Improvements to the gardens occupied Monet until his death in 1926. In his last decade, he painted little else but his prized lily pond, which had required long negotiations with local authorities to allow diversion of river water. Monet’s stepson described the lily pond in 1960:
This was entirely his own creation; he converted a patch of landscape, and filled it with water to mirror the sky and with plants: some red, yellow, pink, and white water lilies to float on this water as though it were on the surface of the sky; the others, irises, calatheas, and arrowheads to mark the line of the banks, and above all else to give pleasure to the eyes . . . and then there is a little Japanese-style arched bridge. . . .
Monet called his water-lily pictures paysages d’eau (waterscapes). Progressively, they lost their landscape elements. Here, the sky has already been eliminated; the lush foliage rises all the way to the frame, and the decorative arch of the bridge flattens the illusion of three-dimensional space. Attention is forced onto the paint surface itself, and held there, not drawn into the scene. In later lily-pond paintings, flowers and their mirrored reflections assume equal stature, blurring distinctions between solid objects and transitory effects of light. (See Water Lilies from 1914–1926 in MoMA’s collection as an example of this.) Monet had always been interested in reflections, feeling that their discontinuous and fragmented shapes paralleled his own broken brushwork.
Brushstrokes: Ask students to find and label with a descriptive word or phrase the various kinds of brushstrokes that Monet used to convey different elements of the waterscape. How do brushstrokes and color combine to create light and form? Consider words such as:
Horizon line: Is there a clear horizon line? How is a distinction made (or not) between land and water? Between water and air? Between actual object and reflection of that object?
Movement: How does Monet convey movement or stillness of water—through color, line, brushstroke? What kind of movement is it—quick, slow, languid?
Vantage point: What is your perspective on the scene as the viewer? Is your vantage point at water level or suspended above? At water’s edge? Alongside the pond? Consider what methods Monet used to convey vantage point, such as cropping, framing, or other compositional arrangements.
Present the short film Monet’s Water Lily Garden and Japanese Footbridge and have students reflect on Monet’s translation of this landscape. Do his brushstrokes and composition convey the sights and sounds of this peaceful pond? Is there anything you would have added or removed? How would this change your impression of this place?