From the 1890s until 1910, Monet carried out painstaking work on his Giverny gardens. He bought a neighbouring plot of land and developed the pond and the stream flowing into it, adding a Japanese bridge as a testament to his love of Japanese art. Monet obtained permission from the local government to control the flow of water into his stream and was thus able to cultivate his water lilies. The Impressionist ideal of capturing nature in all its wildness on canvas or paper is overturned; in his landscape design, Monet manipulated nature and created the settings he wanted to paint.
In 1911 Alice, Monet’s companion of over thirty years, died. Jean, Monet’s eldest son, died unexpectedly in 1914. Despite suffering from depression and fatigue, Monet built a new studio space at Giverny and began work on a concept derived from his series paintings of the 1890s, to create a decorative cycle of water lily paintings. He imagined the finished works entirely surrounding the viewer in an oval room. He built moveable easels and worked on hundreds of these paintings from the years 1916 through 1926, painting in his garden during the summer and then reworking the painted surfaces in the studio throughout the winters.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, c. 1918. Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 200.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Gift of Louise Reinhardt Smith, 1983 (1983-532). Photo © 1998 The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Monet spent the rest of his life painting his garden, titling the water lily paintings with their scientific name, Les Nymphéas. Although this painting is oil on canvas, it strongly resembles a drawing: the marks on the surface seem to be applied with an almost dry brush, giving the effect of drawing with a pen or piece of chalk. Just as with the pen drawing The Seine at Honfleur, we see Monet’s handwriting here in his brushstrokes. As in the Etretat works, with their strong juxtaposition between horizontal and vertical planes, Monet has again played with surface and plane in this late work which borders on the abstract. The murky, dark green bottom layer of the painting depicts the depths of the pond and the unknown and unseen space underwater. The top level of this painting consists of strongly applied lines of pure colour laid on top of the colour field, creating a dichotomy between surface and depth.
In 1918, Monet donated his water lily cycle to the French state and in 1921 the French government decided to build a dedicated space for the Grandes Décorations, finally choosing what is now the Musée de l’Orangerie, at the bottom of the Tuileries gardens. After Monet’s death in 1926 and as stipulated in his will, the Water Lilies were installed in the Orangerie. The paintings were executed as this great artist feared the loss of his most cherished gift, his sight. Cataracts in his eyes had obscured his vision and plagued him with fear at the thought of the potential consequences. However the subsequent paintings are not only his most famous, but also those that most closely border on abstraction. Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), the first artist to produce an abstract painting, said of another of Monet’s works:
… suddenly for the first time, I saw a painting … I dimly understood that the painting lacked an objective … one thing was quite clear: the undreamt-of power of the palette, which had hitherto been hidden from me. From it the painting received a force and a vividness that were fabulous. But also, unconsciously, the idea that an object is an indispensable element of any painting had been discredited.
Thus Claude Monet’s legacy bridges the seemingly insurmountable gap between nineteenth-century French landscape painting and the twentieth-century conception of abstract art.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department Introduction To The Unknown Monet (816 KB) .