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4 Monet’s Garden: The Lily Pond

As an artist he loved water: the sea, the Seine, the sleepy, glassy surface of his water-garden with the corollas of the water lilies, pink and white, like phosphorescent swarms. In its presence his work came to a stop for a while, a pause in a sequence which we will look at later, the wheat stacks, the poplar trees, the cathedral fronts, the Thames at London, series after series. Today, on the gallery walls, Monet’s first experiments with water lilies, delightful as they are, seem cautious when compared to the apotheosis we see in the Tuileries Museum. When a suggestion was made that he make these early pictures larger, broadening these blossoming waters up to sizes fit for a festival hall, Monet looked at them, said nothing, and thought it over, beset with the temptation.

By that time his garden at Giverny had taken shape, and the key feature of it was the lily pond. The setting was a portion of a large meadow into which a branch of the river Epte had been diverted, and Monet had gone to work there ardently to bring his plan to life. Before long, his ventures in horticulture succeeded beyond his hopes, and even people with no interest in flowers came by to marvel at it, and went away proclaiming, “I have seen the garden of Claude Monet.” It ranks as one of his works of art, a wonderful adaptation of nature itself to the tastes and needs of a painter dedicated to the representation of light. An outdoor expansion of his studio, it offered pageants of color all around to delight his eye, fueling his passion for scintillation and subtle effect, a yearning that could never be assuaged—like a newborn child, fumbling its way towards sustenance that it cannot truly know and can never give up.

In contrivances with lighting, Monet had no interest at all. Even a clear day and bright sun were not too intense for him in his quest for mysteries; as an artist he was plein air in the fullest sense of the phrase. It may not seem like much, to go out under an open sky and open our eyes; but we must go out there innocent, with no innate preconceptions about effects to look for. The eyes and the mind have work to do, breaking visual experience down and building it up again, achieving a coherence that is ours to negotiate and the painter’s to express. To do that, the artist needs to have as much of the world as possible constantly in view. Without knowing why, feckless people travel the earth in vain, looking at the same sights again and again without ever having seen; the job of the artist is to overcome that kind of failure.

Anyone who sets out to express with perfect truth some aspect of the world around us needs to be special in how he is put together. The earth and the stars cannot overwhelm him; of the endless diversity around him he must be immensely aware. The miracle made possible by our eyes is the unending encounter with the world’s vibrant incandescence, an encounter we can withstand only because we distill it all into events and relations, discrete moments in space and time, eddies of the infinite as it rolls onward in patterns we can never truly apprehend.

Because our sensory responses are almost instantaneous, we can adapt quickly and completely to these challenges of subject and object—and for the art of painting, this is a fundamental skill. Harmony and unity in a chance engagement, in the luck of an hour, provide us with pictures that win praise from us as “beautiful landscapes”—in those moments when we are not just passing by without paying attention. Those kinds of insights require a special skill, and one of the breakthroughs of the modern school was this recognition that even a barren plain can move us deeply with the play of light upon its surfaces.

Although he found enchantment in seascapes, Monet was not by nature a rover.

Though he disdained nothing on this earth, the brevity of human life kept him rooted to the ground before his easel. There was hard work aplenty in doing that, physical exertion in one effort after another, all of them taxing to some extent. Even so, where could he find a visual workout in each day’s regimen, a natural or conditioned excitement for the eye, to be caught and transformed by a mind as relentlessly responsive as his own?

“Everywhere,” he said.

In the Renaissance, the teaching went on in the studio rooms of the master, an advantage for empirical learning, but a menace to originality. Enraptured by classical Greece, or rather with Hellenism in a degenerate form, people were still oblivious to the sky overhead, to the world beyond the window, to how the waters reflect and interpret the constant drama of destruction and renewal. To see the natural world and to give it expression, the age had too recently emerged from its cloisters; it was unready to look at life “square in the eye.”

Frankly, I doubt that Monet ever thought about such matters. For the temperament of a true artist he had to have a philosophical streak, but he never had the time or the motive to generalize like this. Joyfully he stationed himself before the enigmas of the natural world and looked deep into them with confidence. Trusting his senses, he gave himself over, as an artist and also as a human being, entirely to his conscience, which never led him astray; for what he sought was only and completely the truth. He loved it all—fields, flowers, woods, meadows and thickets, the sky in any light, mountains in sun or snow, the shores of rivers; and always the face of water, in pools or rivers or the sea, calm or bestirred. He loved every dimension of human existence, joyful or bereaved, every aspect of the turmoil of life.

I think it was Renoir who said that “A brook moving through the grass is as wonderful as the Mona Lisa’s smile.” Sadly, the atelier brings in nothing from outside, and study there amounts to bottling up the vitality that abounds so freely out in nature. Nonetheless, artistic success in the open air requires labor and care, and Monet was no exception to the rule, facing the challenge every time he moved from a sketch or a “study” to producing the finished picture—in other words, out of the mess of the workroom and all the way to the Salon, though the open air was where all the real work was done.

Late in his life, however, we find him bringing his water-garden studies into his studio where the effort went on, to refine and complete impressions so vibrant that this great shed of his was no hindrance. The sheer scale of these canvases required him to do the actual painting in here, with eyes so expert in the ways of light as to protect him from failure. In fact, into that studio Monet brought with him the highest, subtlest refinement of his art.

Though I’ve said that his garden was really an open-air studio, Monet never theorized about that, for his empiricism ran so deep that he never thought of fabricating it into dogma. In his travels through the countryside, absorbing nature everywhere he went, he seemed to have learned only what he needed to in the service of his own eyes, seeking perfection in the art that his inmost voices required him to pursue. Without going into the details of the garden’s construction, we can be sure that he created it from what he imagined and what he saw, taking hints that each day brought him, to satisfy his appetite for color. When you know that a road for automobiles cuts through it, as well as the railroad from Gisors and that branch of the Epte, you might think that coherence cannot be a major quality of the place. What’s it like? Busy-ness, yet also absolute escape: without the road, the rail line, the stream that draws in fishermen, isolation might have been possible. But that is the miracle—­­that it provides shelter from intrusion.

From Monet’s house out to the road, rainbow sprays of flowers, dreamlike in every imaginable hue, cascade around you like fire from the sky, to be transmogrified by the painter’s eye, when the moment is right, into a play of light upon water. He loved flowers for what they are, for their lightness and their dances in the air, for their guileless expression of the drama of love—for fire-bursts of color, violent and gentle, on his enormous rose bushes, where visitors, besotted with the prose of life, find poetry once more.

A wall topped with a grille, a line of trees, and the embankment along the road block the view of any passerby. Within, on these domestic pathways laid out only for his own promenades, and knowing every tuft of grass and every flashy or modest bloom in the place, Monet never failed to do his matins here, offering the salutation required of him by his own passion for seeing.

The road is traversed by means of a gate; then open a lock with a key and cross the railroad line, concealed from the garden by a great hedge of rhododendrons and climbing roses. Riding through such an immense show of flowers, passengers on the train can have nothing to gripe about; and only a few yards away, entranced by the mirror of his pond, Monet wouldn’t even hear them go by.

About the garden itself: strictly speaking, it was only a quiet flowage, alive with these stunning water-lilies, stretching away towards a Japanese arched bridge, bedecked with wisteria, framing the vista—the one touch of all-out romanticism in this place. Over by the rail line there is a stand of good-sized poplars, and the willows whose cascading branches are seen in the Tuileries panels, and a peninsula of tall, plumed bamboo, a jungle contained by the flowing stream where river-grasses dance. Bordered by trellises of climbing roses, the outer pathway, with its arches of bright color, offers a view of broad green meadows extending all the way down to the banks of the Seine. It’s enough to make any stroll here heavenly; moment by moment, the eyes gather up a matchless experience of earth and sun, a festival of sights, subtle and brazen alike, even when the world around seems still.

Upon the mirror-surface of the pond, on these solid lily-pads that seem to float on the clouds, the blossoms burst up, as if in gestures of prayer to the creeping mist, from which there can come a sudden flash of fire on the waters, or an astounding celestial peace. This is where Monet liked to position himself to bring his senses to a fine edge, staying there for hours, silent and motionless in his armchair, taking it all in, seeking the inner life of things, those glimmers in which mysteries are seen only for an instant, and never spoken. To see is to understand, isn’t that so? And all we need to do is to learn how to look: within, without, all around us, to exalt our apprehension of this dynamic universe. These waters embrace the daylight, transform it, rarefy it, and send it back to the trained eye for new experiences of wonder.

That is, in sum, the miracle of the Nymphéas panels: they bring us into the presence of a natural order we have not seen before. New insights, new varieties of light, the ever-shifting look of a world unaware of itself, yet speaking to us through our own senses. To give us the experience of feelings entirely new: isn’t that a way of exploring the silent infinities, of delving deeper into the obdurate world? When he looked at the skies reflected in the waters of his garden, this was Monet’s voyage of discovery, and what he seeks to bring home to us. Some people may resent that effort; most won’t care at all; one could say that “the public” isn’t much more than a background noise of misunderstanding. In light of that, we can be grateful for a measure of silence—often a primordial sign of admiration.

On the craftsmanship in Monet’s work I’d prefer to say nothing just yet. It is what it had to be, an engagement with worldly truth that provides us with delight. Hasn’t everyone had that feeling, even without being stunned by the splendor of the Nymphéas?

In life, what goes on in the natural world around us is too mixed up in the daily business that moves us; we experience it as a setting for the action that steals our attention, a background too distant for us to take notice of relationships within it. We do need to find them, however, for how and what we see clearly, how this endless succession of visual experiences plays upon our senses, is vital to our understanding of the human condition. When we recognize this, we also see that the variety in this world is more than a match for our moments of awareness, coming upon us in a blended flash, a wave of sensation that we can learn to negotiate only as we grow and learn. Luckily, such encounters, with all their contrails of the unknown, reveal to us deep, timeless relationships between the past and the ever-ramifying present.

So it goes, this unending visual encounter with what has been and what is coming to be, moments of insight into the elusive patterns of the Infinite. Doesn’t it follow that as we look at the sky on the surface of these still waters, this dynamic reality turned upside down, we pursue, in our own imagination, realities that we can never catch, never keep still? This is the action that Monet painted—a world in contest with itself, creating and sustaining itself—a sequence of moments observed on the reflecting surface of his lily pond. In the final panel at the Tuileries, the drama culminates in a show of fire: blinding us, the sun sets among the dry reeds of a winter marsh; in the spring, those magical flowers will be reborn once again, rising from dark mysteries of eternal renewal.


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Claude Monet: The Water-Lilies and other writings on art Copyright © 2017 by Bruce F. Michelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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