“In order to succeed in conveying what I feel, I totally forget the most elementary rules of painting, if they exist that is.”
In 1914, Claude Monet began again. The French artist, whose brightly colored and sketchily rendered landscapes galvanized the Impressionists in the 1870s, had painted infrequently since the death of his wife, Alice Hoschedé Monet, in 1911. But following several years of mourning, he embarked on a new project that would occupy him until his death in 1926: large-scale paintings of the water-lily pond in his garden at Giverny, a village northwest of Paris where he had bought a home in 1890. “I’ve started work again,” he wrote in a letter to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, in June 1914, “and you know I don’t do things by halves.”
Agapanthus (1914–26) was made in this period of renewed spirits and restless experimentation. Like Monet’s earlier representations of rivers, fields, and beaches, the painting centers on an aspect of the natural world that he had studied carefully—in this case, a variety of perennial plant in his garden noted for its thick leaves, slender stems, and bell-shaped blooms in purple, blue, and white. The canvas was taller than the artist himself—an indication of his growing ambitions. After many years of picturing the pond at Giverny, Monet now envisioned an ensemble that he referred to as his “Grande Décoration”: mural-sized paintings of “water, water-lilies, plants, spread over a huge surface.”
Each of these elements is present in the monumental Water Lilies (1914–26). Made up of three canvases, each twice as large as Agapanthus, the composition portrays a liquid landscape in which plants, flowers, and trees mingle with their reflections while enveloping the viewer. With loose brushwork, soft forms, and an ever-shifting palette, Monet blurs the boundaries between land and water, garden and pond—and even representation and abstraction. Across the panels, sweeping strokes that range in hue from brilliant green to deep red to pale pink conjure rippling water and reflected clouds, lush grasses, and buoyant lily pads. Yet the same strokes also dissolve into seemingly subject-less streaks, patches, and whirls of paint, a reason that Monet became a source of interest to mid-century abstract artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Joan Mitchell.
To create Water Lilies and related compositions, Monet worked in an enormous, light-filled studio that he had built at Giverny specifically to accommodate them. (Although he preferred working outdoors, the unwieldy size of these paintings made doing so impossible.) In the studio, the artist moved between a number of interrelated canvases over the course of days, weeks, and years, applying layer upon layer of carefully selected pigments with long-handled brushes. In the meantime, outside the studio, the world was changing rapidly. In August 1914, as Monet returned to painting, France entered World War I. Painting, the artist wrote to an acquaintance early in 1915, “is the only way to avoid thinking of these troubled times. All the same I sometimes feel ashamed that I am devoting myself to artistic pursuits while so many of our people are suffering and dying for us,” he admitted. “It’s true that fretting never did any good. So I’m pursuing my idea of the Grande Décoration.” Soon, though, this project would become a tribute to his country’s 1918 victory in the war. At the encouragement of his close friend Georges Clemenceau, then prime minister of France, Monet agreed to give his “Grande Décoration” to the state. In 1927, 22 of the panels were installed in immersive oval-shaped rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie, where they remain today.
For some critics, Monet’s late paintings of Giverny constituted a stark rupture with his previous art. In works like The Japanese Footbridge (c. 1920–22), thick, tangled blazes of red, orange, and yellow were even considered a symptom of failing vision. Nonetheless, the artist himself considered his landscapes from this period a continuation of his decades-long effort to represent the wider world as it appeared to him. “No, I’m not a great painter,” he wrote to the critic Gustave Geffroy. “I only know that I do what I can to convey what I experience before nature and that most often, in order to succeed in conveying what I feel, I totally forget the most elementary rules of painting, if they exist that is.”