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Monet’s Water Lilies

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Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1914 - 1926, oil on canvas

Monet’s Water Lilies are on view now at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan through April 12th. If you’ve never seen these paintings and you live anywhere near NYC, I urge you to do so. Once in a while I like to share something here that is not food but that means a lot to me. This is another of those things.

Judging from the reproductions of the paintings I had seen in books, in person I expected to see ephemeral-looking objects in pastel hues.

I didn’t. What I saw instead were

canvases that call attention to their physicality with their sheer size and surfaces that are nuanced, painterly, varied, layered, and gloriously worked, surfaces that represent the passage of time, the artist’s hand and his immense ambition.


The placement of a triptych on one curved wall so that it mimicked a feeling of surrounding the viewer was testament to the encompassing feeling Monet wanted to create with these oversize works. He is quoted often as saying that he wanted to communicate to the viewer his experience of nature, to say something about the space between himself and the thing seen.

I was struck by how many viewers stood before the paintings to have their portraits snapped with digital cameras, delighted by the smooth, crisp contours of skin and modern clothing silhouetted against the texture of the painted canvas.

There were also many viewers moving along the canvas’ length holding camera phones up between themselves and the work, the better to capture the surface plasticity up close. The atmosphere was lively with talk and movement, animated by the effect of these large works, and not the hushed, reverence in front of masterpieces that I had anticipated. Something about these objects was not only effective but also affective, animating the space.


I did long to be alone with them, if only to experience them without distraction. Sitting on one of the viewing benches in the room, I spied a young man doing something different than the other visitors. He was crouched before one of the paintings, carefully observing its every detail up close. I suspected at once that he might be a painter too and felt drawn to him with a magnetic pull. I approached him to confirm what I thought I knew of his vocation. Of course I was right.

“I’ve been thinking about Monet’s paintings in terms of his legacy,” I ventured, hoping for some insight from this kindred spirit, if stranger, “I’ve been wondering if his experience of Nature is the point, more than the objects themselves.”

“Well, painting is one thing, and Nature is another,” he replied, “And Monet knew the difference.”


We had a conversation, entirely facilitated by these beautiful objects, and this experience plus his remark made me revise my assumptions on the spot. Perhaps Monet’s legacy is not contained in the room with these individual paintings. Neither is it limited to the impressively large body of his work, writings and grand property, nor his position as a precursor to modern developments. Instead, Monet’s legacy is partly and importantly the confirmation of the relevance and importance of painting itself, as objects, meaning every uniquely identifying feature about them — their weight and size and materials, their wood and fabric and primer, their scumbled, buttery, brushy, dragged, scraped and built up surfaces, and most of all, their power to engage and create dialogue, even between strangers.

Talk about them all you want, but in the end you’ve got to see them — in person. 

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Nancy - I love it when you write about painting because you bring the same sensual and experiential attitude as you do to your food writing. Now that I am trying to write about art more, I realize that what I dislike in some writing is a tendency to separate oneself from the physical work - to theorize rather than respond.

These peices are all about the physical world and our bodily response to it. Great post!

    – Tiernan (March 13 2010 at 10:03)

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