A work of art may be deemed truly successful when it enchants viewers with its very essence as much as with its subject.
Few works in history have achieved this aim quite so thoroughly as Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.
Monet’s Water Lilies aren’t a single work of art but are instead a series of more than 250 paintings. Monet’s debut collection of Water Lilies was first displayed in 1900, and his fixation with the subject did not cease until he died in 1926.
All of these paintings are oil on canvas, and in their entirety betray the heart of the age’s artistic style: free, subjective, and sometimes bordering on abstract. The subject for Monet’s Water Lilies was actually his own property in Giverny, where he planted and manipulated the lilies to create the greatest possible source of inspiration.
Though some of these works feature additional pops of color, they are largely imbued with coolness: blues, greens, and even purple dominate the palettes. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Monet’s Water Lilies is the fact that, although they are technically landscape portraits, they do not feature a horizon line at all.
Instead, Monet focused all of his attention on the water’s surface. Sometimes willows will creep their way into the foreground, other times the only acknowledgment of anything outside the water is through reflection. This method of perspective resulted in paintings that are spatially disorienting in a very beautiful way.
Thanks to Monet’s prolific painting of this subject, different pieces of this 250 piece collection can be viewed all over the world. From the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Toledo Museum of Art, Monet’s Water Lilies are bound to be within reach of most of the world’s citizens.
Perhaps one of the most famous (and permanent) installations of Monet’s Water Lilies can be found at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. It was here that Monet was commissioned to create a permanent Water Lilies installation that would take up an entire room—and that it does. The oval-shaped room’s walls are covered with Water Lilies, a striking section of vivid color against an otherwise neutral backdrop.
Labor of Love
Monet described his fixation with the water lilies as an obsession, and it proved to be a deep love rather than a fleeting infatuation. The earliest shreds of this obsession can, perhaps, be traced back to 1883 when he first rented his house in Giverny. It was here that his eventual love for the lilies would blossom, though that took some time and effort to come to fruition.
When Monet purchased the house 10 years later in 1893, he also bought an adjacent meadow which contained a pond that was fed by a branch of the Seine. He hired a team of gardeners to transform the area into a Japanese Garden, as he had imported a number of plants from that region.
Giverny residents tried to fight Monet’s installation of these plants in the water, as they bathed in the river and believed that his efforts would contaminate it. Obviously, these complaints did not deter Monet’s efforts, which were carried out as he had planned.
Though he began by painting the land around his Giverny home, he turned his attention to the water in the late 1890s. He had installed a bridge over the pond, and so he had a perfect vantage point from which to view the aquatic vegetation. Monet was fixated on the water lilies, with waxing and waning fervor, from this point on until his death.
He briefly stepped away from the Water Lilies series following the death of his wife in 1910, but eventually returned to creating these depictions.
In his later years, Monet developed a vision impairment that transformed his Water Lilies from recognizable to entirely abstract, as they became swaths of color more than distinguishable portraits. Monet was acutely aware of the fact that he could no longer see (and therefore, no longer paint) in the same way that he had for most of his life. All the same, he continued painting the lilies up until his death in December of 1926.
Monet is one of the most famous artists belonging to a group called the Impressionists, which originated in Paris in the 1880s. These artists were frustrated with the conventions that required them to work within a box in order to achieve notoriety, and so rebelled by employing greater freedom. As the name suggests, Impressionism aimed to convey the impression of a scene rather than every detail of its reality.
The great Impressionists achieved this aim by using looser brush strokes and brighter color, as well as expanding the horizons of what constituted a good subject. Rather than focusing on things that were innately lovely and nearly perfect, Impressionists embraced the world’s imperfections, striving to find beauty therein.
Along with Monet, other important Impressionists were Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Like Monet, Degas became fixated on painting one subject prolifically. He frequently depicted ballerinas dressed in full garb.
Directly related to the Impressionist movement was something called Post-Impressionism (though they did happen concurrently for a period). One of history’s most beloved artists, Vincent Van Gogh worked in Post-Impressionism, so it could be deduced that Monet and the other Impressionists not only contributed their own work to the world but also helped to shape future great works as well. Monet saw in the vision of his pond’s water lilies a magnificent natural beauty that stole his heart and became his muse. What makes his Water Lilies truly great is the fact that they offer a specific perspective: a peek inside the mind of an artistic genius. Everyone sees the world through their own lens, and Monet gave the beauty of this fact credence through his famous artwork.