We commonly associate artistic genius with youth: the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the painter and sculptor Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, the mathematician Évariste Galois. The paradigmatic arc of genius, as conceived through our distinctly Romantic lens, begins with a miraculous efflorescence of talent at an early age and includes, often, an untimely death.
A cursory familiarity with the history of art and creative or intellectual efforts more generally reveals this to be a fallacious, even specious understanding of the facts. True masters continue to create powerful, original work into their very latest years. There is, perhaps, no-one more emblematic of this trajectory than the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. His late-life masterpieces, the vast panel paintings called Water Lilies, he kept more or less out the public eye until the end of his life; when revealed, they were looked on with contemporary disdain. That has changed. Ross King, art historian and award-winning author, found these final works so fascinating he devoted an entire book to the history and circumstances of their creation. We spoke with King about genius, endurance, and the fraught relationship between artists, their audiences, and the times they (will they or nill they) inhabit.
King summarized the fractured story of the paintings’ unlikely genesis: “Monet had actually retired from painting in January 1913. He wrote to his picture dealer in Paris, a man who had been with him since the early 1870's, and said that he was giving up painting because of the fact that his second wife had died in 1911 from leukemia. He also discovered he was having difficulties with his eyesight. In fact, he was diagnosed with cataract. So he believed, rightly or wrongly at that time, that he would be unable to work any longer. He decided that his legacy would have to be everything he had done up to that point. And so he wrote this letter of resignation or retirement to his picture dealer, which was widely reported in the press in 1913.
By this time, remember, Monet was incredibly wealthy due to the fact that he had been discovered by Gilded-Age America. No American tycoon could have a house in Newport or an apartment on Fifth Avenue without having Monet paintings. When Monet retired in 1913, it seemed cataclysmic, seismic: the reigning world champion of art was giving up.
What then happens, of course, is that he is visited by George Clémenceau, France's great war leader. He was a very good friend of Monet. Clémenceau made it his business to make sure that Monet began painting again. I think he knew that Monet would probably not live long if he stopped painting, and so he decided that he was going to use all of his rhetorical powers to get him back to his easel. He made a comment when he visited Monet in Giverny in the spring of 1914. He looked at some old paintings of water lilies and said, ‘You should do some more of these. You should find a rich man who will pay you to decorate one of the rooms in his houses with a suite of water lily paintings.’ That, it seems, was all that was necessary for Monet to go back to his easel and begin painting -- and to begin painting on a much, much larger and more ambitious scale than he had ever worked in before.”
Monet’s working process was as monumental as the canvasses themselves. King notes that “one of the things he had to do was source large canvasses, which was not easy because of World War I -- both pigment and canvas were part of the war effort. He had to pull strings via Clémenceau in order to get all of these materials for his paintings. It would then arrive at his studio, sometimes by train because he lived some 40 miles outside of Paris. Trains, too, were part of the war effort and introduced another hurdle. He worked in two different scales. One was the very large six and a half feet high by 14 feet wide or 20 feet wide canvas -- these enormous compositions. He could obviously not have painted them outside. Instead he painted them inside in an enormous studio that he had constructed in 1915. So already, one year into the project that he called his ‘grande decoration,’ he needed to have a new studio to accommodate this massive amount of work that he was doing. He did studies for these large canvases which were themselves very large works of art. There are some six feet high by five and a half feet wide. He created maybe 70 or 80 of them. He did paint those by the side of the water-lily pond itself: there's live footage of him doing it. He was about 5'6", so he was painting canvases that were a half a foot or in some cases a foot taller than him.”
There was a sociopolitical urge possibly at work in Monet’s energetic approach to the late Water Lilies as well. King says, “One of the knocks against Impressionism was that it was a private art. In many cases it showed private scenes: women in gardens with children, people in drawing rooms, or unheroic bits of landscape. One of the consequences of this was that Impressionism had never graced the French halls of state. Probably the most successful public painter of the 19th century had been Eugène Delacroix -- someone Monet admired enormously. He used to peer into the window of Delacroix's studio on the Left Bank and would watch him paint (or just watch him in general).
If you went into a judicial hall in Paris or in the provinces and raised your eyes, you would see the heroic scenes that artists like Delacroix had painted. You could not walk around anywhere in France and look up and see an Impressionist painting. The Impressionists were not given the tasks of painting in hospitals and courts. All of those great public commissions, which were by far the most prestigious, had gone to other painters. I think that's what resonated with Monet. One of the things he wanted to do was to create these massive paintings that would essentially become public decorative art, which would bring Impressionism to the next level.”