Water, like time, is almost never stagnant. Even when frozen, it submits to metamorphoses, slowly melting and returning to its liquid, malleable, state. As a liquid it is highly sensitive, responding in concentric ripples to the faintest stimulus: a whispering wind. Like time it is temperamental and transient, as I think art should also be. An important and recurring subject in Monet’s work, water is a means by which he wades in the theme of time captured and time passing. Unlike the train that immediately cuts to the point of change and cuts through the composition of “The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil” (1873) painted just a year after “Soleil, Levant” (1872), water subtly lingers in many of Monet’s works, and through its ever transforming manifestations, it drifts along with the changing times and seasons.
Paul Claudel, in regard to “Les Nymphéas Series” (circa 1914-1926), observes in 1927 that “Monet at the end of his long life, after having studied all of the answers that the various motifs of nature could bring to question of light in terms of colored assemblages, finally turned to that most docile, that most yielding of elements, water—all at once transparency, iridescence, and mirror. Thanks to water, he became the indirect painter of what we cannot see” (as quoted in Hoog, 96). And yet, water by no means appears for the first time in “Les Nymphéas”. In the singular work, “Soleil, Levant”, Monet creates the sea with blended and muted tones of blue, gray, green, and lavender. Intermittent broad strokes of deep teal blue disturb the otherwise calm water. Except such additions of detail, which appear as afterthoughts, the paint is thin and lies flatly on the canvas’s surface, seemingly absorbed like moisture into its skin. The river flowing under “The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil”, a piece in Monet’s series of train paintings, is given more attention. Tiny ripples created by dense and tight flicks of white, gray, and blue respond to the train’s vitesse, as well as the pace of the changing times.
“The Nymphéas”, however treats water with both the almost unruffled serenity of “Soleil, Levant” and the motion of “The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil”. Time is simultaneously captured and passing. Like water, Monet’s paint undergoes its own metamorphosis, moving from lightness and a watercolor-like quality in “Soleil, Levant” to a more solid and heavier consistency in “Les Nymphéas”. The paint itself seems to be aging, but the inclusion of both heavy and light sections in the series functions well in this duality of time. The work is never so heavy or light that it doesn’t move. The circular installation, which Monet designed himself, also helps to immerse the viewer in a feeling of constant motion. The rooms have no corners and are configured in the shape of infinity; creating the sense that like time, like the water, is constantly streaming. The installation and series transcend, as Clement Greenberg remarks, “the one property which painting as a medium shares with no other art form…flatness, two-dimensionality”, (as quoted in Harrison, 164). The suite, enormously engulfing in character and inclusive of panels that illustrate changing seasons at different times of day, demonstrates the painstaking and time consuming aspects of labor itself. In comparison with the small “Soleil, Levant”, the series is a profound statement of Monet’s growth, maturity, and patience.
During the last thirty years of Monet’s life, Michel Hoog writes that due to harsh criticism and Monet’s “recently-acquired financial means—[the majority of his time was devoted] not so much to painting, as to arranging and constantly transforming his garden and water-lily pond. In order to paint what he wanted to paint, without slipping into the unrealism of abstraction, he created his own models…there was an artistic creation on two levels here” (94). The artist, actively taking time to manage and manipulate his objects (without an urgency to “make a living”), is now allowing for the time to experience the “thousands of imperceptible tones and touches, by the variety of atmosphere states, with each plane not immobile but shifting” (Clark 16). Monet’s progressive loss of sight parallels a progressively personalized pathos, subsequent to the subjectification of his work (the gardens) within his work (the paintings). The artist, like water, becomes more sensitive and responsive to other stimuli: texture, wind, moisture, and the radiating sun; all of which can be seen in his Rouen Cathedral series (1892-1894) and London Parliament series (1900-1904). During the latter part of his life, he indeed paints what we (and he) cannot see.
The impression of time in “Soleil, Levant” is captured hastily by the sea’s superficial sparse detail, whereas time in “The Nymphéas Series”, despite Monet’s deteriorating vision, is treated more elegantly and precisely, most apparently within the denseness of the paintings. In this grand suite, Monet’s strokes may generally be broader, but the graceful movement in his water (achieved by the integration of contrasting colors) suggests a more acute conception of time passing. Colors swimming in and out of each other, though also creating a coexistence of moment and motion, are the utmost embodiment of bougeotte—fidgety, stimulating movement. The pigments develop as the painter matures, and although Monet utilizes brighter colors due to cataracts, an increased vitality exists in his later works that is less present in earlier dusty grays. The colors are stirring and whirl the spectator into feeling movement significantly more than stagnancy. The result is a torrential work that leaves the viewer with a lasting impression of the ephemeral: an awakened sensitivity to the current currents of time.
Clark, Timothy J.. The Painting of Modern Life. 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Harrison, Charles. “Depth, Flatness and Self-Criticism,” Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. 1993, 157-167.
Hoog, Michel. Musee de l’Orangerie The Nympheas of Claude Monet. 3. Paris: Adagp, 2006.
Impression, Soleil Levant
Claude Monet, 1873. Huile sur toile.
Paris, Musée Marmottan: Upper level.
Don de M et Mme de Monchy, 1940.
Waterlillies, A Water Study: Setting Sun.
Claude Monet, 1840-1926.Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie: Room 1