This extraordinary painting is on loan this spring from the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, in exchange for the Norton Museum of Art’s loan of Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889) by Paul Gauguin. In addition to Nymphéas the Museum’s own Gardens of the Villa Moreno, Bordhighera (1884) and two works by the artist in the special exhibition, Pastures Green: The British Passion for Landscape (through April 5), offer visitors a rare opportunity to view landscapes from four distinct periods in Monet’s long and remarkable career.
Monet’s gardens at Giverny became a focus of his painting during the last two decades of his life; it was there that he expanded upon the idea of painting in series, repeatedly portraying motifs such as the Japanese bridge and water lilies, among others. Painted between 1914 and 1917, Nymphéas (the French word for water lilies) represents Monet’s lily pond while drawing upon diverse influences, including Japanese art, the work of contemporaries such as Pierre Bonnard, and the artist’s own paintings of water lilies from 1903 on. Looking at Nymphéas, we take the artist’s point of view, looking down upon the surface of the water that becomes one with the plane of the canvas. This is where the visual complexity of the work truly begins, as we negotiate the environment – the shimmering reflections of the blue sky and distant trees, the palpable surface of the lilies themselves, and perhaps the aquatic environment beneath the surface – all on the single plane. Vivid strokes of green, blue, and violet paint on the right of the canvas reveal plants thriving at the edge of the pond, yet another aspect of the artist’s surroundings. In later works such as Nymphéas, Monet hints at the complexity of vision, and foreshadows new, abstract approaches to painting that will emerge in the 20th century.