Monet's Methodnext

Water Lilies  
Select for enlarged view of Water Lilies  
   Figure 2
  Figure 2. The significant differences in gloss and saturation that occurred after varnish removal in some colors and not others suggest that Monet may have used the technique of leaching--draining the oil from the paints by squeezing the paint out onto paper blotters--when he particularly wanted a softer, more matte appearance. The detail in figure 12 shows an area from which the varnish has been removed on the left portion, resulting in a softer and lighter color and revealing the matte finish
It is known that Monet did not intend the Orangerie paintings to be varnished, and he may have taken other measures to achieve the look he desired. Eugena Ordonez found, while doing numerous test cleanings in very small areas, that the result sometimes would be a matte finish while in other areas the paint remained glossy. The varnish applied in the 1959 treatment had obscured these differences by providing an overall gloss. Research into contemporary sources revealed that Monet was possibly "leaching" his oil paints to achieve a softer, more matte finish in certain areas. At least two observers, including Jacques Salomon in 1926, say they witnessed Monet drain the oil from the paints by squeezing the paint out onto paper blotters.

The Department of Conservation's effort extends an already rich literature on Monet's artistic practice in which the Water Lilies have been somewhat neglected. The problems presented to the art historian by these paintings--and the questions that may arise in the mind of any viewer--are of a different order than those suggested by Monet's earlier work. Art historian Charles Stuckey has called these works the culmination of Impressionism, yet the large Water Lilies also negate, or at least call into question, seemingly essential aspects of Impressionist practice.
Figure 3   
Figure 3. The color and texture that we see in the finished painting were developed by the application of many layers of paint. The microscopic cross-section above, for example, contains approximately ten layers of paint; as many as fifteen layers have been counted in a cross-section  
They were done in a very large, specially constructed studio, not outdoors before the motif. Their realization was anything but spontaneous: the multilayered paint surfaces are laboriously constructed and give, in places, almost an effect of low-relief sculpture. It is also evident that a number of the panels were worked on over long periods, perhaps years. Yet the viewer is given an unmistakable and exhilarating sense of the instantanéité Monet hoped to attain, moments of perception captured in passages of sparkling brushwork.

The panels were painting with broad, open strokes, which are still visible along the edges of all the canvases. The present color and texture developed through many additional layers of paint, and Monet used a variety of types and combinations of brushstrokes. In microscopic cross-sections, Ms. Ordonez has counted up to fifteen layers of paint before reaching the "ground," that is, the paint used to prepare the canvas. Pointing to panel three, Jim Coddington notes how, by using different colors, brushstrokes, and the underlying texture, Monet achieved a range of effects: In the upper left of that panel a brushstroke of light color accentuates the underlying texture while beside it the colors depicting a dark shadow mute the very same texture. "What he appears to have done with this light stroke is to take a relatively dry brush and let it skip across the surface.
   Figure 4
  Figure 4. In all three panels one also sees an effect, created by the layering of brushwork, that has been called "corrugation" by the art historian Robert Herbert. The corrugated effect was produced by laying in thick, but open, strokes, which then served as the texture for overlying thin strokes of color. These thinner color strokes were applied in almost a dry brush technique, often in a direction perpendicular to the underlying layer and just lightly catching its ridges, as seen in figure 4
It gives that passage a reflecting, flickering quality." Anny Aviram points out that in some instances the colors were mixed on the canvas itself, and we can see the colors blending. In all three panels one sees an effect, produced by layering of brushwork, that art historian Robert Herbert referred to as "corrugation." It was achieved by laying in thick, but open, strokes which served as the texture for overlying thin strokes of color. The color strokes were applied almost in a dry-brush technique, often just lightly covering the ridges of the lower layer's impasto in strokes perpendicular to it. Many layers of color were applied; thus each layer overlaps others to some degree. The overall effect, as Herbert noted, is that it is not possible to "attach a given color to a given texture of brushwork."


©2004 The Museum of Modern Art, New York