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The Water Lily Pond of Claude Monet

The Water Lily Pond is part of Claude Monet’s much loved Water Lilies series. Painted over a thirty year period, The Water Lily Pond features the idyllic Giverny countryside that inspired Monet to paint up until just before his death, even when both his eyes were severely affected by cataracts. The series encapsulates the open air environment that Monet made so famous through his impressionist pieces. Singulart examines the Water Lilies series, in particular the Water Lily Pond, as well as how Monet defined his style “en plein air” to capture the beauty of his Giverny garden. 

Monet’s Water Lilies

After moving to Giverny, Monet painted 250 pieces for a series titled Nymphéas, or Water Lilies. He wrote, “I planted my water lilies for fun, when I saw all of a sudden that my pond had become enchanted. I seized my palette. Since then I have had no other model.” Monet began work on the series in the late 1890s, and continued up until his death in 1926. He had been inspired by the design of the garden, which he oversaw himself after the purchase of a piece of land near his Giverny house in 1893. Monet ordered the construction of a Japanese bridge, and filled the garden with with willows, lilies and irises imported from Japan. 

It was Monet’s politician friend Georges Clemenceau who facilitated the Water Lilies series. In a letter to Clemenceau, Monet wrote, “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day, and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary.” Although Monet had originally planned to donate two pieces, Clemenceau convinced him to donate more work from his Water Lilies series. In September 1920, Monet reached an agreement with Paul Léon, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, to donate twelve panels that Léon would exhibit according to Monet’s instructions. 

Monet was plagued by self-doubt during the creation of his series, hindered by the development of cataracts. He destroyed many of his canvases during this time, and asked to prolong the deadline, even with Clemenceau’s protests in saying, “you are well aware that you  have reached the limit of what can be achieved with the power of the brush and the mind.” As such, Monet would keep possession of the paintings until his death in 1926. 

Monet's Water Lilies today at the Musée de L'Orangerie in Paris
Monet’s Water Lilies today at the Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris

Monet’s water lilies are considered among his finest work, and their exhibition would be one of his greatest achievements. When planning the series, Monet wrote, “Imagine a circular room, whose walls are entirely filled by a horizon of water spotted with these plants. Walls of transparency – sometimes green, sometimes verging on mauve. The silence and calm of the water reflecting the flowering display; the tones are vague, deliciously nuanced, as delicate as a dream.” The works would ultimately be exhibited at the Musée de l’Orangerie, with various panels assembled side by side around the room. While the pieces are all the same height, their length is varied, so they can be arranged on the curved walls of the dedicated rooms. 

The Water Lily Pond

Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond (1899)
Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond (1899)

The Water Lily Pond captures Monet’s view of his Japanese bridge. While Monet would paint this bridge at various points in time- it can be seen through the blurry lenses of his cataracts in Japanese Bridge– in this version, it is shown bathed in golden light, with a calming color palette of greens and pale pinks. 

Monet uses his rapid brushstroke technique to capture the lush scenery in front of him. The artwork also employs the use of taches, small dabs of pure paint applied to the canvas. Monet has used a series of long strokes to capture the leaves of the willows on either side of the bridge, and a cluster of dotted strokes to depict the trees in the center of the piece. 

Monet has focused on the bridge in the center of the composition, but we cannot see where it ends on the banks. In this way, it appears to levitate on the water, not unlike the lilies that dot the surface below. By using the same green palette he uses for the trees and vegetation surrounding the bridge, Monet is suggesting a harmonious relationship between the natural and the man-made. Monet’s pink lilies, a contrast to the green shades surrounding them, ensure that the viewer’s eyes are drawn to them, stretching out along the length of the water. 

Monet, an Artist En Plein Air

Monet (right) in his garden in Giverny with an unidentified visitor. From The New York Times photo archive, 1922
Monet (right) in his garden in Giverny with an unidentified visitor. From The New York Times photo archive, 1922

En plein air was a painting technique used by the impressionists, and translates simply to ‘in plain air.’ To paint in the style of en plein air, artists leave their studios and paint directly in front of their subject, usually inspired by nature. The technique began with the romantics in the 1800s, and it is thought that John Constable was among the first to use this technique. It was wholeheartedly adopted by Monet and other impressionists.

Fontainebleau Forest is an example of Monet’s early work en plein air. Although it doesn’t display his impressionist style, it is clearly a piece that took inspiration from nature, and was painted outside to capture the golden light and the beauty of the forest. Another example of Monet’s use of the en plein air technique can be seen in Impression, Sunrise, which was one of Monet’s earliest impressionist pieces and was in fact the reason the term ‘impressionist’ came into being.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1872)
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1872)

Monet’s painting en plein air that captured a sense of the nature around him has inspired artists for generations. He described his technique by stating, “I have never had a studio and I do not understand shutting oneself up in a room. To draw, yes, to paint, no.”

Want to see more paintings in the impressionist style? Check out Singulart’s Inspired by Claude Monet Collection.

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