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Monet’s Eyes

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: The Two Willows, Musée de l'Orangerie

Earlier this summer, I watched the movie Monet and I on the plane back from Europe. The following day, at a routine vision appointment, I was told I had typical California sun damage AND cataract on both eyes.

The drama queen in me immediately thought about Monet and how cataract actually plagued his life, altered his perception of colors and pushed him slowly but surely towards the abstraction visible in his Grandes Décorations (1914-1926) at L’Orangerie.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Morning, Musée de l’ Orangerie

But let’s face it, cataract is no big deal nowadays. I won’t need the routine operation for another 10-15 years so what did I do? I got some cool glasses instead. Then I got a nasty inflammation on my sun damage areas and got to wear my cool frames a lot! This made me think about how much I rely on my eyes. And just like that, I was back thinking of Monet.

Despite extreme poverty early on in his career, Monet powered through as a prolific artist. He also had a very long life – dying at 86 – meaning that you stand a good chance to study a Monet in most museums. Getting to look at one of his 247 Nymphéas with few people in front of you is another story…

Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1904, San Diego Museum of Art, on loan from Denver Art Museum

I am somewhat glad he still pulls the crowd though: it’s testament that these paintings are not just pretty flowers and water reflections. Each Nymphéa scattered across the museums of the world resonates with people; each contributes a few words of the healing message Monet wanted to convey to a world in shock during/after WWI. The more Nymphéas you experience, the closer you are to feel the “unifying gesture¹” intended by Monet when he painted these works nowadays disseminated across world museums like flowered altars.

A hundred years later, world tourists act reverently in view of the cool blues, fresh greens and violet harmonies of the Nymphéas.

That they’ve become a universal language for fortitude is undeniable and I think it’s also because of how very personal these late works are. As if Monet had addressed his ageing self and the cumulative sadness of his long life as he was forced to deal with losing his eyesight.

Early years: No money to paint light

Going back in time, young Monet was part of a group soon to be called the Impressionists due to Monet himself presenting his Impression, Sunrise in 1872 to the harsh reception of critics. The Impressionist technique was deemed sketchy, “a mere impression”. Except that capturing “a fugitive moment” was exactly what Monet intended. As he said, his interest lied in painting “what exists between the motif and me”.

This was radically new compared to the meticulous approach of neoclassical art therefore Impressionism did not sell well. Critics objected to small areas of bare canvas being left visible, too thinly painted or unfinished. 

Detail from Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Setting Sun, Musée de l’Orangerie

Even though these capture the dancing sunlight effects through trees and sparkly water reflections, Monet’s threadbare technique may also have been a necessity. Penniless, he was constantly begging for funds to buy painting supplies. But he never gave up and eventually success came.

Later years: All The Light We Cannot See

Reading the late John Berger’s Portraits on Monet, Berger describes an impression as “what is left behind because the scene has disappeared or changed”. It “survives alone”.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: The Clouds, Musée de l’ Orangerie

This is as true of Monet’s Impressionist paintings as it is of Monet himself, an acclaimed artist in his later years but sad survivor to all his Impressionist peers. 

Monet survived hardship and the death of his beloved wife Camille when he was 39. He eventually became well established in his Giverny property. In his 60’s, working relentlessly to custom-build his Japanese garden, he’s faced with a failing eyesight due to bilateral age-related cataracts.

Details from Claude Monet, Nymphéas, Musée de l’ Orangerie

When your life is all about seeing colors, observing light effects and capturing them in paintings, how can you possibly react?? Monet did not stop painting as this was his life. Instead as his eyesight became more and more of a handicap, he went big!

The Grandes Decorations are two multi-panel Nymphéas series painted by Monet as a bequest to the French Government to celebrate the end of WWI.

They were permanently installed in two dedicated oval rooms at L’Orangerie in Paris shortly after Monet’s death. They are much more than legacy works. They are the work of a titan struggling to see after a cataract operation left him temporarily blind from one eye and who then rejoiced when glasses from Germany gave him some correction, allowing him to see green, then red…and a faint blue.

As I stood in those rooms in L’Orangerie and in front of the Nymphéas at Chichu Museum in Naoshima earlier this year, the striking paradox is between the monumental expanse of motifs on the walls and the actual myopic patch of waterlily pond that Monet was concentrating on.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Morning, Musée de l’ Orangerie

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Green Reflections, Musée de l’ Orangerie

When he could see, Monet travelled on a shoe string and painted from Nature en plein air, giving us these freshly colored landscapes outside Paris, the South of France or London. It was all about painting the “impression”, the “fugitive moment” as Monet refused to paint from memory.

At the end of his life with the Grandes Décorations, Monet abandoned the horizon line and re-centred on a much more introspective journey.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Setting Sun, Musée de l’Orangerie

What Monet painted was mostly the breadth of his memories, and not so much the waterlilies he could still see. It’s as if Monet found solace pouring in all his visual memories before they faded completely with his eyesight (and his own death).

To this effect, the heavy texture of these Nymphéas paintings shows encrusted areas as if “the painted lily pond was to be a pond that remembered all²”.

They are an “almost desperate wish to save all²” – be it Monet’s personal memories but also, by extension, the viewers’ own. Remember, these Grandes Décorations were part of this healing and “unifying gesture” that Monet planned with his friend Clémenceau as a gift to France…

But was Monet choosing to paint big a conscious decision to absorb himself in the action of painting?

Details from Claude Monet, Nymphéas, Musée de l’ Orangerie

Was he numbing the shortcomings of his impaired vision on the world at large as he widened and loosened his brushstrokes on canvas?

Details from Claude Monet, Nymphéas, Musée de l’ Orangerie

As Monet concentrated on the impression printed to memory behind his eyes, the light effects became devoid of horizon as if they too lacked a source; sky and clouds seem trapped in plants and water reflections as seen inThe Water Lilies: The Clouds.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: The Clouds, Musée de l’ Orangerie

As such, Monet started the slow journey towards abstraction which would inspire Abstract Expressionists, particularly Rothko’s Color Fields.

And this makes sense as Monet’s late works are “no longer with the instantaneous scene, as revealed in the light, but rather the slower dissolution of the scene by the light³”. 

As his memories then engulfed Monet in his studio, an all-encompassing feeling keep reaching the viewers of today.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Morning, Musée de l’ Orangerie

Some people talk of an almost religious experience because these paintings force you to reflection and introspection. So let me leave you with John Berger’s writing, another almost religious experience, at least for me…

“You cannot enter an Impressionist painting; instead it extracts your memories (…) what you receive is taken from what happens between you and it. No more within it. The memories extracted are often pleasurable (…) yet they are also anguished because each viewer remains alone. The viewers are as separate as the brushstrokes”.

John Berger, Portraits – John Berger on Artists, p.260

I can’t think of a tougher ordeal than losing vision. For Monet, whose life was all visual and color-full, the strength of character permeating his monumental last works is a lesson in how to face adversity. His colors speak of dignity and resolute calm.

They happened to be my mother-in-law’s favorite colors. She has very limited vision left and is ever so often on my mind as I keep making memories with my eyes, seizing every opportunity while I still can. Doing it for her and me both.

If you’re in Paris, go to Art Church and experience Monet’s Waterlilies at l’Orangerie in Paris.

A temporary exhibition on loan from Denver Art Museum of le Bassin de Nymphéas, 1904 is at the San Diego Museum of Art until January 21, 2018 while The Manneporte (Etretat), 1883 is at the Timken Museum, on loan from the MET Museum.



² John Berger, Portraits – John Berger on Artists, p.261

³ Ibid.


© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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