Saturday, 2 January 2010

Les Nymphéas

About a week before Solstice, with December at its greyest, I went to visit Monet’s water lily paintings (Les Nymphéas) at The Orangerie. The paintings curve around the walls of two large oval rooms and drench the space with colour. The paintings show the water at different times of day and year. In the second room each view is framed by willows and the water’s blue runs through the trees’ trunks.

(Monet, Le Matin aux saules)

It’s difficult to convey on a screen the scale of the paintings, which are 2 metres high and up to 17 metres broad. Their great width and encircling shape immerses the viewer in the substance of the water. You cannot take it all in at once, nor distinguish surface, depths and reflected sky through his layered colours.

(Monet, Reflets d’arbres)

I was struck on this visit with the thought that Monet was painting his own garden pond to produce these images, and yet he represented the place very large. There’s a slight sense of disproportion looking at size of the leaves and walking around the space the paintings are designed to take. Nature feels bigger than usual. Monet spent the last thirty years of his life painting these scenes, completing the Orangerie Les Nymphéas in his eighties. He suffered at this time from cataracts and distorted vision, but the paintings suggest his ability to immerse himself in the substance of nature within one particular place. Perhaps he came to see that the water, the willows and lily leaves were boundless.

(Monet, Soleil couchant)

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