Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
Bloomsbury, 2016, 404 pages
By 1914, Claude Monet, now seventy-three years old, was ready to give up painting. His eldest son Jean had died that year, just three years after the passing of his beloved wife Alice. Monet’s own health was poor, his eyesight failing due to cataracts. World War I was looming, with the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June. Yet the world-famous painter, newly inspired, carried on with some of his most adventuresome works, including the huge paintings of the water lilies at his Giverny home that are the subject of this book by Ross King.
King, a well-known Canadian art historian, has made a name with his books about great artists and their masterpieces, including Leonardo and The Last Supper, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and another work about Impressionism, The Judgment of Paris. Mad Enchantment is yet another such winning combination of biography and art history, with an abundance of fascinating digressions and a helpful wider historical context.
Giverny, a picturesque small town around forty miles northwest of Paris, was home to but 250 or so when Monet first visited in 1883. Years later, the walls of Monet’s home there were covered by his own paintings and his extensive collection of Japanese prints. His renowned garden, including a lily pond and his famous Japanese bridge, was populated by water chestnuts, wisteria, rhododendrons, Japanese apple and cherry trees, and water lilies of various colors. While he once had traveled widely for the subjects of his paintings, after 1890 or so Monet focused his attention on the area within a few miles of his home, eventually dealing almost obsessively, in hundreds of paintings, on his own garden, pond, and flowers.
In the spring of 1914, Monet started painting on huge canvases for the first time since youthful efforts like 1865’s unfinished Luncheon on the Grass (recently seen in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor’s exhibition Early Monet). He started to describe this series of big works as the Grande Décoration, calling to mind the public murals by the likes of Delacroix, and began seeking out large spaces where his work might appear.
Monet always wanted to capture his subjects in their particular circumstances of light, color, and atmosphere: as he once said, “to render my impressions before the most fugitive effects.” Guy de Maupassant was among the many who observed Monet’s peculiar way of moving between “five or six paintings depicting the same subject at different times and with different effects. He worked on them one by one, following all the changes in the sky.”
King describes Monet’s technique: “Monet chose canvases with a pronounced weave, one whose weft threads were thicker than the warp. He then applied a series of undercoats, allowing each one to dry before adding the next. He brushed his paint at right angles to the weft so that its threads trapped more of the pigment, creating a series of corrugations and giving the canvas what has been called a ‘textural vibration.’ In other words, he used his pigments and the texture of the canvas to suggest both the ripples of water on the surface and, in the declivities marked by the warp threads, the underlying depths.” Eventually, surroundings like sky and the opposite bank disappeared – except as reflections – as Monet concentrated on the water of the pond, and what lay on and below it.
A focus of much of the Grande Décoration is, of course, water lilies. As King describes, aside from the many appearances of the water lily, and its relative the lotus, in mythology from Egypt and India to the Aztecs – with which Monet was probably unfamiliar – the water lily had a multitude of associations in France. King mentions a number of these, “the mysterious and the unknown, the feminine, the oriental, the exotic, the voluptuous, and often, at the same time, the sinister, deathly, and gruesome.” The fact that water lilies anchor themselves in the mud, and their beautiful flowers blossom on the surface of stagnant waters, held symbolic meaning for writers ranging from Maeterlinck to George Sand. Stéphane Mallarmé was by no means alone in finding the water lily symbolic of the mysterious, hidden, and inaccessible: “those magical, still unopened water lilies which suddenly spring up there and enclose, in their deep white, a nameless nothingness made of unbroken reveries, of happiness never to be.” Water lilies have for many a distinctly feminine quality. Even a common French name for the water lily is nymphéa, or water nymph, described by King as “the female deities of place, always represented as young girls, graceful and naked, who personify the forces of nature, haunting the waters, woods, and mountains.”
Little could persuade Monet to set aside his work on the Grande Décoration, even the outbreak of World War I, which his longtime friend and former Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau early on dubbed “The Race Into The Abyss.” For many, art was quickly coming to seem irrelevant. As one newspaper of the time phrased it, “Throughout the terrible tests imposed on us by the abominable war, art can hardly raise its voice except to make a complaint.” Many artists, including Braque, Derain, and Léger, were themselves soldiers. France underwent waves of optimism and pessimism in the course of the War, one of the worst of the latter being the bloody Battle of Verdun, with its hundreds of thousands of casualties (and in which Monet’s son Michel was one of the combatants). France’s government faltered, going through three prime ministers before giving Monet’s old friend Clemenceau the opportunity to serve once again.
Monet carried on. He had a huge new studio built on his property, even though he continued to do much of his work out-of-doors. We are lucky enough to get a glimpse of this in Sacha Guitry’s 1915 film Ceux de chez nous (Those From Our Home), which features footage of Rodin, Renoir, and Monet as well as people like Camille Saint-Saëns and Sarah Bernhardt. Monet even made his way to Paris in November 1915 to see the film’s premiere – silent, of course, with Guitry’s live commentary accompanying it. Totally uninterested in film otherwise, it is said to be the only movie Monet ever saw.
As he followed the events of the war closely from Giverny, Monet continued to work, both on the Grande Décoration and on smaller paintings of his Japanese bridge and the weeping willows by his pond. King finds evidence of the war and of Monet’s personal struggles in these “vertiginous” bridge paintings with their “bloodred accents,” and the “contorted branches” and dark colors of the weeping willows suggestive of “torture and suffering.”
Finally, on November 11, 1918, an armistice ending the war was signed, after more than four years of fighting, 1.4 million French citizens killed, and more than 4 million wounded. Clemenceau was recognized as a national hero. Within a week of the armistice, and around the time of Monet’s seventy-eighth birthday, Clemenceau traveled to Giverny to visit his friend. Among their topics of discussion was a home for the Grande Décoration, which Monet planned to donate to France. Only a portion could be exhibited, given that by the end of 1920 the Grande Décoration encompassed, according to Monet himself, 45 to 50 panels, in fourteen series, all but three of the paintings roughly 14 x 6.5 feet (the others were even longer).
One plan for their home, a Musée Monet housed at the Hôtel Biron, where a museum devoted to the sculptures of Auguste Rodin was already located, was rejected. Then Monet’s attention turned to the Orangerie at the Louvre. A deal was struck for the Orangerie to be remodeled so as to become the home of nineteen Monet paintings spanning some 274 feet, arranged in eight sets or compositions, with titles like The Clouds, Green Reflections, The Three Willows, Morning, and Reflections of Trees.
Monet continued painting even as his eyesight continued to deteriorate; an ophthalmologist he saw in September of 1922 found him legally blind in his right eye and with only 10% vision in his left, leading him to two surgeries in January and July 1923. By 1924 Monet felt that he couldn’t complete the paintings for the Orangerie on time. In a crisis of confidence, he canceled his donation.
But he continued working. Again and again in Monet’s life, the deaths of those close to him – his stepdaughter Suzanne, his first wife Camille and second wife Alice, his son Jean – released in him the need to paint. It happened again in 1925 with the death of another stepdaughter, Marthe. Monet returned to work on the Grande Décoration, speculating that it might actually come to completion by the spring of 1926. By then, Monet’s health was in great decline. As he told Clemenceau of his paintings, “When I am dead, I shall find their imperfections more bearable.”
Monet died on December 5, 1926, with Clemenceau and family members at his side. King quotes a writer from Le Figaro who attended Monet’s funeral three days later: “Normandy was dressed as her painter would have wished. In the still waters of the river vibrated the thousands of glitters of gold, pink and purple from which he had made his palette. The waters reflected a mysterious sky of pink, purple and gold, dissolving poplars, and the misty outlines of low hills. Normandy was a Monet.” Two weeks later, twenty-two of Monet’s paintings were rolled up, taken to the Louvre to be photographed, then forwarded on to the Orangerie.
The Musée Claude-Monet finally opened at the Orangerie in May 1927. By this time Monet’s star had dimmed somewhat, and tastes had moved on from Impressionism. Not many people attended the opening, and the reception of critics was at best mixed. Light at the Orangerie was poor, and few visited the paintings in ensuing weeks, months, and years. Not until 2006 was the space restored and natural light returned. Nowadays around a million people visit the Orangerie each year.
The first work one sees on entering the Orangerie is Green Reflections, described thus by King: “From a background of brilliant blues and deep greens leap bright blossoms of water lilies: flames of burgundy and yellow, amaranthine tongues, flashes of salmon pink – what seem to be dozens of distinctive colors all delicately harmonized.”
King ends his book with a description of “the darkest and most unsettling of the compositions,” “his most disquieting vision,” Reflections of Trees in the second room. In the middle of “gently fluorescing twilight,” one sees “the sinuous apparition of a willow glimpsed upside-down in reflection, a liquid shadow wreathed in clouds of blue lily pads. Its bifurcated trunk forms an anguished human body, even perhaps a drowned shape passing through the shadowy fathoms … in this wraithlike afterimage we feel the painter’s rage and suffering but also his defiance and resilience.”
All images from Wikipedia.
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