In this triptych Monet depicted his Japanese-style pond covered with water lilies, at center, shimmering with reflections of clouds overhead. The water's surface fills the expansive composition so that conventional clues to the artist's—and the viewer's—vantage point are eliminated. Monet wished for the paintings to encompass the viewer: in his designs for the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, he specified that the Water Lily canvases be displayed on curved walls.
Gallery label from Monet's Water Lilies, September 13, 2009–April 12, 2010
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.
Water Lilies. c. 1920
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 98