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Ross King on Claude Monet and Water Lilies



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.”

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.”