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Water Lilies, Boats and Haystacks: Claude Monet

These blooms so fascinated Claude Monet, a French artist of the Impressionist period, that he created a garden with a large water body in rural
Water lilies by Claude Monet
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Travelers to rural India are often treated to the sight of pink or white water lilies, floating on ponds covered in bright green leaves, providing the perfect foil for these delicate flowers. Water lily blossoms symbolize resurrection, the flowers closing up at night and unfurling with the rising sun, similar to a spiritual rebirth, and thus have special significance in Buddhism and Hinduism.

These blooms so fascinated Claude Monet, a French artist of the Impressionist period, that he created a garden with a large water body in rural France, in a place named Giverny, so that he could paint water lilies in different kinds of light and changing weather conditions, focusing on the flowers in the water, with the sky and surrounding greenery acknowledged only as reflections in the pond.

Monet organized his property at Giverny as though it were a huge painting. Thanks to a small army of gardeners, he diverted a river, planted water lilies, exotic flowers, weeping willows and bamboo trees, to create a natural wonderland. His favorite flowers were primroses, iris and roses. Nature, recomposed by the artist, began to resemble his art. “My finest masterpiece,” he later said, “is my garden.”

The Artist’s garden by Claude Monet

Claude Monet, born in 1840, is reputed to be the ‘initiator, leader, and unswerving advocate of the Impressionist style’. His repeated subjects, the series he created of haystacks (1890/91), and the cathedral at Rouen (1894) and later the waterlilies, were detailed studies of subjects seen at different times of the day, from varying viewpoints. During his lifetime, Monet went back to his subject matters several times, and created more than 250 paintings of water lilies. Along with ‘Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh, Water Lilies are the most iconic images of the Impressionist school.

At the age of five, his father Adolphe Monet, a grocer, moved his family to the Normandy coast, near Le Havre. Perhaps it was this time spent along the beaches, and the intimate knowledge he gained of the sea and the rapidly shifting Norman weather, that would one day give rise to his fresh vision of nature. His first foray into the world of art was at the age of 15 when he exhibited and sold several well executed caricatures. He spent his free time drawing meticulous sketches of ships and boats, executed in perfect technical detail, and perhaps at the suggestion of his aunt Marie-Jeanne, an amateur artist herself, he began to study drawing with a local painter. Monet’s life as an artist began in earnest after he met Eugène Boudin, who contrary to the common practice of painting indoors in artificial light, encouraged the young man to paint under the open sky, in natural light. This greatly influenced Monet who spent his formative and more mature years, concentrating on visible rather than imaginary subjects, creating innovative ways in which to transform perception into brush strokes and pigment.

The Beach at Sainte-Adresse by Claude Monet

Landscape paintings in oil existed long before Monet began painting, but these were based mostly on recollections of outdoor scenes rather than studies of nature observed in the open air. English painters, JMW Turner and John Constable had begun sketching outdoors but it is unlikely that Monet was exposed to their works before he began painting landscapes. He visited Paris in 1859–60, where he saw the work of the Barbizon-school painters Charles Daubigny and Constant Troyon. But it was his exposure to Delacroix’s vibrant canvases that influenced his own work. During his military service in Algeria, between 1861 – 1862, the light and colors of Africa had a profound influence on his palette. Back in Le Havre, along with Eugène Boudin, he painted several scenes of the harbor and sea going vessels, his choice of colors reflecting the clear blue skies, vibrant blue water and pale-yellow sandy beaches. 

Monet joined a group of artists in Paris, Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, studying with Charles Gleyre at his atelier. They broke away after some disagreements with their mentor and moved to the village of Chailly-en-Bière, near Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau. His exposure to the flat colours and decorative nature of Japanese prints, which were to greatly influence the development of modern painting in France happened around this time. In the beach and sea pictures of 1865–67 instead of trying to faithfully reproduce the scenes before him, Monet recorded the impression that they made on him, the play of light on water, the vitality and movement of the waves, with bobbing boats and seaside buildings presented in flat strokes rather than in detail. He was definitely moving towards Impressionism by this time.

The 1860s were a financially difficult time for Monet. Though he produced some fine pieces during this period which were exhibited in the annual Salons, he was not yet recognized as a true voice of Impressionism. He travelled extensively, from Paris to the sea, ending the ‘60s at the Seine River resort known as La Grenouillère, at Bougival, where he and Renoir worked together for the first time. They painted scenes that were almost identical in nature, and subject matter, clearly exhibiting their movement towards Impressionism, with strong abbreviated strokes, capturing the essence of the play of light on water – the sailboats and pleasure seekers represented by dashes of color, serving as equivalents for visual experiences never before committed to canvas in such a direct manner. In 1870 at Trouville Monet painted a study of Camille his wife on the beach, in broad, assured gestures.  It is as animated an example of visual realism as had ever been painted: grains of sand remain embedded in the pigment.

During his military service in Algeria, between 1861 – 1862, the light and colors of Africa had a profound influence on his palette. Back in Le Havre, along with Eugène Boudin, he painted several scenes of the harbor and sea going vessels, his choice of colors reflecting the clear blue skies, vibrant blue water and pale-yellow sandy beaches.

Monet went to England during the Franco-German war years when he concentrated on painting the river Thames, later moving to the Netherlands to paint canals, boats, and windmills. Upon his return, Monet organized an independent exhibition, apart from the official Salon, of the Impressionists’ work in 1874. Impression: Sunrise (1872), one of Monet’s works at the exhibition, inspired the journalist Louis Leroy to give the group their name. This period marked the height of the Impressionist movement. Monet went on to paint his series on locomotives, in the 1890s, breaking away from the customary Impressionist subjects, these works portraying the train engines belching smoke and steam in the great shed. He painted the same subject over and over again in different light and weather conditions, his signature style well established by then.  

Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare

His personal life suffered a setback when his wife fell ill and he moved to Giverny, a hamlet near Vernon, 84 km from Paris, on the tiny Epte River. He bought a farmhouse and a piece of land adjoining it, that had a tiny rivulet of the local river running through it. He constructed his incredible flower garden here, diverting the river to create a waterbody. Soon weeping willows, iris, and bamboo grew around the free-form pool, clusters of lily pads and blossoms floated on the quiet water, a Japanese bridge closing the composition at one end. The first canvases he created depicting lilies, water, and the Japanese bridge were only about one square yard, but their unprecedented open composition, with the large blossoms and pads suspended as if in space, and the azure water in which clouds were reflected, implied an encompassing environment beyond the frame.

This concept of embracing spatiality, new to the history of painting and only implicit in the first water-lily paintings, unfolded during the years from 1915 until the artist’s death into a cycle of huge murals which can now be viewed in Paris in two 80-foot oval rooms in the Orangerie of the Tuileries.

Musée de l’Orangerie Paris: home to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies

After his death, Monet’s influence on contemporary art ebbed among the avant-garde, who favored the more radical work of artists like Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp. Monet’s epic scale and formal innovations influenced Abstract Expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and highly popular retrospective exhibitions of his work toured the world during the last decades of the 20th century, establishing his unparalleled public appeal, sustaining his reputation as one of the most significant and popular figures in the modern Western painting tradition.

Images used in this article are from public domain and the author’s collection.

Anjana Dutt is a writer, graphic designer, published poet, pianist, soprano, film maker, interior designer, photographer, single mom…you are as likely to find Anjana shooting her beloved Labrador, as you are to see her writing an article or designing a product. She spent 25 years in advertising, at Ogilvy and later J Walter Thompson. She rose to the position of Senior Creative Director was in charge of the films division in Calcutta, with several awards under her belt. As a columnist, she contributed articles fortnightly for three years titled ‘Elements of Style’ to The Telegraph newspaper. Launching herself anew as a Creative Consultant, her choice of independent projects have been as varied as her eclectic taste in music.

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