Monet and Water Lilies: Art history perspective

Gombrich wrote about European art of late 19th century [1]:

“Art has lost its bearings because artists have discovered that the simple demand that they should ‘paint what they see’ is self-contradictory… If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression?”

This contradiction was tackled differently by different artists. Post-impressionists, Fauves, cubists, etc., rejected the whole idea of ‘painting what we see’ and, thus, the above contradiction ceased to exist. Monet, instead, “was only an eye” according to the famous quote from Cézanne, so he was destined to paint what he saw and, thus, had to deal with this self-contradictory idea.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1917–1919 (image source)
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1919 (image source)

But how can you paint what you see if the subject changes every single moment? The answer is quite simple and natural: you must capture every one of those single moments. So did Monet. We know quite many series of Monet’s paintings, where he captured the same subject at different times of the day and in different weather conditions, e.g., Rouen Cathedral, Grainstacks, The House of Parliament, etc.

Rewald wrote about this period of Monet’s art [2]:

“Monet’s own efforts had just diverged in a new direction which became apparent when he exhibited in 1891 at Duran-Ruel’s a series of fifteen paintings representing heystacks at various hours of the day. He explained that in the beginning he had imagined that two canvases, one for grey weather and one for sunshine, would be sufficient to render his subject under different lights. But while painting these haystacks, he discovered that the effect of light changed continually and decided to record a succession of aspects on a series of canvases, working on these in turn, each canvas being devoted to one specific effect. He thus strove to attain what he called instantaneity and insisted on the importance of stopping work on a canvas when the effect changed and continuing work on the next canvas, ‘so as to get a true impression of a certain aspect of nature and not a composite picture’.”

Claude Monet, Water Lilies. Left: 1906 (image source). Right: date unknown (image source)

But what subjects could give you an endless variety of visual representations? I assume those are the sky and water, surrounded by nature. Both were present in Monet’s garden in Giverny, where he bought a house in 1890 and died in 1926. For most of those three decades, Monet focused on almost one subject: a pond that embraced water lilies and reflected the ever-changing sky. The artist set himself an ambitious goal:

“The temptation came to me to use this water lily theme for the decoration of a drawing room: carried along the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity, it would produce the illusion of an endless whole, of water with no horizon and no shore; nerves exhausted by work would relax there, following the restful example of those still waters, and, to whoever entered it, the room would provide a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium.”

To achieve this goal, Monet created about 250 paintings of his garden with water lilies.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies. Left: ca. 1915 (image source). Right: 1916–1919 (image source)

But what were the implications of such a titanic effort on the art history? It seems that neither the contemporaries nor subsequent generations were affected by this body of Monet’s work. I cannot name any subsequent artistic movement or even a painting technique having its roots in Monet’s water lilies, nor any artist much influenced by them. Rewald wrote about the perception of Monet’s late art by his contemporaries [2]:

“Monet’s ‘series’ met with tremendous success. All his haystack pictures were sold within three days after the opening of his exhibition at prices ranging from 3000 to 4000 francs. But public acclaim, led by the artist’s old friend Clemenceau, was soon to be opposed by severe criticism. A German historian stated that the painter’s efforts to test the fertility of his method on a large scale and in different directions had resulted only in trivialities. He accused Monet of having reduced the impressionist principle to absurdity. As to Monet’s former comrades, they witnessed with a certain sadness how his career as an impressionist was ending in technical prowess. Admiring his talent and having tacitly considered him as the leader of their group, they now remembered Degas’ contention that Monet’s art ‘was that of a skillful but not profound decorator’.”

Claude Monet, Water-Lily Pond and Weeping Willow, 1916 (image source)

To conclude, it seems disappointing that such a huge effort of such a talented artist did not lead to any significant breakthroughs in art. But I must admit that it is still a blessing that we have those 250 paintings of serene and tranquil landscapes that indeed can provide us with “a refuge of peaceful meditation” so much needed in our turbulent times.

References

[1] E. Gombrich. The story of art.

[2] J. Rewald. The history of impressionism.

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