Monet and Water Lilies: Emotional experience

Recently, I visited the Monet exhibition in Kunstmuseum Den Haag, which presents Monet’s last artistic period when he worked mainly on landscapes with water lilies. While looking at these paintings, I also paid attention to emotions evoked by them. I realized I had a mixture of emotions ranging from joy to sadness to anger, each being the result of a certain point of view on Monet’s water lilies. I distinguished five different points of view, which are always present when we observe an art object: (1) what we see in the art object, a direct impression it makes on us; (2) what environment we experience in a museum/gallery/exhibition, that put the art object on display; (3) what we know about the artist who created the object; (4) what we know about the artistic and historical context in which the object was created, e.g., historical events, artistic movements, etc.; and (5) what we know about others’ perception of that art object, e.g., critical reception, later copies and interpretations, etc. Below, I will take Monet’s water lilies as an example and will analyze my feelings and emotions according to each of these five points of view one by one.

Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, 1899 (image source)

1. Direct contact with an art object

When I look at Monet’s water lilies without any prejudice (as much as it is possible, of course), I feel joy, calm, and relaxation. I like the serene topic of these paintings, it reminds me of summer, of my favorite spots in nature, of calming sensations, such as light breeze, refreshing water, and green sights. I also like the artistic implementation of this topic: tranquil colors, realistic, yet not detailed rendering of objects, monumental size of canvases. These associations, memories, and physical sensations are joyful and, thus, evoke joy in me. This emotion, in turn, arouses the need to once in a while visit a large bright hall decorated with Monet’s late paintings. And so I will. To fulfill this need, I now plan to visit Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914–1917 (image source)

2. Contact with immediate surroundings

Our experience in an art museum is affected by many factors related to the museum itself, e.g., the size of rooms, lighting, the amount of people and art objects, the layout of the display, etc. For example, when I visit an art museum or exhibition containing many art objects from many artists and artistic movements, I usually feel anxiety caused by my personal idea that “I have to see everything”, have to get to know all the different paintings, periods, etc., have to compare and analyze them, have to make sense of all that mass of art. So I usually pass anxiously through museum rooms trying to estimate the amount of effort needed to “see everything”.

At the Monet exhibition in Kunstmuseum Den Haag that was surprisingly different. I started in the usual way, going from room to room, unconsciously trying to spot the end of the exhibition. But soon I realized that all room are dedicated to the same artist, the same period in his artistic career, and represent the same subject. So there was no real need to rush from room to room, from painting to painting. I could immerse into this decorative world of calm landscapes (see also point 1). My mind did not have to jump from a painter to painter, from a topic to topic, it could focus on only one subject and, thus, had space for other thoughts and feelings. And so I felt curious. I felt curious about what made Monet spend almost 30 years of his life and talent on creating so many decorative paintings on the same topic. This emotion pushed me to explore the subject, which, in turn, resulted in two studies of Monet and his water lilies: from the art history perspective and in terms of emotional experience (this text).

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1910s (image source)

3. Contact with an artist

Of course, our knowledge about an artist and about his/her works of different periods affects our perception of these works. It is commonly accepted that Monet is one of the most talented and influential impressionists (see, e.g., [1,4]). From 1860s to 1880s his grandiose talent created numerous famous paintings of different genres picked up by numerous admirers and followers. This is so much in contrast with the fact that Monet spent about 30 years of his life painting almost one subject only, namely, water lilies. This makes me think that the world (and me personally) lost so many great paintings that Monet would have made in his last 30 years instead of or in addition to water lilies, but he did not. And I feel sad about that.

Another unfortunate contrast is between Monet’s ambition and the end result of his work. Monet said in 1909:

“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 realize this ambition, Monet created about 250 paintings of his garden with water lilies. Based on this huge effort, we may assume that Monet’s goal was not simply to create calming and peaceful paintings (which he had already created many in the first part of his artistic career), but to achieve much more than that. (Here we can only hypothesize, what Monet was searching for through his paintings). However, the end result was just a set of beautiful decorations, now installed in Musée de l’Orangerie. This makes me feel sad and sorry for the artist who spent almost 30 years trying to reach a great (though not very clear) goal and who failed in the end.

This sadness evokes certain needs in me. One need is to leave a place, where I feel sad (in other words, leave the Monet exhibition and keep away from other museums and galleries displaying his late paintings). An alternative need could be to go through this sadness and, finally, to accept Monet’s choice to spend the last 30 years of his life on painting water lilies. I suspect I will choose the latter, as I am already doing the first step towards that need by writing this text and, through it, by trying to understand and to accept.

Claude Monet, Weeping Willow, 1918 (image source)

4. Contact with historical and artistic context

Not only the knowledge about an artist affects our perception of his/her works, but also the knowledge of historical and artistic context in which the artist was active. From historical perspective, the first quarter of 20th century was very turbulent with social discontent spreading all over Europe. And above all, that was the time of (probably) the most disastrous and fearful event in European history, World War I (in which Monet’s younger son Michele served). It could be expected that Monet, as one of the best impressionists, was to capture new “impressions” of new times, and especially those of the war. However, that did not happen (apart from a series of weeping willows as homage to the French fallen soldiers, which related to the war time mostly topically and not so much artistically). The fact that Monet did not pick up on the essence of that troubled time, did not reflect it in his artistic oeuvre, did not add it to his “impressions”, makes me feel angry. I feel angry about the artist who was granted such a great talent and who wasted it on studies unrelated to the life around him and to the humanity. One may argue that such tranquil paintings as those of water lilies were meant to be a counterbalance to the turbulent times, were meant to calm down the humanity, to turn it to the beauty of the world. However, I would consider it as a form of escapism and that would make me even angrier.

In terms of artistic developments, the first quarter of 20th century was as much experimental and even revolutionary as its history. Artists were seeking to overcome contradictions arose from the idea of ‘painting what they see’ stated by Renaissance, they questioned every single foundation of art and experimented endlessly with forms, colors, and topics. Lots of new artistic movements appeared from abstractionism to socialist realism. Yet again, Monet escaped all of this in his house in Giverny, continuing the studies of water lilies. The same feeling of anger comes to me when I think about this and when I fantasize about wonderful paintings that Monet would have made if he had been to continue his artistic development along with his time.

Note, that in point 3 (contact with an artist) the same fantasy about potentially loosing many great paintings by Monet made me feel sad instead of angry. There, it was all about a person who made a certain decision, which hurt my feelings only. I know that I cannot change other people’s minds (even if those people are still alive as opposed to Monet) and so I feel sad when their decisions hurt me. In this point (contact with historical and artistic context), however, it is about a person who made a certain decision not only disregarding my feelings and needs, but, above all, disregarding the needs of his time (of course, this is my interpretation only). Thus, the scale of the impact of Monet’s decision changed: it changed from my personal dissatisfaction (point 3) to potential dissatisfaction of many people. And so did the scale of my emotions: they changed from a passive emotion of sadness to an active emotion of anger. Anger usually pushes us to actively change our environment. A natural thing to do in this situation would be to meet Monet and to convince him to change his decision. But since this is not possible and, thus, I cannot change my environment, I can, instead, change my perception of this environment. In other words, I can change the way I look at the situation and, maybe, feel less angry about it. So my anger (in addition to curiosity of point 2) pushed me to actively study the phenomenon of Monet and his water lilies from emotional perspective, which, in turn, resulted in this text.

Claude Monet, Wisteria, ca. 1925 (image source)

5. Contact with opinions of others

Of course, our opinions are formed not only by the reality that we perceive ourselves, but also by the way this reality is perceived by others. If we talk about an art object, then our opinion will (most probably) be affected by what art critics, art historians, and other artists say about that object. As for Monet’s water lilies, art history books (those that I know) tend to overlook this period of Monet’s oeuvre (e.g., [1,2]), or mention it neutrally (e.g., [3]). From this, I infer that Monet’s late paintings are not considered to be as important to art history as his other works (discussed extensively in the literature).

Describing the critics’ response to Monet’s late artistic period and its perception by other artists, Rewald wrote [4]:

“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’.”

This does not add optimism to me as a viewer of Monet’s water lilies.

Based on those books that I read and on the knowledge I got from them about the opinions of art historians, critics, and artists, I tended to see Monet’s water lilies as beautiful but not deep decorations, just as Degas said. So I usually passed by those paintings without paying too much attention to them and, thus, did not feel any emotions. At the Monet exhibition in Kunstmuseums Den Haag there was nothing else to look at, but the paintings with water lilies, so I did pay attention to them and did feel a range of emotions described in points 1–4. However, the knowledge about the opinions of others’ did not really evoke any additional emotions in me. Instead, it magnified some of the existing emotions, namely, sadness (point 3) and anger (point 4).

This text aims to show that there are many layers in our perception of an art object and many points of view on that object. Each layer and each point of view may evoke different emotions and arise different needs in us. Understanding and realizing those needs is at the core of our daily life. The better we are able to do that, the better our life is. Art museums provide us with a very reach material to learn to understand our emotions and the underlying needs and I strongly believe we should not overlook it.

References

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

[2] P.J.E. Davies et al. Janson’s basic history of western art.

[3] H.W. Janson, A.F. Janson. History of art.

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

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