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Lindsay Cariero

Monet's Water Lilies
By: Lindsay Cariero

In 1920, Claude Monet, an impressionist, painted Water Lilies. Impressionist painters advanced the art of painting by breaking rules set by earlier generations. Water Lilies is related to the theme of "the individual vs. society."

In 1874, Monet and his fellow painters decided to attract the public by organizing their own exhibit. They called themselves Independents, but the press called them Impressionists. They were called Impressionists because of their work. It seemed sketchy and unfinished, like a first impression. Monet's work at this time was "loosely structured," meaning the colors were applied in rapidly strong, distinct brushstrokes as if no changes were attempted.

Impressionism was a new way of painting that started in France in the late 19th century. Impressionist painters broke many rules of picture-making set by earlier generations. Many of their subjects were found in the world around them, not in history. Instead of painting the defined beauty from earlier artists, Impressionists tried to paint what they saw at any given moment. Impressionists often painted outside so they could observe nature and detail more closely. They especially observed the changing light of the sun. Academic artists could not accept this original vision as beauty. Impressionist painters used broken brushstrokes of bright and sometimes unmixed colors. This was different than what most artists at this time did, which was to carefully blend colors and apply them to smooth surfaces. Impressionist paintings were light in color because artists tried to avoid using black. They painted simple works of art, leaving out detail to make an outstanding overall effect.

Ten years after Monet and his family moved to Giverny, Monet bought a piece of land behind his garden and on the other side of the railway. The land had a stream running through it called the Ru. He dug a small pond on the land. Later, he expanded it to the size of the present pond. Inspired by his love of Eastern imagery, Monet put in a water garden, a large Japanese style bridge, and many smaller ridges that cross the stream. He also put in wisterias, weeping willows, hardy bamboos, and azaleas to create an Eastern effect. In the water garden, Monet fulfilled his passions for both mist and clarity by making faint blendings of pale light colors. This created a mysterious and beautiful look. For twenty years, Monet painted his large pond and its water lilies. During this time he was able to make his famous canvas of water lilies and water impressions.

Water Lilies is only one part of a three-part painting showing Monet's garden at Giverny, in an Impressionistic style. It relates to the theme of "the individual vs. society." Monet created his own way of painting. He loved to paint outside to capture a direct beauty and the changing of light on his garden. He painted what he saw at a given moment, what was in front of him and not from history. He only painted with light colors and the paint was not always mixed completely. Broken brushstrokes were visible. He did not paint to detail and avoided dark colors. People had difficulty finding his paintings beautiful because they were an original vision. Academic society was not accepting of Impressionist painters or their work because it was different. They did not follow what generations before them had done. Previous paintings contained dark colors, smooth surfaces, and carefully blended paints, which most artists preferred.

As Monet worked on the huge canvases, he combined some into diptychs and triptychs. He rearranged the paintings several times into groups, carefully choosing the ones that would be included in the Orangerie cycle. These were meant to present the viewer with the entire circuit of the pond seen under the change of light, weather, season, and time of day. Monet's Water Lilies explore Monet's fascination with the garden and why it was "an inexhaustible inspiration" for hundred of painters. Monet spent his last thirty years trying to capture the radiance and clarity of the water lilies on canvas. According to Vivian Russell, Monet's paintings are "the emotional and physical experience of being by the pond." Monet was near blindness in 1922, forcing him to abandon painting. He died on December 5, 1926. After Monet died, his reputation slowly changed. Few people went through the trouble of going to see the Orangerie murals, and the garden and pond of Giverny were covered in weeds. The many paintings of large water-lily canvases laid forgotten in an abandoned studio. They were not re-discovered until the 1950s, and eventually the garden, pond, and his house were restored and declared a national monument. Today, a triptych and a related painting, almost twenty feet long, are in The Museum of Modern Art.

By 1920, Claude Monet had made an advance in painting. He and the Impressionists painted differently from artists before them. His originality and courage, despite criticism and rejection, changed the course of the history of painting.