The other eye


Dear Artist,

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.


“Les Nymphéas” (Water Lilies) 1920-26
oil on canvas, 219 × 602 cm (86.2 × 237 in)
by Claude Monet (1840-1926)

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.


“Self-portrait in Beret” 1886
oil painting by Claude Monet

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?”


“Charing Cross Bridge” 1903
oil painting by Claude Monet

Best regards,


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.

This letter was originally published as “The other eye” on December 15, 2006.


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“Nature won’t be summoned to order and won’t be kept waiting. It must be caught, well caught.” (Claude Monet)



  1. Thank you. You have started my week the right way — with insights and provocations of the right kind.
    You have refreshed my eyes for the next time I visit great art — or any art.

  2. I ache to return to L’Orangerie.
    It’s been a few years, yet if I get quiet and close my eyes I can conjure up the overwhelming soft powerful intimate choice of colours and brushstrokes of the master whispering to me as tears of pure joy blur like cataracts must have done for the man himself.

  3. Thank you for this post. I have been in those rooms several times and I always feel the magic as my eyes moisten. Just closed my eyes and was back there again. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Three of them were at the Modern in New York in the 60s. I am not sure when they were returned to France but NY was the poorer for that. The three in one room, set apart from main traffic flows, were a very special place. With good seating and few people it was a great place to spend time, especially as an art student. I liked MOMA in those days.


    In his last works, the man who gave Impressionism its name was experimenting with abstract expressionism … look for his Wisteria panels that were designed to go over the Nympheas. ….. Be sure to visit the Marmottan Museum on the west side of Paris: it holds Monet’s personal collection and is a knockout!

  6. Although Paris became the first visit to a European city, I had to leave way too soon as a journalist on the way to cover news. Monet’s water lilies always stun me, and this column was such a joy and pleasure to read. Now I have a new mission in life: seeing his work in the incredible French light. Thank you so much for posting, Sara!

  7. Visiting Paris for the first time was a grand opportunity. My sister was a member of a traveling orchestra, a bus ‘n truck company taking West Side Story, throughout Europe. The tour held over in the City of Light for 9 weeks. How could I not go?

    Yes, I’ve been there since and the same thing occurs as did 23 years ago. I too was in that room described so well by Robert. I sat upon one of a few, round, white and oversized tufted ottoman, barely breathing. Tearing up. Just sitting and trying to take it in. My sister, coming to the rescue, inquired if I was missing my 3 year old at home in the states. Believe me, he was the farthest thing from my mind at the time.

    • Penny Birch-Williams on

      I totally understand. I was wandering the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC a few years ago aching over the tiny Vermeer paintings and so many other works by the greatest artists, when I stood in front of Mary Cassatt’s The Loge, and could barely stop the tears. I’m not sure if it was her painting or just the overwhelming effect of so many great artists and stunning art, but emotions are stirred by the beauty of seeing them in person. To me, it was seeing the brush strokes on the paintings knowing they were put there by the artist himself or herself. It feels like a connection with the painter, for that moment.

  8. As a much younger painter, while hanging one of my first one woman shows at a museum in Nashville, TN, of a series of botanical paintings, a woman who had been wandering around the room, stopping at each of the paintings and looking at them for a long time, walked up to me and asked who was the artist. When I told her that I was, she looked astonished at my youthfulness but said, I am not an art critique, I know nothing about art, but the beauty of your paintings has brought me to tears. Thank you for these, they are wonderful. Oh, but the years have flown, I hope to never forget those words to that young painter.

  9. To be brought to tears by beauty, a wonderful thing………The artist can provide a moment of respite in a world of chaos that allows the mind to connect with the heart engaging the emotions in the discovery of truth through the observation of the natural world. Tears come as a release in that discovery of the beauty of order. The Artist contemplates that beauty through the work and orders it in a sequence that when communicated to the viewer strikes the note of beauty and truth that reflects the divine. To see into that beauty is the gift of the Artist and to communicate it is love your neighbor as yourself!

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