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 an astounding 250 oil paintings of the water lilies he had planted around his famous Giverny property, which he purchased 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 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.
He began by creating an installment of 18 works that featured views of the famous wooden footbridge hanging over his pond in 1899, managing to complete 12 of those that summer. By the following summer, the first series of Water Lilies — a total of 25 canvases — was exhibited at the Galerie Durand-Ruel. It was followed by a second series featuring 48 canvases nine years later. Most of these were small, with a focus on the flower details. They also revealed that he experimented with lighting and enjoyed observing how it changed throughout the day as well as the seasons.
"These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession," wrote Monet on August 11th, 1908. "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." However, following the death of his beloved wife Alice in 1911, the famous artist took a break from his most recognizable body of work, only picking it up in 1914 and making some radical changes in his approach. These works were monumental in scale, with most measuring around six feet by six feet.
Monet also changed his color palette, using brilliant bursts of color to hint at his flowers and entirely forgoing the details that characterized his earlier work. Furthermore, his paintings were devoid of any kind of indication of a horizon, which normally helps the viewer’s orientation when looking at the work. If his goal was to establish "the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank," it worked. By ignoring the principles of art defined by his predecessors, “his extraordinary use of point and color began the trail for subsequent art movements.
Indeed, many of his contemporaries became affiliated with Post-impressionism. And Henri Matisse, who had studied Monet, became one of the first and ultimately most celebrated of the Expressionists. But, Water Lilies also opened the path to abstract painting. “By the time of Monet's death in 1926 the art world, both in Paris and in America, was a very different place from the one he had largely struggled against during much of his life, Monet and his circle were the first to truly challenge the conventions of Parisian art in the modern age.”
“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.