Claude Monet and his Water Lilies.
Water Lilies is not one painting. It is a series of paintings that French Impressionist Oscar-Claude Monet (1840-1926) worked on for thirty years, inspired by the water garden at his home in Giverny in Normandy. He created about 300 paintings of water lilies, with about forty in large format. There were also three tapestries.
Art critic Louis Gillet said Claude Monet’s paintings of Water Lilies (Nymphéas) are ‘without pattern, without borders.’ They are paintings with ‘no sky, no horizon, hardly any perspective or stable points of reference.’ This is true of course, but in two parts.
Monet devised two types of compositions with the water lilies theme: (1) the edge of the pond, seen in the Water Lily Pond (Bassins aux nymphéas) of 1899-1900, and (2) only the water surface with flowers and reflections in Japanese Bridge (Pont japonais) of the later years, including the Water Landscapes (Paysages d’eau) of 1903-1908.
When choosing to exhibit some of the paintings in the series, he chose a circular theme. The idea for a circular series began from 1897, but more in earnest from 1914, which Claude Monet called his ‘great decoration.’
The circular series is shown in the Musée de l’Orangerie (the Orangerie Museum) in Paris, in the Tuileries Garden in the first arrondissement. It is a panoramic frieze displayed in two elliptical rooms.
However, the exhibition’s journey from idea to actuality took many years. First, the location for the exhibition had to be determined. There was a long period deciding where to exhibit Claude Monet’s circular Water Lilies series, even proposing to put them in the Rodin Museum. The Musée de l’Orangerie was chosen for its location and west-to-east position.
In 1909, Claude Monet said,
‘those with nerves exhausted by work could relax there, following the restful example of those still waters, and, to whoever entered it, the room would provide a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium.’
Indeed, today, when you see the exhibition, it is indeed a refuge of peace.
Claude Monet gave two panels of the paintings to the French State after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, as a symbol of peace, crowning the Water Lilies cycle. The dimensions of nearly one hundred meters, gives, as Monet said, the ‘illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.’
The Water Lilies were finally displayed at the Musée de l’Orangerie from 1927. But Claude Monet’s circular series did not receive critical acclaim initially. In 1927, the avant-garde scene of the early 20th century undervalued Impressionism as an art form. So, not many people attended the Claude Monet exhibition.
One painting was damaged by a bomb shell during the Liberation of Paris in 1944-1945. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Musée de l’Orangerie was renovated. However, neither the original museum exhibition design in the late 1920s nor the 1960s renovation included Claude Monet’s exact specifications for displaying his paintings to their best advantage.
Today, the permanent exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie presents eight of Claude Monet’s great Water Lilies compositions in the circular series, created of large panels assembled side by side. They are hung across the curved walls of two elliptical rooms. They are hung to Claude Monet’s exact specifications, that he dictated before 1927. The specifications included the positioning and spacing between the panels. Monet also specified that there should be natural lighting coming down from the roof.
The Musée de l’Orangerie was renovated from 2000-2006 to restore the zenithal lighting that Monet had originally specified. When you visit the museum, look carefully at Claude Monet’s circular series of Water Lilies, and look up at the lighting.