In 1986, Anny Aviram, Associate Conservator in the Department of Conservation, accompanied The Museum of Modern Art's Water Lilies triptych to Basel, Switzerland. Its inclusion in the exhibition Claude Monet, Nymphéas at the Kunstmuseum, provided a unique opportunity to study the Museum's triptych next to other late works of Monet that had not experienced the triptych's history of damage and consequent "treatments" (a term used by conservators to describe the range of applications, from cleaning to restoration) that a work of art may require.
Select for enlarged view of Water Lilies
For the Water Lilies project, the culminating effort of his career, Monet painted, and then destroyed or repainted, an unknown number of canvases in addition to the twenty-two panels that are installed in the Galerie de l'Orangerie of the Louvre, Paris. The two pictures the Museum owns account for four of the handful of two-meter-high panels that survived. The Museum's triptych, the only assembled one in the United States, is similar in composition to the triptych Les Nuages (The Clouds) (c. 1923-24) in the Orangerie and is almost exactly the same size. Consequently, it is the only one in a public collection outside France to so closely approximate the panoramic experience Monet created in the Orangerie.
Seeing the Museum's picture in Basel was discouraging, however. "The panels of our triptych looked very different," Aviram recalled, "from their counterparts in other collections." In particular, she noted one other triptych in the exhibition, from a private Swiss collection, that was painted like the Museum's picture but not varnished. In comparison, the colors of the Museum's Water Lilies appeared oversaturated and inappropriately deep, which in turn distorted color contrasts in some areas. Aviram's ability to "read" the overall image was hindered by numerous hazy areas, which obscured transitions between colors and altered the relations of forms. The triptych painting did not communicate the sense of space and atmosphere that Monet worked so hard to create.
After their return to the Museum, the pictures were brought to the Department of Conservation, one at a time, for short periods, and a close visual examination was done. The team of conservators that was eventually formed to work on the Water Lilies included Anny Aviram and three of her colleagues in the department, Jim Coddington (now Chief Conservator), Eugena Ordonez (Associate Conservator), and Carol Stringari, (former Associate Conservator), who gathered to discuss the long campaign of analysis and treatment of the triptych. Antoinette King, former Director, Department of Conservation, and an intern, Ellen Pratt, also assisted.
Jim Coddington, (now Chief Conservator), pointed out that the kind of experience Ms. Aviram had is frequently the genesis of a restoration. "You see comparable pictures from the period and get a better sense of what the paintings really ought to look like."