Select for enlarged view of Water Lilies
Decisions about cleaning were affected by the unusual size of the painting: in places a large swab, softly applied, was used instead of tiny swabs, which were impractical. Here as elsewhere the conservators' experience came into play in determining the approach that would be taken. "Sometimes you follow an inner feeling; it's not black-and-white," Anny Aviram remarks. Jim Coddington agrees. "Ultimately a cleaning is a subjective thing. The hand of the conservator enters in a very clear way here. This is why we try to bring so much information to bear: to narrow the range of subjectivity."
Figure 7 is a detail from panel one of the triptych showing a scrape across the surface In figure 8, the same area after inpainting
Each panel was scanned under magnification to identify areas of adhesive and facing paper residues, which were removed with moisture and swabs in some areas. Carol Stringari dealt with the more tenacious adhesive by moistening an area through Japanese tissue for several minutes before removing the softened adhesive with moist swabs.
Since the cleaning, there is a much-enhanced sense of space in the painting. The relationships of the colors have been restored as well. The ones that had "stepped forward," because they had become saturated by varnish, now "stepped back," becoming more integrated into the surface of the reflections. "The cleaning made a bigger difference than I expected it would," Coddington says. "Even though the panels weren't filthy, by ordinary standards, this picture relies on subtleties, which the surface alterations had significantly affected."
The understanding of Monet's technique, developed through research, analysis, and comparison with other Water Lilies paintings, determined the approach taken to retouching as well as cleaning. The team decided that minimal retouching would be done, and only in areas of unambiguous damage. One important reason for a conservative approach was the realization that Monet appeared to have changed imagery by painting over or scraping off undesired elements. Coddington explained that Monet may have used an underlying, relatively finished painting, integrating it into the composition being created on the surface. The center of the middle panel provides one of the best examples. He points to an area where a pinkish-blue color has been scraped away to reveal a kind of rich sunny yellow. "If as a conservator you just looked at this section you might say: 'That's been damaged; you've got to retouch it to make it look like the area adjacent to it.' The loss, you might suppose, is simply an artifact of damage that occurred to the painting over the years." But then he points to a spot where a reddish paint, clearly applied by Monet, flows over the yellow, "meaning that this scraping down to reveal a bright yellow underneath is something Monet did," and not damage.
Monet sometimes used a scraping technique to remove unwanted paint layers. It is clear that it was Monet who scraped out these areas because, as the detail shows, a reddish stroke of paint, part of a water lily flower, was painted over the scraped out yellow layer
This passage also told the conservators something about the "artistic personality" of the late Monet. The reason for scraping this area down in the first place may have been a rethinking of the composition. Because the water lilies were usually painted with more impasto, painting them out left behind local areas of prominent impasto that Monet may not have wanted. But then, having revealed the underlying yellow, perhaps from an entirely unrelated composition, he may have decided to make use of it. Coddington describes the result. "This bright yellow coming up from underneath here gives a really strong vibrancy to this passage of the painting; yet when it was first applied, it was intended to do something very different. That yellow may have been part of a morning scene, depicting strong sunlight bouncing off the water." While the color "works," the conservators remain uncertain whether Monet finished this passage. Nevertheless, we are left with a picture of the mature Monet engaged in an active give-and-take with the painting, several times removed from the direct visual encounter with the subject that we associate with Impressionism.
"The way other artists might go about this," Coddington adds, "is to scrape the canvas down, get rid of all this texture, and begin again, but he used the underlying layers, either for color or texture. Their unevenness gives a sense of nature--nature isn't smooth-edged--and so he used the texture in imitating the way reflections work in water." In contrast to this yellow scrape, there was a scrape that revealed green which the conservators decided to retouch. "It echoed nearby shapes," Stringari explains, "and made its own shape," which Monet evidently did not intend. The green shape "echoed" the rapid brushstrokes used by Monet to define a nearby group of water lilies. These were created by adding paint; nowhere did the artist render a lily pad by scraping to reveal a lower layer of paint. As Stringari retouched that area, Coddington adds, "the entire passage around it, despite some other minor problems, just fell together in an extraordinary way." Kirk Varnedoe, Chief Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, was actively involved in considerations of how to retouch the picture. In some areas there was room for different opinions, and the process became one of dialogue between the curator and the conservators.
To the end of his career, Monet lost no opportunity to reinforce his image as a "natural painter," but as John House has pointed out, "all ideas of the natural are themselves historical, generated within a particular culture," and our present vision of Monet depends in part on our acceptance of the vision of the "natural" that the Impressionists' works represent. He suggests that we seek to "reclaim something of the strangeness of their painting for its first viewers." We may even begin to find in them a kind of visual allegory, in which the painting's changing emphasis--from an attention to the pond's surface in the left panel, to reflecting clouds and sky in the center one, to a penetration of the pond's depths in the third--suggests a psychological or spiritual journey such as we might after all "naturally" experience in an actual setting of such calm and beauty.
Figure 10 shows a medium green passage in panel two. The green color consists primarily of lead white and viridian with small amounts of cadmium sulfide, vermilion, and charcoal black. Viridian was also mixed with other pigments to form a wide range of blue shades
Richard Schiff has noted, "Our capacity to marvel at Monet's 'atmosphere' even after understanding his devices proves the effectiveness of his pictorial rhetoric." Visitors to the Museum will find that the illusion conveyed by Monet's devices has been made more compelling by a conservation treatment that has liberated space and atmosphere from a smog of adhesive and varnish. While Monet's "real" intentions may remain obscure, and the painting itself retains its mystery, the conservators' aim is easier to know. "We want the viewer," Eugena Ordonez says, "to see what Monet may have had on the easel without the interference of what has happened since."