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Monet, Water Lilies

Claude Monet, Les Nymphéas (The Water Lilies), suite of paintings on permanent exhibition at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris: Room 1: Morning, oil on two canvas panels, 200 x 425 cm, c. 1918-26 Clouds, oil on three canvas panels, 200 x 1275 cm, c. 1918-26 Green Highlights, oil on two canvas panels, 200 x 850 cm, c. 1918-26 Sunset, oil on canvas, 200 x 600 cm, c. 1918-26 Room 2: Reflection of Trees, oil on two canvas panels, 200 x 850 cm, c. 1918-26 The Morning Light, the willows, oil on three canvas panels, 200 x 1275 cm, c. 1918-26 The Morning Willows, oil on three canvas panels, 200 x 1275 cm, c. 1918-26 The Two Willows, oil on four canvas panels, 200 x 1700 cm, c. 1918-26 Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Voiceover: We're at the l'Orangerie in Paris and we're looking at one of Monet's Water Lily rooms. Voiceover: It's in an oval shape lit from above. Voiceover: Through a scrim which gives it a really lovely soft light. There is this sense that these are contemplative works which ties them in an interesting way as to a kind of solemnity of the sort that you would expect in a religious context. Voiceover: No doubt, this is painted late in Monet's life. after the death of his wife and after the death of his son. So, I think there is a sense for him of his legacy. Voiceover: He gave them to the French state and the state in turn decided to build this pavilion for them. Voiceover: I keep thinking about Monet's lifelong desire to capture the beauty of the optical world from when he was in Paris and then in Argenteuil and thinking back to the Boulevard des Capucines and the light flooding down the boulevards, to the Gare Saint Lazare and the light filter through the steam of the trains and then later in his life, in his garden with the water lilies. Voiceover: He was interested not only in capturing and understanding and rendering those effects of light and the momentary but actually in creating them. You know, he devoted an enormous amount of his life to actually planting these gardens and maintaining them and then translating them onto canvas and in the sense preserving that sense of the momentary. Voiceover: The thing that I keep thinking about as we look at this and the intensity of the color and the beauty of the color harmony is that the paintings are more beautiful than reality. So, let's think about that for a second in the history of landscape painting. I mean, these are unprecedented in that way. First of all their shape is this very, very long panels without a horizon line. Voiceover: Right, we're looking across the waters so we see neither the ground we stand on nor the horizon on the far side. Voiceover: Traditional landscape painting often provided a path for one's eye to travel through a landscape and here we really can't do that because we're confronted with the surface of the water, the surface of the paintings themselves. Voiceover: But I do think that Monet is borrowing actually from the classical tradition of landscape painting. If you look on both the sides of these canvases you see the dark shadows of the weeping willows and those function in a sense the way trees often framed recessionary landscapes by Claude or by [unintelligble]. Monet has placed us in a very particular place. Obviously we're on the shore in some way but we're looking across the waters so that we see neither the ground that we stand on nor the horizon on the far side. Now, Monet had just enlarged his ponds but even then they're quite small. And so, he's really unmoored us by not giving us ground to stand on. But he has given us a very particular angle at which we're viewing the pads and the water lilies themselves and that does place us in relationship to the surface of the water. And so we actually can locate ourselves and they also allow us to sort of hop, skip and jump from pad to pad and move back into space. And then this extraordinary volume of space below the pond and the incredible dome of space above where those towering clouds right above us. And so this sense of the extent of the volume that's portrayed and yet done so on the 2-dimensional surface of the pond which is of course a reflection of the 2-dimensional surface of the canvas is a beautiful through summation of this notion that Monet has worked towards for so long. How does one capture both the abstraction of modern art and yet also still make room for the volume that our eye knows? Voiceover: There's something really sublime here. We have the infinity of that depth and there's also a sense of the infinite in the sky and the clouds and that speaks back to that religious sense. While he's capturing the transitory there's a sense of permanence and transcendence at the same time. Voiceover: I think that's actually a perfect way to state it. Let's take a really close look at the paint. The surface is incredibly rich and rough and built up. You can see this kind of dry brush that Monet has sort of hold the paint across. And what seems to happen is the paint comes off on the ridges that are already there making those even more prominent. Voiceover: Well, it's almost as a sculptural surface that helps to create some senses of volume as you look across it. Toward late in his career he wasn't so interested in capturing things quickly. He wanted to be able to return to a painting and continue to work it. He's finding a solution to that problem and creating a studio out of doors where he can continue to work the surface and so, it does have that feeling of something that has layers and layers of paint where the paint has been allowed to dry and then he's put on new layers. Voiceover: When we stand close to this canvas and we see those layers of paint and we see the way they almost like a tapestry lie over each other so that we can see the paint between strokes and the colors are not so much blended as overlaid. Voiceover: It's hard not to think about all of repainting and Jackson Pollock, the way that the painting occupies our field of vision and how did he escape that field of vision in order to paint the landscape. You can almost imagine this way that the painting becomes as I think it is for Jackson Pollock, a world unto itself that the artist enters and exists within. And we do too actually within this space of this room. Voiceover: Well, that's a really critical point, you know? What begins to happen with the early modern certainly with Matisse and Picasso and ultimately I think with people like Pollock and maybe here too is the conversation ceases to be a dialogue between the artist and its subject and becomes ultimately a dialogue between the artist and the canvas. And that seems to have happened here. It's a beautiful result. (piano music playing)