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Claude Monet’s paintings of Water Lilies (Nymphéas) are ‘without pattern, without borders’ – paintings with ‘no sky, no horizon, hardly any perspective or stable points of reference …’ said art critic Louis Gillet. 

The Water Liliesis not one painting, but a series of paintings that French Impressionist Oscar-Claude Monet (1840-1926) worked on for 30 years, inspired by the water garden at his home in Giverny in Normandy. He created about 300 paintings, with about 40 in large format. There were also three tapestries.

There were two types of compositions: (1) the edge of the pond, seen in the Water Lily Pond (Bassins aux nymphéas) of 1899-1900, and (2) only the water surface with flowers and reflections in Japanese Bridge (Pont japonais) of the later years, including the Water Landscapes (Paysages d’eau) of 1903-1908.

The idea for a circular series began from 1897, but more in earnest from 1914, which Claude Monet called his ‘great decoration.’ 

The circular series is shown in the Musée de l’Orangerie (the Orangerie Museum) in Paris, in the Tuileries Garden. It is a panoramic frieze displayed in two elliptical rooms.

There was a long period deciding where to exhibit Claude Monet’s works, even proposing to put them in the Rodin Museum. The Musée de l’Orangerie was chosen for its location and west-to-east position. In 1909, Claude Monet said, ‘those with nerves exhausted by work would relax there, following the restful example of those still waters, and, to whoever entered it, the room would provide a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium.’ Indeed, it is a refuge of peace.

Claude Monet gave two panels to the French State after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, as a symbol of peace, crowning the Water Lilies cycle. The dimensions of nearly one hundred meters, gives, as Monet said, the ‘illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.’

The Water Lilieswere on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie from 1927. This set of Claude Monet paintings did not receive critical acclaim initially. In 1927, the avant-garde scene of the early 20th century undervalued Impressionism. So, not many people attended the Claude Monet exhibition. 

One painting was damaged by a bomb shell during the Liberation of Paris in 1944-1945. The Museum was renovated from 2000-2006 to restore the zenithal lighting that Monet had specified, which was not included in the 1960s renovations.

The Musée de l’Orangerie presents eight of Claude Monet’s great Water Lilies compositions created of large panels assembled side by side. They are hung across the curved walls of two elliptical rooms. They are hung to Claude Monet’s specifications, before he died, of positioning and spaces between the panels. Monet also specified that there should be natural lighting coming down from the roof. 

Photographer: Martina Nicolls

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