Turned His Garden into a Work of Art
In 1883, Monet and his large family rented a large property located between the towns of Vernon and Gasny in Giverny that included a double barn (which he ended up using as a painting studio), orchards, and a small garden. In the late 1890s, Monet was able to purchase the property, including its surrounding gardens with a pond. Monet converted this pond into a water lily garden. With the help of a small group of gardeners, the artist diverted a river, and planted imported water lilies, along with other plants such as weeping willows, bamboo, and exotic flowers. Ultimately, the creation of this mesmerizingly beautiful dreamscape was related to Monet’s desire to arrange his property as a large painting.
His Neighbors Hated the Water Lilies
Monet had a Japanese wooden arched bridge built in a narrow part of the water garden and had to control the flow of the Ru River to raise the water temperature and help the water lilies imported to Giverny from Egypt and South America to thrive. This provoked an outcry from the inhabitants of Giverny, as they used the river for washing and believed Monet’s garden would pollute their water. The council demanded that he uproot the plants, but (fortunately for art history) Monet ignored this.
Water Lilies Are Not Just a Painting
Monet painted the gardens around the house and then turned his attention to the water gardens, painting them from 1897 until 1926. He produced more than 250 oil paintings of his water lily ponds and his Japanese bridge, executed at different times of the day and from different perspectives.
The Water Lily Series
The first series of Water Lilies consisting of twenty-five canvases were exhibited in 1900 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris. Nine years later, Monet completed the second series of 48 canvases. To permanently house 8 water lily murals during the 1920s, the French state built two oval rooms in the Musée de l’Orangerie, but the exhibition opened in 1927, only a few months after Monet’s passing.
An Artistic Study of Water and Feelings
In the later images of the Water Lilies, impressionism is combined with expressionism in almost equal measure, as Monet’s attempt to capture natural light and ever-changing color end up dissolving all spatial cues. While blending water and sky, Monet created a peaceful meditation within an environment of flowers and water. Today, these monumental works of French painting represent not only what was in front of Monet’s eyes, but also what he was feeling.
Poorly Received by Critics
Critics called these paintings messy and suggested that the works had to do with Monet’s blurred and declining vision. Critics mocked Monet’s color palette and his argument that his depiction of flora, water, and light was an artistic choice, leading to initial disdain for the now-revered series. Years later, Monet completely lost sight in one eye.
Monet Destroyed Several Paintings in This Series
Considering how cruel his critics were, it is not surprising that in his later years, Monet became very selective about which paintings he would sign and try to sell. In 1908, Monet destroyed 15 of his water lilies before they were exhibited at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris. The painter was not at all happy with the outcome of these works, so he felt it was better to destroy them than to exhibit them.
An Immersive and Meditative Experience
In 1928, Monet completed a series of 12 paintings that he intended to exhibit in a specially designed oval room where viewers could enter and receive the illusion of an endless whole, of water without a horizon. As mentioned earlier, the French government authorized the construction of a pair of oval-shaped rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris as a permanent home for 8 huge wall paintings of Monet’s Water Lilies. Other panels are on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
The Fire that Destroyed the Paintings
In 1958, a terrible fire broke out at MoMA, which destroyed two of Monet’s newly acquired Water Lilies. The loss devastated art lovers, who sent letters of condolence to the museum. In 1959, MoMA had another opportunity to own part of the series when it acquired a huge triptych of Water Lilies.
Where to Find Them?
The paintings can be found in museums around the world, including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the National Museum of Wales, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, among others.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva