Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gardens in Art: Monet's final Nympheas

Water Lilies 1920-1926
219cm x 602cm, oil on canvas
Claude Monet
Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris Source: Wikicommons

This post is about the final and probably some of the most famous of Monet's paintings - the Grand Decorations which are now housed in the Orangerie Museum in the Tuileries Garden in Paris. They had a long birth.

Prior to the First World War, Monet suffered a number of losses and tragedies. In 1910, the Seine flooded and completely flooded the water garden and advanced half way up the Grand Allee. As a result the water garden required major repairs. Then in 1911 his wife Alice died; in 1912 Monet was diagnosed with cataracts and finally, in 1914, his eldest son Jean died. Monet's initial reaction was to lose interest in the world around him and he gave up painting. But he sat by his pond and gradually he regained a better view of the world and came back to his painting again.

His enthusiasm for work was generated by the notion of developing an idea he'd initially had nearly 20 years earlier. His aim was to produce paintings of the pond and the water lilies to fit a circular room so that they immerse the viewer of his paintings in the sensation of the pond. The notion was that the experience of the still water and the lilies would both soothe and delight at the same time. He saw the room as a refuge where cares would ebb away. It had worked for him and could work for others.

His planned work became known as the Grands Decorations. He used grand scale canvases he called panneaux (panels). Each was about six and a half feet by 14 feet. He also planned and built a new studio for his work which had a vast amount of space and northern light from roof lights and controlled by blinds. The nypheas panels were painted while on easels which were mounted on wheeled dollies so that Monet could arrange the panels to see how the painting flowed across the panels.

In 1918 he announced in a letter to the Premier of France that he wanted to make a gift of two of the panels to the nation - and he would sign them on Armistice Day as the First World War formally ended. As Premier, Clemenceau had other ideas and managed to persuade Monet to donate all the panels on the basis that they would be a public monument and be housed in an appropriate setting in Paris. Long negotiations then ensued and the number of panels to be donated climbed from 12 to 20. The final decision was that they would be housed in the Orangerie in Tuileries Gardens. This could provide a long narrow space which could be arranged as two ellipitical rooms. The exhibit was finally opened to the public in 1927, a few months after Monet's own death.

You can see the panels in the Orangerie Museum. which reopened in 2006 after being shut for a £31m renovation which lasted six years. They attract around half a million visitors a year.

They are quite overwhelming. The first time I saw them, they brought tears to my eyes and I had to sit down - and at that point I'd only just walked into the first room! However, if you can't get to Paris you can still have a close look at them. [This section and the links were updated in November 2015]
  • This is the virtual visit - you can walk the two elliptical rooms containing the panels from the comfort of your own home - and you can zoom!
  • These are the panels. They represent the pond at different times and conditions of the day
    • If you click on each of the panels you can find out more about each individual panel. 
    • Down the bottom of the panel there's an opportunity to zoom in so that you can see the nature of the brush strokes and the rhythm of the flow of the water.
  • You can read about the History of the Project here
  • The photographs of how the new studio looked while they were being painted seem to have gone missing from the website. However I've stood in that studio and it is truly an immense place.
What I find completely amazing is that these works were completed while Monet's eyesight continued to deteriorate due to his cataracts. To him everything appeared to be located in a fog. By 1922, his eyes were examined and it was determined that he retained only 10% of normal vision in the left eye and the right eye was blind. He had three operations in 1923 and then tried several pairs of different sorts of lenses to try and counteract the very unfortunate onset of a condition which caused him to see colour in a completely different way. Initially he had xanthopsia which meant everything was tinged with a glaring yellow and then cyanopsia which meant everything that was yellow was now blue. However he continued to paint - by looking at the names on the tubes of paint and remembering what colours they were!

People criticise the murals as being unfinished. For me, the fact that he was still producing artwork in in his eighties, still pursuing an idea and still trying to develop new ways of seeing right to the end is a remarkable achievement and one which should be honoured.

Finally - I'm delighted to highlight the blogs of Rose Welty (Rose's Art Lines - Monet) and Belinda Lindhardt (Belinda Lindhardt - Art Journal) who have both been developing artwork stimulated by Monet this month.

I think we've all gained a new respect for Monet this month. I know I'm certainly looking forward to returning to Monet and the series paintings later. Do let me know if anybody else has been following the series and also developing artwork as a result.


  1. His final paintings are among my favorite of his.

    I just got 2 still-life of the impressionists books which I am loving. One is an overview and one is on just Manet's. Just after a quick flip through of them both I was surprised at some of their smaller still-lifes (especially Manet) that look a lot like the daily painters compositions!

  2. I must say that I find this post to be very good. It is enlightening to read about Monet's many struggles and how he overcame them, and continued his work.
    I have been to Musée de l'orangerie once and it was absolutely stunning.
    I bought a print of one of the paintings and it is hanging on my bedroom wall. I look at it every day and it never fails to make me smile.
    It is my personal favorite of all the Water lily paintings I have seen.

    It is the one at the 0:20 mark.



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