There are eight paintings in these two rooms. Each is two meters high and they vary in length from six to seventeen meters. You already know I’m talking about les Nympheas — the water-lilies of Claude Monet, painted between 1899 and the end of his life in 1926, now permanently on display at the Orangerie in Paris.
As usual, I’m sniffing my way around, deconstructing, looking at surfaces, watching brushwork, detecting elan, energy, ennui, and the necessary labour that came with his declining sight. I can’t help it: it’s the how and why that gets me. It’s sort of my religion — trying to dig up the ways and means and the daily toils of the maker. How difficult was this? How easy was that? How much planning went into these? I’m thinking about the transition from easel convenience to canvas-born mural scale, and the value of working big. A few years ago in Giverny, I visited the barn-like studio that Monet built in 1914. He already had a destination for the water-lilies — the Orangerie. Monet was one of its founders. He called them his “testamentary” paintings. In Giverny, he needed more elbow room. Monet now knew the value of standing back.
I’ve been in these two rooms for so long that my stomach is concerned. A guard has already determined that I’m planning a heist. I’m sure she has alerted her supervisors. And then there’s a man who has been in here almost as long as I. He moves from bench to bench. He has a round, friendly face and an honest smile. I find relief in pretending we have met. We talk in hushed, religious tones. He is M. LeClerc, an actuary from Poitiers, in Paris for four days. He thinks I’m an American. I tell him I’m from Canada. “What do you see here?” I ask him.
“I know nothing about art,” he tells me, “But every time I come to Paris I enter these rooms. The collection was closed for some six years and Paris was very dull. These are sublime things. They are beyond words or expressions. They cannot be categorized or listed. In winter they take you to spring. They bring my boyhood and my home. Maybe God is in these things. What do I see? I see sadness and I see beauty. What else do we need? What else do we have?” His face is flushed, his eyes moist. “But then, who am I to say?” he asks. “I know nothing about art. Do you have such experiences in Canada?”
PS: “What can be said about a man who is interested in nothing but his painting? But I can’t do anything else. I have only one interest.” (Claude Monet)
Esoterica: Claude Monet (1840-1926) was the archetypal Impressionist. Throughout his life, through thick and thin, in poverty and wealth, in sickness and health, he was devoted to the ideals of the movement. Monet was self-depreciating, persistent, and knelt squarely at the foot of Nature. “It really is appallingly difficult to do something which is complete in every respect,” he said, “and I think most people are content with mere approximations. But I intend to battle on, scrape off and start again. I would love to paint the way a bird sings.” Battling on through scarring cataracts, he worked until the very end.
As the birds sing
by Terry Thornton, Fulton, MI, USA
Perhaps Monet achieved his wish to “paint the way a bird sings” in his Les Nympheas. M. LeClerc, your critic/companion at Orangerie , said of them, “I see sadness and I see beauty.” I’d bet the two of you also heard, in your mind’s ear, a bird singing. Thanks for the interactive tour – the sadness and the beauty of Monet’s work shines even in digital format. I can only imagine the choir of birds that must be singing at the Orangerie for those fortunate enough to stand before these great works.
by Luke Charcuk, Surrey, BC, Canada
By sheer scale the water-lilies in the Orangerie overpower sour senses and take us like water babies into that realm of the unreal, pond-life, a froglike existence. When I stood to either end of one wall and stared down the length of it, the angle compressed the piece and the effect was even more powerful. We see the clarity not with which Monet thinks, but with which he sees, even through blurry seas of tears.
by Stefanie Graves, Paducah, KY, USA
Your “friend” M. LeClerc has said it all and said it best. Several years ago when the Monet exhibition came to The Art Institute in Chicago, I was one of the masses who made their way through the several rooms of paintings that chronicled Monet’s life. As I strolled through them I became more and more dumbfounded at the magnitude of those paintings. Taken together their cumulative effect was to see his talent in full relief. Like your friend I found myself without words, tears streaming down my face by the time I stood in front of Monet’s huge canvases of water lilies, painted during the last years of his life when his sight was failing. They are indeed sublime, and filled with the pathos of life.
Monet kept an enormous scrapbook of every review written about him and his work. He went out of his way to charm, solicit, and impress all of the art critics of his day. He knew what they wrote mattered to the public. He wanted fame and went about achieving it. He was the first artist to master the newly created gallery system of art dealers. He was never exclusively represented… but made the dealers fight each other for his paintings. He went with the flow of the taste of the public. When they wanted his paintings to be more “finished” he made them more “finished.” When working en plein air no longer suited his needs, he abandoned it. Monet, for most of his career, put business concerns hand in glove with his painting practices like artists do and need to do nowadays. In this regard, he was very modern.
The great lily paintings, though, were a work of his heart… a testimony to his love of painting. He was a rich, famous, lonely old man who was nearly blind. These huge paintings retain their poignancy because they are so heroic. Death was stalking him but he wanted to go out in high style, creating and seeking something new and wonderful. All great artists keep striving to paint something beyond what they can do. Monet was a great artist… and also a cranky egomaniac. In these huge incredible paintings he let everything from his decades of painting pour out for the love of painting and the love of his country. He speaks to us through these paintings and over a century later we are still eagerly listening to what they have to say.
(RG note) Thanks, Paul. A good way to get an understanding of the multi-faceted Monet is to go directly to his own words. These can be found on our Resource of Art Quotations. Through our search facility you can find the wit and wisdom of more than 5000 other authors as well.
by Gaylynn Robinson, Cincinnati, OH, USA
I went to la Orangerie, Musee d’Orsay and the Musee Marmottan to see all the large collections of Monet’s in Paris. At the Musee d’Orsay I saw for the first time Monet’s Blue Waterlliles. I was overwhelmed and awed by the colors, the variations of light and how large the painting was. Monet’s early work in the d’Orsay showed how he progressed from realistic and tight brush strokes to the “loose” and airy strokes of impressionism. We then went to la Orangerie to see les Nympheas and suddenly Blue Waterlilies were small. Breathtaking is the best way to describe how I felt upon entering those rooms. For me it was very spiritual as I sat there and studied each painting. Like you, I tried to see every brush stroke to understand the technique, the ease, the difficulty, etc… so that I might take it with me. Then we moved on to the Musee Marmottan. Again, I felt a great peace looking upon his many works there. At all three museums were other wonderful Impressionists of the time. Such as, Renoir, Degas, Morrisot, Manet, Pissarro, Cassatt,Van Gogh, and many others. I was amazed at being able to see the paintings that I had seen in books and studied in my art history classes. I was especially taken aback at those paintings that I had never seen in class or books.
(RG note) Thanks, Gaylynn. Readers might be interested in a previous clickback that includes responses to a day I spent painting in Monet’s garden in Giverny. Monet gave the Orangerie paintings to the state in 1921 as his contribution to “the restoration of world peace.” Other remarkable paintings, long kept from public view, were given to the Musee Marmottan in 1966 by Monet’s son Michel. These include 12 of the late Nympheas, Japanese bridges as well as other late and unfinished works. In many ways these paintings give a foretaste of Abstract Expressionism, but their odd colours and unsteady brushwork can also be understood as the effects of advancing blindness.
In Monet’s garden
by Page Samis-Hill, North Vancouver, BC, Canada
I’ve been invited to teach a workshop of pastel painting in a little castle in Yvetot, France, this coming March. While there, an International Exhibit will also be in progress (300 pastel artists). During my time there I have permission to paint in Monet’s garden in Giverny. For artists who wish to do this, permission is arranged two months prior to visits. Mine was arranged by the Art du Pastel en France. I have recently been published in their Art du Pastel book and I’m also painting in workshops with other Russian and European artists sponsored by Terry Ludwig Pastel of USA.
Sight and vision
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
Bold enough to see beyond the academics and popular salons, Monet didn’t just see the light, he waded into it, literally, and felt it’s warmth on his back. He was one of the first painters to understand the importance of stepping back and seeing the colorful and emotional effects of light on nature rather than simply the direction of light on form. He didn’t stop there. Many of Monet’s paintings have a thick, layered texture unlike the slick paintings of his day. This work, such as his cathedral paintings, has a third dimension to it and a beautiful abstract quality to the surface. It’s emotionally compelling up close and far back for entirely different reasons. It’s such a paradox that a man of such great vision suffered from cataracts. Perhaps in the end, in spite of the frustration they may have caused him, they were a gift that helped soften the edges and see the light more like the morning sun interacts with the steam rising from the dew over fields.
Mystery and painting
by Lavonne Lovstad-Fischer, Rochester, MN, USA
As an artist and Spiritual Director who has been consciously on the Spiritual Path for a few years, I couldn’t help to again see the connection between the art process and the spiritual process. The commitment to the Mystery (the spiritual life) is so deep that there is nothing else. There is no difference between painting and prayer – connecting with the Mystery, the Unknown. It is also “appallingly difficult” to find the Mystery while painting. The painter is entering into an unknown realm, sublime, without words or definition in its perfection and holiness to connect and embrace whatever one can about the essence of God.
by Judy Blaeske, Raleigh, NC, USA
Last month, my sister and I took an afternoon off from work to spend time with Monsieur Monet. The North Carolina Museum of Art here in Raleigh is currently exhibiting 50 of his paintings (Monet in Normandy) — some from private collections and others from museums. I almost cried to be in the presence of some of his actual work — to see the brush strokes and the colors — to walk down the narrow cobblestone street of a village — to feel the spanking breeze on a cliff above the sea or along a promenade. Some visitors stood quietly and respectfully in front of the paintings. Others expounded in loud voices, critiquing works and looking to see if they were being noticed. Still others held instruments to their ears, listening intently to a recorded commentary, glancing at the paintings as they strolled through the exhibit.
Compulsion to paint
by Lenny Niles, Lincolnshire, UK
As I think more and more about why I paint, I am beginning to realise that I, too, am driven by something outside of me, and although, in my case, my endeavours are inconsistent when compared to more dedicated painters,’ nonetheless my compulsion to accomplish is no less paramount; the drive automatically takes over and becomes acutely obsessive even if it is only at times for short periods. It is so demanding that it leaves me exhausted, so much so that I have to abandon it for fear of my sanity, yet I know the urge to create evermore paintings will return time and time again – as if to achieve some undefined objective that as the years pass becomes evermore illusive.
A more tolerant perspective
by Pat Travis, OK, USA
I don’t know you, have never met you, don’t even work in the same medium (mine is clay), yet your words invite me to enter a mental room that doesn’t exist until I read them. I read your words, enter that room and am forever changed in how I see art, the world, myself in relation to creativity, critique, and judgment of others. I know as you read this, it seems as if this is a bit dramatic or profound. But the effect is subtle. And I have discovered that subtle has more impact than, say, a big bang. The subtle impact on me is like a wall that I did not realize was there dissolves into dust that is blown away by my exhalation of awe. There is a visceral change in me when a wall disappears and I end up with a different, less judgmental, more tolerant perspective. It feels like my awareness/existence is multi-compartment and multi-level and a shift occurs so that compartments trade space and level with the others. It makes me giggle and experience a whole new love of life. It makes me be in the moment. I have set down the luggage of my past and I am not living in tomorrow.
Inside Monet’s mind and studio
by B. J. Wilson, Irvine, CA, USA
I was unprepared to meet Monet’s water lilies the first time I saw them — and I thought I knew a lot about what the Impressionists were up to. They were showing at the old Los Angeles County Museum (near USC) in the main exhibition space that was huge, made even larger by the removal of all the portable, removable walls that normally made up a series of salons for a more “normal” show. I stepped into that vast space to see the great, long one you referred to in your letter, and it took my breath away! There were water lilies galore in great profusion and sunshine and moving water surfaces, all clear and spelled out to be gathered, if I chose. I knew about this painting from book-sized reprints, so was unprepared to find a single cohesive unit on such a scale! I could hardly wait to be up close to see the details I had surely missed in the reprints – and made a speedy trip across the floor to the far, far end — but when I got there, I couldn’t see anything at all! Instead of carefully rendered petals and lily pads and reflecting water surfaces there didn’t seem to be much more than blobs and swashes of paint, sometimes more, sometimes less, smeared together into a tapestry of feelings about the subject matter of lilies and cloud reflections. I went back to the entry door. I turned around for another look – and there it all was again! All the “things” we’d expect to find in a waterscape! I knew I had seen something extraordinary and later was able to pin it down more clearly: Monet had taken a great jump from Impressionism to Divided-Palette Expressionism, way before the rest of the art world was ready for him.
In following years, I wondered how he had done it, physically. More years later, I took a group on tour to trace the Route of the Impressionists and that “big barn of a studio” you mentioned held the answer. He did, indeed, recognize the value of being able to step back. In the far end of that room he had a slot built into the floor – oh, I guess about 6, 8 inches wide and as long as his largest painting. He was pretty old by this time and needed all the help he could get, and a system of pulleys allowed him to wind it up out of the floor to any height he wanted so he could paint comfortably, and then wind it down a tad if he wanted to work at another level. That studio room, as he laid it out, is gone now, with a new entry door on one of the long sides. The tatty sofa that was placed way back for the long view and the helpful slot in the floor are gone, too, all replaced by a modern gift shop.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Anna Hogbin of Martinsburg, WV, USA who wrote, “I saw a show of Monet’s unfinished work in Baltimore, Maryland, USA several years ago. These were the paintings left in his studio at the time of his death. The thing that I kept looking at was that he used a brush stroke shaped like an 8 (number eight) on its side and then built up layer after layer. The final painting looked nothing like the original brush strokes. I have never figured it out! He was the Master!”
And also Mark Hope of Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada who wrote: “To be moved by what one sees, to be alive and live through one’s senses as Monet did, is a goal worth devoting my life to.”
And also Frances Stilwell of Corvallis, Oregon, USA who wrote, “M. LeClerc’s the kind of people we want to reach! Effective art is universally effective – reaches the core of the human experience. An art degree isn’t necessary to understand it or even to make it!”
And also Collette Fergus of New Zealand who wrote, “Monet’s work initially inspired me to paint. It’s all about painting what pleases you and what comes from the heart rather than what is expected from what others want you paint. It’s about soul and harmony.”
And also Clint Watson of San Antonio, TX, USA who wrote, “Artists need to remember to appreciate what they give to the rest of us. I’m convinced that paintings often ‘find their way home’ to the person who will admire that painting the most — often even more than the artist himself.”
And also Karen R. Phinney of Halifax, NS, Canada who wrote, “M. LeClerc knows everything there is to know about art! To quote Claude Monet himself, ‘Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.’ ”
And also Tim Johnson of Cary, NC, USA who wrote, “Glaucoma and cataracts are working against me, but I fight against the dark and the unusual things I see now. The Monet is one more reason to keep at my camera, in my darkroom and in front of my monitor. Thank you for the constant encouragement. Your work and words do inspire.”
And also Carol Measures Scott who wrote, “The sheer acreage of the Orangerie paintings when compared with the tiny thumbnails on my computer screen causes me to consider how good composition works at any size. I sat and stared at the thumbnails for some time noting the principles of design and how I could still see them on this micro-scale.”