Fig. 1 Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) “Water Lilies,” about 1915–1926, Oil on canvas, Unframed: 79 × 167 3/4 inches (200.66 × 426.09 cm), Purchase: William Nelson Rockhill Trust, 57-26.
Considering Impressionism’s enduring appeal, it’s surprising to think that Claude Monet’s late-period works, created when the artist was in his mid-70s until his death at 86, were once considered unfashionable. In fact, his most famous series, “Water Lilies” (Nymphéas) (Fig. 1), remained stored away in a warehouse for several years following his death. These paintings, inspired by Monet’s garden in Giverny outside of Paris, and many of the artist’s late works in general, impacted a generation of North American abstract artists from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Some of these pictures can be seen in the exhibition Monet and his Modern Legacy, on view from Oct. 28 through March 10, 2024, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The exhibition includes the museum’s own monumental Water Lilies canvas, measuring 14 feet wide, with three important loans from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, and over a dozen examples of works by North American Abstract Expressionist artists, including Norman Bluhm (Fig. 2), Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Paul Jenkins and Jules Olitski, among others, who found inspiration in Monet’s artistry.
But there was almost no legacy to speak of that was positive. In 1927, when 22 panels of Monet’s Water Lilies debuted posthumously in Paris at the Orangerie, a year after the artist’s death, they faced severe criticism. Italian art historian Lionello Venturi condemned them as “Monet’s greatest artistic mistake.” The era favored the faceted canvases of Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris (Fig. 3) over the ethereal and wispy brushwork of Monet and his fellow Impressionists, who had once been at the forefront of avant-garde inspiration. Monet’s evocative Water Lilies pictures appeared to be at an aesthetic impasse.
Shifting Perspectives: The Turn Toward Abstraction
In 1936, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the visionary director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), sketched an organizational chart tracing the evolution of abstract art. Claude Monet’s name was conspicuously absent.
However, during the 1950s, Barr would retrospectively carve out a place for Monet, particularly his late masterpieces. The ascent of large-scale painting by an informal network of emerging artists, later hailed as the Abstract Expressionists, kindled Barr’s fascination with Monet’s oeuvre, particularly the works from around 1914 until Monet’s death in 1926. Consequently, MoMA became the first public institution to acquire one of Monet’s late Water Lilies panels in 1955. This landmark acquisition preceded notable exhibitions of Monet’s late works in Paris and New York in 1956. Amid this renaissance, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art secured one of Monet’s late masterpieces—Water Lilies—thanks, in part, to the advocacy of Kansas City Art Institute students.
Subsequent critical response, spearheaded by painter and writer Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989), who coined the term “Abstract-Impressionism,” and shaped by artist and critic Louis Finkelstein (1923-2000), helped define this nascent movement. Finkelstein astutely acknowledged the stylistic affinities between abstraction and Impressionism, both deeply concerned with the nuanced interplay of light, space and air. These transformative events rekindled intrigue and appreciation for Monet’s final works and Abstract Expressionist painters active during this era.
Discover the incredible journey of how Claude Monet’s late works went from obscurity to becoming a profound source of inspiration for a generation of North American abstract artists, and how a group of local students played a role in helping to secure the acquisition of Monet’s Waterlilies in Kansas City.
–Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator, European Art