Monet’s Water Lilies: An Artist’s Obsession

By: Patricia Rosoff

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art • Hartford, CT • • Through June 12, 2011

The setup could not be more richly sensuous. You step into the ambience of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art as if entering a warm pool of water. From the soaring geometry of the museum’s vaulted Sol LeWitt-striped lobby, you pass through glass doors and then down wide steps into the hushed gray serenity of another sphere. The music of Debussy plays softly, muting the outside world, as you step into the poetic embrace of these pictures.

CT Monets LiliesDirectly ahead, framed by a proscenium-like wall, is the heart of this array: a softly shimmering panorama of soft mauves and pinks, a nearly twenty-foot-wide Water Lilies borrowed from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Painted by Monet at age eighty-six in 1926, this one picture justifies a trip to Hartford. Especially because it is the staging—historical and contextual—that sets this vast, energetic masterpiece into its satisfying place.

Props to the curators for the economy and precision of their selections and the way they tell the story of an old man and his obsession, not just with the beauty of the water garden he created, but also with the act of seeing. What these pictures reveal is a search for something far more rigorous and determined than pretty pictures. Each one—from a quick peachy glimpse of the Japanese footbridge painted in 1895 to the fiery impression of that same footbridge, this time grown over with masses of wisteria blossoms—tackles the problem of rendering perception on a single plane of stretched canvas.

As he entered the twentieth century, Monet was already sixty and no longer the struggling bohemian who fought the stultifying conventions of the French Academy. Now prosperous and settled in Giverny, he might have retired into comfortable self-parody. Instead, he devoted another quarter of a century to wrestling with the contradictions of vision and representation, and found a way to capture the lessons of reflection, refraction, and transparency, which he learned from looking into a water garde

—Patricia Rosoff

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