Claude Monet and His Water Lilies
French artist Claude Monet (1840-1926) is acclaimed as a leader of the Impressionist art movement, a nature lover, and an introspective, experimental painter. Working from direct observation, Monet utilized nature as the inspiration for and subject of his compositions. The artist was a leading advocate of plein air (open air) painting, a practice that increased in popularity as Monet and other French painters of the era explored how the transitory qualities of light and color could characterize the very essence of the visible world. Experimenting with variously focused daubs of color and texture, Monet sought to portray the visual effects of light as observed in natural settings as well as in the built environment. Of the many subjects depicted in his canvases, aquatic landscapes were his favorite.
Begun in the late 1890s, Monet’s series of images depicting the water lilies of his garden at Giverny consumed the artist during the latter portion of his career. The 250 paintings, ranging from easel- to mural-sized compositions, vividly capture the play of water’s fluid form. Broken reflections, undulations, placid surfaces, ripples, and swirls hint at the subtlety, depth, and vitality that characterize this essential element. The larger works from this sequence form the artist’s Grand Decorations (c.1915 – 1926), a program of monumental decorative water lily paintings of which forty-one panels survive. Collectively conceived as the culmination of Monet’s oeuvre, a selection of the works was donated by the artist to the nation of France.
The Saint Louis Art Museum’s iconic Water Lilies painting is part of the extensive cycle of Grand Decorations. Composed alongside complementary canvases currently in the collections of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and The Cleveland Museum of Art, the three works originally formed a triptych. When unified as an ensemble the triptych very much expresses Monet’s idea of an immersive experience, yet each painting also functions individually as a self-contained work. The St. Louis Water Lilies, the centerpiece of the grouping, portrays nature as a place in which color and light dissolve the boundaries of time, thereby uniting two of Monet’s many pursuits: gardening and painting.