Art 101 – Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’

Claude Monet’s iconic Water Lilies series never fails to impress. The large and panoramic paintings engulf the viewer with color and movement. One might be tempted to come close to the Water Lilies (in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) as one would with other paintings, but one quickly realizes that the dynamic strokes and shifting colors reward viewing at a respectful remove. With each step back, the painting’s “impressions” combine more clearly into a soft, pleasant scene of water lilies floating on a garden pond.

Radically abstract for their era, Monet’s paintings helped found the Impressionist movement, yet no other Impressionist painters went as far as Monet in abstraction or in scale. The artist created a layered effect continuing to add fresh oil paint to that which had already dried on the canvas, creating in his paintings a beautiful interplay between a softly mottled background and a sudden highlight of vivid neon strokes creates an impression of lily pads. Part of the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s permanent collection, the 
Water Lilies was touched up and altered by Monet over a period of 11 years, from 1914 until the artist’s death in 1926.

Modern day museum patrons are encouraged to approach this work in a new way. It appears to be a soothing and peaceful piece that mimics pleasant perceptions of the environment. It’s difficult to imagine the real context of Water Lilies. Begun at the outbreak of World War I, Monet worked on this piece while German troops were close to his home in Giverny; bombs could be heard in his water gardens. His son and stepson were fighting for France, and Monet’s vision was compromised by cataracts. The pleasure offered by this painting was born of Monet’s desire to create an aesthetic and meditative experience through this expansive painting despite the traumatic surroundings. Water Lilies is a surprising though perfect fit in the ongoing WWI and the Rise of Modernism exhibition, offering, amidst the tragic connotations of world war, an alternative space of hope.


Leave a Reply