How Claude Monet Disobeyed the City Council, Planted Too Many Flowers & Painted His Water Lilies
"I am only good at two things, and those are: gardening and painting.” — Claude Monet (1840 - 1926)
It may come as no surprise that Claude Monet was a passionate horticulturist, considering that he painted some 250 oil paintings of the water lilies he had planted around his famous Giverny property in northwestern France, which he purchased in 1890 and expanded in 1893. Intending to build something "for the pleasure of the eye and also for motifs to paint,” he went against the city council and seeded a lot more vegetation, which he imported from Egypt and South America, than he was legally allowed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the world-famous series dominated the last 30 years of the artist’s life.
In the first water-lily series (1897 – 1899), the artist painted17 works, each of which featured his beloved Japanese bridge. He "retained the traditional components of a landscape painting, representing the horizontal zones of water and land, and provided glimpses of the sky above." It was followed by a second series featuring 48 works that he began in 1903, after a significant renovation of the water garden. "Shifting viewpoints, the artist played with the relative proportion of water, land, and sky that remained visible, and in the majority of the works, he altogether eliminated the sky in the upper reaches of the canvas, leaving it discernible only as a reflection in the water."
Creating the works was a difficult process for Monet. "These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession," wrote the troubled artist to his friend the art critic Gustave Geffroy on August 11th, 1909. "This is beyond the strength of an old man, and yet I want to express what I feel. I have destroyed some of the canvases. I begin once again." In fact, Monet had destroyed a total of 15 completed works right before they were to be exhibited at the Paris-based Durand-Ruel gallery that same year.
An article for the Art Institute of Chicago notes:
"Over time, the artist became less and less concerned with conventional pictorial space. By the time he painted Water Lilies, which comes from his third group of these works, he had dispensed with the horizon line altogether. In this spatially ambiguous canvas, the artist looked down, focusing solely on the surface of the pond, with its cluster of vegetation floating amid the reflection of sky and trees. Monet thus created the image of a horizontal surface on a vertical one."
He began the series in 1914, although the concept for these works was conceived in 1897, when Monet envisioned a circular installation of vast paintings that would envelop the viewer: "Imagine a circular room whose wall... would be entirely filled by a horizon of water spotted with [water lilies]… the calm and silence of the still water reflecting the flowering display; the tones are vague, deliciously nuanced, as delicate as a dream.” The result was some forty large-scale panels, Water Lilies among them, that Monet produced and continuously reworked until his death in 1926.
“Monet creates areas of color. Greens define the leaves, purples and blues the water reflecting the natural light, dark blues create shadows from the trees above, and pinks, oranges, and reds show flowers shining in sunlight. One can view Monet’s Water Lilies as starting a path towards abstraction, blurring the line between non-objective art and art showing a subject matter. Water Lilies shows colors interacting with each other, creating interest by their relationships. As with previous paintings where Monet was giving the effects of light more importance than subject matter, Water Lilies continues that and puts the interest on color."
And even though Monet’s Water Lilies are the culmination of his life’s work, there's a good chance that without his horticultural inclinations, his last great effort would have been vastly different. The art world is better off, because Monet disobeyed the city council, planted too many flowers, and painted his water lilies.
Note* The article was last updated on June 6th, 2021.