Monet’s Water Lilies
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
April 9 – August 7
For the first time in more than 30 years, all three panels of a remarkable water lily triptych by the preeminent Impressionist Claude Monet will be on view together, from April 9 to Aug. 7, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The exhibition reunites the right-hand panel, from the Nelson-Atkins collection, with panels owned by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The three were last exhibited together in 1979. With the exception of a triptych in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, this is the only Monet triptych in the United States.
“What this show does is it puts our Monet in context,” said Ian Kennedy, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Curator, European Painting and Sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins. “This will be a much more intimate experience of his work than what you normally get in museums. It’s a very focused experience of Monet, without distractions, and you get to see the paintings as he intended them to be seen—not separated and surrounded by other pictures.”
Without doubt, Monet (1840-1926) was the most important of all the Impressionist painters, and his water lily paintings represent the culmination of his career, dominating the last decades of his life. “These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me,” he wrote to a friend in 1909. “It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”
Monet’s famous garden at his home in Giverny provided the inspiration for these and all of his water lily paintings, and the exhibition will bring to life the importance and beauty of this garden—and the artist’s passion for it—through a range of archival photographs, as well as an early, rarely seen film from 1915, showing Monet painting outdoors in his garden.
It is believed that Monet began work on these three massive canvases, each measuring approximately 7 feet by 14 feet, in 1915 and continued to rework them in his studio at Giverny until his death more than 10 years later.
“We don’t even know for sure whether he considered them finished,” said Simon Kelly, who, as curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum and former associate curator of European painting and sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins, has been working on this exhibition for more than three years.
A major focus of Monet’s Water Lilies will be revelatory conservation work that highlights the extent to which the artist—widely thought of as a spontaneous painter—obsessively changed his composition over the years. Through x-ray imaging, light boxes, and computerized cross-sections, conservators have discovered more about Monet’s changes. For example, beneath a cluster of water lilies on the Nelson-Atkins canvas, conservators found the image of an agapanthus plant that Monet suppressed halfway through painting it. An x-ray of the agapanthus will be part of the exhibition.
“The exhibition will explore the whole issue of process, really giving us a sense of how Monet worked, how he built up his paint layers,” Kelly said.
In a separate, dedicated space, the paintings themselves will be displayed with side panels at slight angles to recreate something of the panoramic experience of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris where several of Monet’s water lily triptychs are mounted.
“Monet painted these in the panoramic tradition, but with no horizon line, so it’s an internalized psychological panorama,” Kennedy said. “We want people to contemplate, to become completely submerged in the experience. There will even be background music as visitors enter the main display so people will have this meditative, almost yoga-like experience looking at the pictures.”
After the exhibition premieres at the Nelson-Atkins, it will travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum in the fall of 2011, before showing at the Cleveland Museum of Art at a date to be confirmed.