In 1890, impressionist painter Claude Monet purchased a rambling farmhouse in Giverny, “forty miles as the crow flies” from Paris, where he lived with his wife, two sons and six stepchildren.
There, Monet moved earth and water, creating a garden to “please the eye.” The neighbors, mostly farmers, couldn’t fathom why anyone would plant a flower garden, let alone the exotic yellow, blue and pink water lilies the artist loved.
What Monet saw, though, was a “motif to paint.” He hardly could have imagined that more than a century later, his garden would bring half a million visitors a year to his estate and that his water lily paintings would hang in museums around the world.
In his splendid “Mad Enchantment: Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies,” Ross King brings to life the moving story of the aging artist’s last and most ambitious project, a series of large-scale water lily paintings, his “Grande Decoration,” designed to hang in a circular room. The project consumed Monet, who completed 45 or 50 canvases, nearly all measuring 14 by 6½ feet, until his death in 1926.
In 1914, with World War I nearly at his doorstep, Monet, in his 70s, emerged from mourning the deaths of his wife and son to paint with a fury. In his quest to freeze time, no subject challenged him more than his water lily pond. Its elusive play of light, color and texture sent him into rages of despair and at the same time inspired what is perhaps his most monumental work.
In his inimitable style, art historian King takes a you-are-there approach to his subject, creating an intimate portrait of the imposing, often ill-tempered artist, struggling with the “unremitting torment” of painting, the privations of war and anxieties about his vision. He includes descriptions of the techniques Monet used to achieve his magic. King gives the book historical heft by placing the narrative in the context of war, art movements and political, cultural and social changes.
He integrates fascinating material throughout the book, including an account of the complex back-and-forth negotiations, conflicts and expenses surrounding Monet’s donation of his work to the French government. Today, a set of the panels hangs as Monet intended, in two oval rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
King, who wrote about the rise of the impressionists in his excellent book, “The Judgment of Paris,” bookends the era with this stirring account of the last impressionist. He transports us to a time before the ubiquitous images of water lilies appeared on T-shirts and tchotchkes, inviting us to see the magnificent paintings anew.
The book left me in wistful reverie, envisioning that shimmering pond and a rugged, robust old gentleman in his “herringbone suit” and jaunty wide-brimmed straw hat, sitting on a three-legged wooden chair in front of an easel, his brushes flying.
Elfrieda Abbe is a freelance book critic in Milwaukee.
By: Ross King.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 403 pages, $30.
Where to see Claude Monet's water lily paintings
Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks From the Paul G. Allen Family Collection includes "Water Lily Pond," 1919. Minneapolis Institute of Art, through Sept. 18; New Orleans Museum of Art, Oct. 14-Jan. 15, 2017; Seattle Art Museum, Feb. 16-May 23, 2017.
Minneapolis Institute of Art: "The Japanese Bridge," c. 1923-25.
Art Institute of Chicago:"Water Lily Pond," 1917-1919.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City: ";Water Lilies" triptych, 1914-1926.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City: "Water Lilies,"; 1919.
Musee de l';Orangerie, Paris: eight panels, hanging side by side in two elliptical rooms, measuring nearly 300 linear feet), 1914-1926.