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Monet’s Water Lilies: The Healing of a Nation
In the summer of 1918, Claude Monet, the great French Impressionist, faced disaster. In the distance, the 78-year-old artist heard the guns of the German army, signaling the advance of the enemy. The First World War was in its fourth year, and it was increasingly likely that German soldiers could be at Monet’s beloved estate at any moment. The paradise he has created over the past thirty years near the French city of Giverny. Its essence is the wonderful water lily lake, which was perhaps more important to Monet than his own life.
Monet refused to leave his home in Giverny, even when most of his family members left it in 1914, at the beginning of the conflict. As he wrote to a friend, Gustave Geoffroy, “Many of my family have deserted…a mad panic has seized this area…as for me, I remain here, nevertheless…in the middle of my canvases, before my life’s work.” (1)
Giverny was always close to the war zone, close to the heaviest fighting of the war, but Monet remained. He showed the stubbornness and determination that enabled him to help establish the new artistic movement of Impressionism at the beginning of his artistic career. But as the war continued, causing unprecedented levels of death and destruction, Monet was inspired by a greater cause than he had ever known: the healing of his people. To paint a vision of beauty that restores the spirit of his French compatriots after failure. A waterlily cycle that would cover the walls of a huge room and, according to Monet in an interview with an art magazine, “offers a haven of peaceful meditation in the middle of a blooming aquarium”(2).
In 1918, Monet had already created twelve water lily murals, which he called Grandes Decorations. More than six feet tall and nearly fourteen feet wide, they dominated the space in his new studio. Probably, this achievement could not be realized without the support of the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who was also an old friend of the artist. For Clemenceau was an equally fervent believer in Monet’s mission, even if he occasionally allowed materials from his friend’s studio to take precedence over the delivery of military equipment.
Now, when it seemed that the Germans were winning, all was lost. “I do not have long to live and must devote all my time to painting with the hope of achieving something good or something that will satisfy me, if that is possible” (3) Georges Bernheim told Jeune, one of his collectors. However, after the counterattack of France and its allies in September, the course of the war suddenly changed and Monet’s country was saved.
Clemenceau visited Monet on November 12, 1918, the day after the armistice, when the painter dedicated two works of art to the state of France. However, the artist and statesman had bigger ambitions: the Grandes Decorations were Monet’s final gift to his nation. As the leader of France, Clemenceau uses his influence and power to turn the Grandes Decorations into a national monument.
However, it would take almost another decade to realize this dream. First, Clemenceau was voted out in 1920, which inevitably slowed down the project, especially the financing. Then the negotiations regarding the location of the Grandes Decorations stalled, which was not decided until 1922, when the Orangerie near the Louvre (once the greenhouse of the French kings) was chosen as the final location. Subsequently, the number of water lily panels was expanded, from the initial twelve to nineteen (and eventually twenty-two).
At the age of 81, Monet was undeterred and agreed to this huge undertaking, which absorbed the last years of his life, until his death in 1926. Despite this, it almost never happened. Because Monet had to face another war: the battle for his sight.
In 1924, Monet had to endure three cataract operations on his right eye, which left him legally blind. (The left eye, which had only ten percent vision, remained intact.) Although surgery, still a difficult and often excruciating procedure, restored much of that eye, Monet’s color perception was distorted for more than a year. During this period, he saw everything in blue and could no longer perceive red or yellow.
With the help of special tinted glasses, Monet persevered and finally completed his Grandes Decorations, a few months before he died of lung cancer.
Today, Monet’s haven of “peaceful meditation” at the Musee de L’Orangerie in downtown Paris attracts millions of visitors. Where, surrounded on all sides by spacious murals of endless water lilies swimming in dreamlike colors, the individual viewer can escape from the turmoil of the outside world. Time doesn’t matter anymore, and everyday pressures disappear. One can finally rest and revive in Monet’s painted universe.
After all, Grandes Decorations is a place of healing, not just for the French, but for the world.
To view the Grandes Decorations water lily panels and other Monet masterpieces, visit http://www.arteverydayliving.com. To learn more about Monet and how you can incorporate his vision into your own life, read: Through the eyes of an artist: Let’s learn to live creatively.
An excerpt from Monet’s letter to Gustave Geoffroy (1) and a quote from Monet’s interview (2) are from here. Monet Carla Rachman, while the excerpt from Monet’s letter to Georges Bernheim-Jeune (3) a Claude Monet: Life and Art by Paul Hayes Tucker.
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