Indeed, after World War I ended, Monet promised all of France a “monument to peace” in the form of these monumental canvasses. Yet despite these nearly Herculean efforts, despite the universal acclaim and success Monet enjoyed, and despite the huge admiration they command now, these later paintings made almost no public impression during the remainder of artist’s lifetime. “Until his death,” King says, “there was no public reception. You would get a private viewing if you were lucky enough to get an invitation to Giverny. It was one of the most coveted invitations in France. You would come and you would have lunch with him. You would eat the the best food in France at his table. After the dishes were cleared, after the coffee and the liqueur, Monet would tour the garden with you and then finally he would take you into his studio and show you the paintings.
The small number of people -- perhaps 20 -- who saw them during the years from 1914 to Monet's death in 1926 exulted over them. They were, I think, amazed by the size and by the prolific nature of Monet's output -- and by the style of the work. It was in some ways different from his earlier style: he was decomposing forms even more, and it seemed to them (although none of them even used that word, I think we can read between the lines) that there was an abstraction to it which they'd not seen in his earlier work. Monet then died in December 1926, without ever doing a public show apart from one or two of these which were put much against his wishes into larger shows of work. He refused to part with them. He couldn't stop doing them and he painted far more than was necessary for any kind of public display or any kind of museum. He just kept going.”
What initial publicity there was, King points out, was hostile. “For the previous 20 or 30 years, Monet had had almost nothing but positive reviews. Now the pendulum swung back and he was attacked by the critics. The paintings were deemed to be the work of an old man. His cataracts were referred to frequently and it was seen as a kind of artistic mistake. It was only really in the late 1940's and early 1950's that they were rediscovered -- largely by painters and in particular by American painters who had seen the previous generation's work, the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, the New York School of the Abstract Expressionists. They saw a kind of prefiguration of, say, Pollock's work, and they really created a kind of critical mass of favorable reception. Through the 1950's the collectors and museums began buying Monet's late Water Lilies.”
This raises another question: to what degree did these monumental works actually prefigure the decompositions and distortions of the abstract expressionists? King says that the artist himself would have answered strongly in the negative. “Monet would deny that he'd painted abstractly," says King. "He claimed that he painted nature as he saw it. But, of course, in the work itself he was staring at the pond and eradicating all of the traditional markers of landscape, such as foreground, middle ground, and distance. That in some ways that does overturn the Impressionist project: he does begin painting in a very different style than he himself had done earlier and that all of the Impressionists had done in their classic landscape paintings. I think in Monet's case, this was a natural progression. He was painting things that were impalpable: light and water and reflections. Besides their impalpability, they had a kind of fugitive nature to them. I think by making that his artistic goal, he began shading into abstraction. Staring at that reflective, sparkling pond filled with water lilies was a natural place for him to end up. As for whether that makes Impressionism hit the buffers and exhaust the project, possibly it did. It took, I suppose, to its logical conclusion what Impressionism was about, especially in the hands of Monet: dissolving forms in light.”
The Water Lilies are now well-recognized as the treasures they are. The panels can be found in leading museums the world over, from Paris to New York; they fetch prices in the tens of millions in auctions. There can be no doubt that the late mastery of Monet has earned the respect it deserves, despite the initial bewilderment and anger it aroused in viewing audiences. A curious bookending of Monet’s career, as King notes. He had received terrible reviews as a young man as well, for the similar sin of introducing a new vision to art. King’s favorite place to see Water Lilies remains the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. “If you saw it in the 1980's or 1990's,” he says, “it was a much less congenial space for the paintings. Now they've brought in natural light, beautiful light, and the paintings can really be seen the way that Monet -- and Georges Clémenceau -- wanted us to see them. You have these two elliptical rooms which are in something that even though it was constructed in the 1920's seems very, very modern. It looks like it was just put together yesterday.”