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Why Monet's Paintings of Water Lilies Are So Iconic
A closer look 12 Jan 2023

Why Monet's Paintings of Water Lilies Are So Iconic

Waterlilies at Giverny
Waterlilies at Giverny © Getty images

In 1883, Claude Monet rented a house in the countryside surrounding Paris. So in love was he with this bolt hole found in Giverny, Monet decided to purchase the property. A few years later, he bought an additional plot of land, across a set of railroad tracks from his house, and there embarked on the transformation of a small pond. This small pond would become a magnificent water garden with imported lilies and a feature Japanese-style wooden bridge. Monet’s garden at Giverny changed the trajectory of 20th century art history forever. In this article, Artsper traces the humble beginnings of this small pond in order to answer just why Monet’s paintings of water lilies are so iconic.

The most recognizable paintings of the 20th century

Perhaps some of the most recognizable paintings of the 20th century, Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas” series (1897-1926) is today universally recognized and adored. So why are Monet’s paintings of water lilies so iconic, you may ask? Composed of an impressive 250 paintings in total, the series’ allure perhaps lies in its varsity. Another solution to this question could be the sheer greatness of the dimensions of the canvased upon which Monet painted. See the immense structures at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris for example. Moreover, there are some specialists who point to the brilliance of the interplay of colors that Monet casted upon these canvases as the real reason for the water lilies’ lasting appeal.

Considered to be some of his best work, this series of water lilies was painted during the last thirty years of the Impressionist painter’s life. Artsper will thus explore wherein lies the true beauty behind this series that has been rendered so iconic in our minds.

With careful nurture

The subject of Monet’s landscape painting came to signify “nature” in its most splendid beauty. And yet, Monet’s garden was not always the most natural of sites. Monet lavished an extraordinary amount of time and money on the upkeep and expansion of the pond and grounds of the garden. This labor of love saw Monet employ six gardeners who transformed the wild meadow into a curated garden of willows, irises and water lilies specially imported from Japan. Monet even admitted “these landscapes of water and reflections [became] an obsession.” This realization did not, however, deter him from pressing further in his infatuation.

The home of Giverny
The home of Giverny © giverny-impression.com

So why are Monet’s paintings of water lilies so iconic?

We can put this down to 3 reasons.

Firstly, they demonstrate his extraordinary talent for plein air painting. En plein air, or plein air painting, is the act of painting outdoors. This method contrasts with studio painting or traditional academic painting practises that might create a predetermined look. Brought about in the early 19th century, the plein air practice was facilitated by the invention of portable canvases and easels. Credited particularly to the French painting school situated in Barbizon in the early 1830s, artists like Monet were made aware of a new style of painting in which natural light took precedence. Fundamental to this series by Monet, plein air painting enabled the artist to better capture the changing details of weather and light.

The sheer greatness of Monet’s paintings (in number)

Secondly, it is the series’ magnitude that is awe-inspiring. The size of the compositions Monet chose for his landscape paintings were on a large scale. Canvases often measured six-and-a-half feet tall and up to twenty feet wide. Apart from the vast dimensions, it was the volume of Monet’s paintings of water lilies that proved most colossal. This extensive series demonstrated the variety and depth of the subject matter and amounted to one monumental achievement.

A mirage of color

Finally, the reason many adore Monet’s water lilies is down to his use of color. Monet’s eye was like no other is his ability to pair complementary colors together.

Beginning in 1903, the primary focus of this series is placed primarily on the water’s surface where Monet’s Impressionist color palette became truly set free. His use of yellows, pinks, lavenders, greens, blues, and other complementary colors in the series carefully depict the true lighting of Giverny. To depict darker scenes, the artist would never use black for he felt it had a dulling effect. Instead he used contrasting colors to counteract each other to produce shadows. 

Dispensing of the conventional structure and rejecting the traditional inclusion of the horizon line, the sky, and the ground, he focused directly on the surface of the pond and its reflections. He did sometimes include a hint of the pond’s edge to situate the viewer in space. Thus, conventional clues to the artist and viewer’s eye (vantage points such as a horizon line) were eliminated. The shimmer of light in the water and the intermingling of reflections of the clouds and foliage overhead further blur the distinctions between the foreground and background. Compared with later depictions of the pond, these paintings are quite naturalistic both in color and style. Monet exhibited forty-eight of these water lilies in a highly successful exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in May 1909. Reflecting on the show, a critic wrote that he felt “encircled by mysteriously seductive reflections.” 

We encourage you to have a look at the series and to ask yourself what colors dominate? How does the picture make you feel?

Monet's paintings of the waterlilies
Claude Monet’s Waterlilies, 1906 © Wikipedia

The later series of Monet’s paintings

This period in Monet’s later life was not all rosy. After a successful exhibition in 1909, the next few years were a time of infrequent artistic activity. This period was associated with significant personal hardship for Monet. Floods in 1910 submerged the water lily pond. Monet’s wife, Alice Hoschedé, died in 1911, as did his son Jean, in 1914. In 1912 Monet was diagnosed with cataracts, and for the rest of his life he would struggle with failing eyesight. When World War I began, most of Monet’s family members and friends left Giverny. The artist himself stayed, saying that his painting helped distract him from the horrible news of the war.

Monet's studio
Monet’s studio © Musée Marmottan

Indeed, Monet began construction on a vast new studio in 1915. It was utterly utilitarian in design, with a concrete floor and glass ceiling; Monet lamented that for the sake of his art he had added an eyesore to the property. Thereafter, the artist would work in two stages: in the summer he would paint outdoors on smaller canvases, and in the winter retreat to the studio to review and adapt paintings.  Monet worked on several panels at once, studying and going back and forth among them. These works, which he referred to as “grandes décorations,” were viewed as a collective whole by Monet. Why Monet spent so long studying, obsessing, and retracing these famous water lilies we will never know, but we can certainly appreciate is the result of this infatuation.

The nation’s pride

Monet's paintings of expansive landscape scenes
Monet’s paintings shown on expansive canvases © Musée de l’Orangerie

At the close of the war, Monet decided to donate two panels to France in celebration of the nation’s victory. His good friend Georges Clemenceau, who was prime minister of France from 1906 to 1909 and again from 1917 to 1920, persuaded Monet to expand the gift. Eventually, the state received twenty-two panels, forming eight compositions. The gift was contingent upon Monet’s right to approve the venue and installation plan for the paintings. After much discussion, Monet and government officials agreed to create a permanent exhibition space at the L’Orangerie, in the Tuileries gardens in Paris. It opened to the public in 1927, the year following Monet’s death.

One of Monet's paintings
One of Monet’s paintings, Le Bassin aux Nymphéas (1919), shown at auction © Sotheby’s
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