The water lily paintings are celebrated as Claude Monet's greatest masterpieces. Painted on his estate in Giverny during the First World War and then given to the nation, they came to be seen as a beacon of hope in the darkness
Claude Monet (1840-1926) wrote to his art dealer: ‘I
am hard at work and, whatever the weather, I paint. I have
undertaken a great project that I love.’ He was referring
to a set of water lily paintings, some of which would become his greatest
masterpieces. What is remarkable is that just months before,
the artist had been unable to work, heartbroken over the
death of his wife and son. ‘I am annihilated,’ wrote the
According to Ross King, author of Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, it
was at this moment that the French politician and later Prime
Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), stepped in. Firm
friends since their youth in the 1860s, both were, in their
own ways, radicals. Clemenceau was ‘The Tiger’ — a firebrand
politician and serial dueller — who had suffered
prison and exile for his beliefs.
Monet was the invincible painter who had overthrown the artistic
establishment, with his Impression, Sunrise (1872) heralding a new kind of painting; ‘a revolution without gunshot’ is
how the The Tiger described Monet’s contribution to art.
Clemenceau came to Giverny with one objective in mind — to
encourage his friend to start painting
again. To this end, he persuaded the artist to revisit several
paintings of flowers he had abandoned some years previously.
Monet, according to his friend Georges Clemenceau, was a man 'madly striving for the realisation of the impossible'
Monet’s response — surprising considering his melancholic condition — was to go one step further and embark on a groundbreaking
set of pictures that astounded the politician. It seemed,
Clemenceau wrote, that Monet was a man ‘madly striving for
the realisation of the impossible’.
What the politician was referring to was Monet’s desire to
do something that had not been done before: besides attempting to encapsulate light and colour, he also set out to paint the
subaqueous darkness. Until that time, artists had concentrated on the effects of light on water, but Monet was going in deeper — the results became known as the Grandes Décorations.
It is tempting to speculate that Monet’s radical explorations beneath the surface was a metaphor for his grief. Yet
as the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon argues, the Grandes Décorations are anything but myopic. ‘Monet is calling our attention
to a much larger sense of the cosmos,’ he says. ‘He’s interested
in the eternal rhythms of life.’
On the 27 February Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas (1916-1919), one of Monet’s studies for his magnum opus,
will be offered for sale in the Hidden Treasures evening sale at
Christie’s in London. This ‘fantastic, vivid piece of painting’,
as Graham-Dixon describes it, depicts the trunk of a Babylon
willow overlooking the north bank of the water garden at Giverny.
Painted in the half-light of early dawn, the colours have a
rich intensity. In many ways, it is fresher and livelier
than his later, densely worked canvases, perhaps because
he painted it au premier coup (meaning ‘first time’ or ‘straight off’).
Monet remained hard at work on his water lilies throughout
the war, and even as the German army advanced on Paris he
would not leave his floral nirvana, writing, ‘I shall stay
here regardless, and if those barbarians wish to kill me,
I shall die among my canvases, in front of my life’s work.’
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After the war, Clemenceau secured the Grandes Décorations for the nation. On seeing them in their entirety at the Musée de l’Orangerie in 1927, the playwright Paul Claudel summarised
their transcendental, metaphysical qualities by saying, ‘Monet
made himself the painter of the things we cannot see.’