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On view  |  Painting and Sculpture I, Gallery 9, Floor 5

Claude Monet. Water Lilies. 1914-26

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Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)

Water Lilies

Date:
1914-26
Medium:
Oil on canvas, three panels
Dimensions:
Each 6' 6 3/4" x 13' 11 1/4" (200 x 424.8 cm), overall 6' 6 3/4" x 41' 10 3/8" (200 x 1276 cm)
Credit Line:
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
MoMA Number:
666.1959.a-c
Audio Program excerpt

MoMA Audio: Collection

, 2008

Curator, Ann Temkin: This triptych of three mural sized panels was part of a series of Water Lilies paintings that Monet made in the last decade of his life.

He decided that he was going to embark on a project of what he called grand decoration, or large decorations. And he thought of these as panels that would line a room or a couple of rooms that were curving. The galleries would have no edges and no corners, just like the water in the lily pond or the sky has no edges or corners.

In early Impressionism you had these views of nature where you were out looking at a seaside or looking at a field and there were kind of markers of location that you could understand here I am as a person. Here's the view that the painter is portraying for me. With the water lily panels, he's changed it completely so that rather than you being larger than the view that you're looking at on an easel–sized canvas. You're just right in the face of those water lilies and the surface of the water with the clouds reflected from above. You become lost in this expanse of water and of light that is unique in modern art.

Monet had failing eyesight in the last decade of his life, and the palette of these and the blurriness of the representation were even criticized as being nothing more than the result of him not being able to see so well.

These stayed in his studio in Giverny for more than 20 years after his death in 1926.

Director, Glenn Lowry: After being neglected for over 20 years, Monet’s Water Lilies were rediscovered by curators in the early 1950s.

Ann Temkin: When Abstract Expressionism became a popular mode of painting in the early 1950s all of a sudden the Water Lilies, which had been of little interest, became of great interest. It was as if a precursor to Abstract Expressionism had been lying there unnoticed.

Alfred Barr, the Head of Collections at MoMA bought one Water Lilies panel in 1955, the first to enter the collection. It became one of the most popular acquisitions the Museum had made in the twenty-five years of its history.

Glenn Lowry: The Museum acquired another panel in 1956. Two years later there was a fire in the Museum. Fortunately, there was a rapid response from the New York City Fire Department.

Ann Temkin: Virtually all of the collection and the works that were on loan there were saved from any damage. However, there were exceptions. And two of those exceptions were both of the Water Lily canvases. There was an outpouring of sympathy from all over the world. We have fantastic letters in our files from artists, from collectors, from ordinary citizens saying, "Oh, we are so sorry about the loss of those water lily paintings." What the Museum decided to do was to go back as quickly as possible to Paris and try to buy more. And indeed in 1959 the triptych that you see here was acquired with great fanfare and much relief on everyone's part.

Audio Program excerpt

Monet's Water Lilies

, September 13, 2009–April 12, 2010

Curator, Ann Temkin: In early Impressionism you had these views of nature where you were out looking at a seaside or out looking at a field and there were markers of location that you could understand, 'Here I am as a person. Here's the view that the painter is portraying for me.' With the Water Lily panels, he's changed it completely so that rather than you being larger than the view that you're looking at on an easel-sized canvas, somehow you have become immersed in the scene of this water lily pond. All the normal markers, like the edge of the water or the sky or the distant trees, have disappeared, and you’re just right in the face of those water lilies and the surface of the water with the clouds reflected from above you become lost in this expanse of water and of light.

Narrator: During Monet's lifetime, critics deemed his Water Lily panels as messy, blurry evocations of nature—more a product of Monet's failing eyesight rather than any artistic innovation. That appraisal began to change in the early 1950s.

Ann Temkin: When Abstract Expressionism became a popular mode of painting in the early 1950s all of a sudden the Water Lilies, which had been of little interest, became of great interest. It was as if a precursor to Abstract Expressionism had been lying there unnoticed. Alfred Barr, the Head of Collections at MoMA bought one Water Lilies panel in 1955, the first to enter the collection. It became one of the most popular acquisitions the Museum had made in the twenty-five years of its history.

Director, Glenn Lowry: The Museum acquired another panel in 1956. Two years later there was a fire in the Museum. Fortunately, there was a rapid response from the New York City Fire Department.

Ann Temkin: Virtually all of the collection and the works that were on loan there were saved from any damage. However, there were exceptions. And two of those exceptions were both of the Water Lily canvases. There was an outpouring of sympathy from all over the world. We have fantastic letters in our files from artists, from collectors, from ordinary citizens saying, 'Oh, we are so sorry about the loss of those water lily paintings.' What the Museum decided to do, was to go back as quickly as possible to Paris and try to buy more.

And indeed in 1959 the triptych that you see here was acquired with great fanfare and much relief on everyone's part. Then a year later they managed also to acquire the single panel across the room, envisioning at that time, creating a space such as this one where they would be on view together.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 98

Visitors to Monet's Giverny studio in 1918 found "a dozen canvases placed in a circle on the floor . . . [creating] a panorama made up of water and lilies, of light and sky. In that infinitude, water and sky have neither beginning nor end." What they had seen was a group of paintings that Monet planned to install abutting each other in an oval, encompassing the viewer in a sensually enveloping space. The aim, he said, was to supply "the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank." The Water Lilies triptych comes from this series, which describes a scene Monet not only showed in art but shaped in life: the pond in his own garden.

Like his fellow Impressionists, Monet, when young, had attempted a faithfulness to perceived reality, trying to capture the constantly changing quality of natural light and color. The Water Lilies, though, seem nearly abstract, for their scale and allover splendor so immerse us in visual experience that spatial cues dissolve: above and below, near and far, water and sky commingle. Perhaps this was the quality that led Monet's visitors to say, "We seem to be present at one of the first hours in the birth of the world." Yet Monet's desire that the installation create "the refuge of a peaceful meditation" seems equally just.

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