Few names in the history of art rank as highly as Claude Monet (1840–1926). His vision of art was truly ahead of his time, something which can be seen in the reaction to his early works as well as the years of financial struggle he had to endure before he achieved fame around the world. Monet was the key Impressionist, the artist whose painting ‘Impression: Sunrise’ led to a review which gave the movement its name. For an overview of Monet’s entire career, see my other article on Monet here. This article will focus on the key subject of Monet’s later years — his water lily pond at his home and garden, Giverny.
One can argue that the water lily series (Nymphéas in French) constitute the greatest of Monet’s works. They display the artist’s mastery of painting, of color, of light, and of feeling. Moreover, they (along with other series paintings) display an understanding of marketing which was to dominate the art market ever since. Series paintings allow collectors to acquire signature originals by the artist of the same subject — allowing that artist to become far more recognizable and associated with specific imagery. For Monet, it was water lilies and haystacks. For Degas, it was ballet dancers. For Cézanne, it was still life paintings. The series paintings, thus, couple the best of the original work with the best of reproductions. In the history of art, it has been a hobby of enthusiasts to describe an artist’s works into early, middle, and later periods. This article will define Monet’s later period around a specific subject which dominated the 1910s and 1920s, with some preceding works beginning at the turn of the twentieth century.
Monet began living at Giverny in the 1880s (renting it, he purchased the property in 1890). Monet’s work was sought after and highly valued by the early twentieth century. By the time our story begins for this article, the Impressionist movement was decades old. Many of the great innovators were dying off or were very old. Monet ended up outliving all of the other major Impressionists. In the 1910s, he was the most famous living artist in France and the world.
While he began painting water lilies during the Belle Époque (roughly 1871–1914, a cultural golden age before the horrors of global war), it was in the midst of the First World War that he turned greater attention to painting them in great numbers and in greater detail. The paintings above and below were created by Monet during the most devastating war France had known in the modern age.
Among countries involved in the First World War, France was particularly hard hit: the French had the second highest number of casualties among the Allied powers (after only Russia) and the eastern border of their country was a devastated war zone. The shallow, optimistic July/August 1914 view that the war would last only a few weeks was blown away as armies of nineteenth-century nation-states fought with twentieth-century weapons. The French Army of 1914 still wore the traditional red trousers (among other elements of French military heritage dating back to Napoleonic times). Monet’s son served in the war (and survived). The war raged close in another way: literally. He could hear the sound of battle raging from his house.
Monet decided to present panels to the French nation as a memorial to peace, with the armistice of 1918. Monet’s friend, the prime minister Georges Clemenceau played a major role in getting France’s greatest living artist to create a monumental series of paintings to be presented as a gift to France. This last project would last the rest of Monet life.
Monet was in his 70s and 80s when painting these last great works. He suffered from cataracts, which impacted his vision. These last great works — the Grandes Decorations — were completed in 1926, shortly before Monet died, and inaugurated the following year at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. During the last decades of his life, Monet created approximately 250 paintings of water lilies. This was a subject for which he cultivated true passion and produced some of the greatest examples of artistic excellence which continue to inspire, excite, and strike awe in people today. Looking back from the vantage point of 2020, we are at a centenary of the period in which Monet was creating these masterpieces. In his art, Monet explored his subjects in such a way that he invited the viewers of these paintings to see the world in a new way.