The period of Impressionism, which began in the late 19th century, was a time for exploration of new ideas and expansion beyond the boundaries of the rules and principles that were normally followed in art. Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of the core artists that painted in the Impressionism era, along with Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille.(1) Impressionist painters focused on the elements of atmosphere, light, and color in their paintings, and realism was not as necessary anymore. Many critics regard Claude Monet as the most powerful upholder of Impressionism’s emphasis on these elements.(2) Monet’s 1904 version painting of Water Lilies is a brilliant example of Monet’s mastery of Impressionism.
Claude Monet was born in Le Havre, Normandy. He studied with Eugene Boudin, who was a landscape painter. Boudin would paint outdoors, or en plain air.(3) Painting en plain air was to become typical of the Impressionist artists’ painting habits.(4) He studied in Paris for some time, and then served in the army for a period. After that, he went back to Paris and painted the landscape around him. Monet and his colleagues formed the core group of Impressionists at this point.(5)
Near the end of his life, Monet created a collection of paintings that used water lilies as the subject. Water Lilies (1904) was one of them. The painting shows a hazy collection of water lilies sitting peacefully near the bank of a small pond. The lilies are dispersed in many seemingly random places, as they usually are when they float on a pond. So this picture, though not realistic, is believable. Monet’s focus on motion, texture, light, and color are evident, even at first glance. Looking closely, you can see Monet’s use of small brush strokes that vary in direction giving the painting a feeling of subtle, but constant movement. The elements of light and color are an important part of the painting as well. Monet was able to show the reflections of the surrounding greenery on the pond by using brighter shades of green amongst the dark shades of the water. The lilies stand out in the painting as the brightest part of the pond.
was created near the end of Monet’s life and was one of several paintings that he painted at Giverny of the water lilies in his garden at home. This series of paintings was the last of his many studies of a single subject.(6) The subject of water lilies consumed his paintings during the last 30 years of his life, and over time his paintings became very large.(7) They are quite typical of Monet’s style, and display the elements of Impressionism perfectly.
Though Monet is depicting water lilies on a pond, he does not create his subject just by painting a water lily; his free brush strokes somehow create the illusion of the lily, and not a realistic depiction.(8) This is, perhaps, the most fascinating element of his work; Robert Reiff says of the painting, “…the handling is so free that the forms seem to disintegrate into amorphous masses of swirling color.”(9) Vanessa Gavioli, in Monet, writes, “Structured space was abolished and replaced by a symphony of forms and colors without the use of traditional expedients like perspective...”(10) When one looks at it closely, it appears to be mere masses of color and swirls, but when the viewer stands back further, the water lilies on the pond take shape; the painting is almost abstract.(11) Because of this, Monet is often considered a forerunner to modern abstract art.(12) His Water Lilies was a brilliant experiment.
Monet’s paintings of water lilies came from his desire to paint a series of paintings on one subject. He had the pond dug specifically for the purpose of growing water lilies, and he wrote to a friend in 1908 that “these views of water and reflections have become an obsession.”(13) Because of his fascination with water, reflections, light, and the atmosphere that they all created, he tried hard to grasp it in his art. It was an experiment in capturing nature, and the Impressionists were very interested in experimenting. As he painted water lilies, his style grew and developed, each new painting different from the one before. This particular painting is merely one of them in the early stages. He was trying to grasp the effects of nature with paint and canvas, and he accomplished it. His natural and free brush stroke combine with use of color to give the viewer the experience of water lilies on a pond on a beautiful day. Gavioli writes, “The result is a dreamlike spectacle that reflects our thoughts and desires.”(14)
It is not hard to recognize the raw beauty of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1904). From a Christian perspective, one can easily come to a realization of how marvelous God’s creation is, and Monet’s depiction of a small piece of that creation is pure beauty. We often come to a place where we only long to worship God when looking at nature, and Water Lilies manages to take hold of the power of nature, thus bringing us to remember how awe-inspiring His creation is. Whether Monet meant his art to be a dedication to God or not, his art does wonders for the soul. God created beauty, and He created humans to create beautiful things; Water Lilies is but one example of a human doing what he was created to do.