Submitted
 07 Apr 2003 
Copyright © 2003-2004 by owner.
Standard citation procedures apply.
Edited 
 13 Mar 2004 
Reflets
dans
l'eau*

*"Reflections on the Water," title of one of composer Claude Debussy's Images pour Piano

Monet: Waterlilies (1903), Dayton Art Institute
Waterlilies [Monet, 1903]
Dayton Art Institute
Click this partial view of Monet's Waterlilies to access an interactive (pan-able, zoom-able) image at the Dayton (Ohio) Art Institute web site.

Reflections on a Pond

 

A Centennial Contemplation of Claude Monet’s Waterlilies, 1903


            A fascinating aspect of impressionist art is that it makes no pretense at creating a world in an illusory space beyond the picture plane.  Instead, the artist attempts to duplicate, more or less spontaneously and without intense concentration, the patterns of color falling upon the retinas of his or her eyes.  There is no conscious effort to produce a specific image, but rather to capture an idea.  The artist simply applies color to the canvas in response to the patterns detected by the eye when gazing at the subject.  The picture plane does not represent a window; there is no true image within its borders.  The artwork itself is simply pigment on fabric, no more.  It is indeed, as early critics of the style complained, incomplete.

            Yet this incompleteness is no flaw.  It is intentional; there is a creative purpose to it.  It is the artist’s aim to engage the viewer, not as a mere observer, but as a participant, to complete the process, and thereby become an integral and intimate part of the whole communication process of art.  It is not until the pattern of colors and shapes filters through the sensory apparatus and into the brain that it is transformed into something significant.  There, in the viewer’s mind, the image materializes, and the scenery, objects, people, and their activities finally emerge from it.  Magic!

            Even more amazing, it turns out that this magic is very much the form in which memorable scenes we encounter in everyday life are stored in our long-term memory, and also how we dream—not in terms of microscopically detailed concrete objects, but rather in terms of patterns of hue and shape, light and shade.  When we remember a scene from years past, we do not recall the precise arrangement of bricks in a wall, or the exact variety of wildflowers in a meadow.  What we recall are general impressions of color, geometry, motion, density, and the like, perhaps along with a few details which happened to strike us as noteworthy.  Just as in recalling memories, when viewing impressionist art we actively apply familiar associations and ingrained concepts of space-time to the perceived patterns.  We do not simply register an already existing image, but effectively regenerate the subject in our minds.  Indeed, this is essentially what happens in the “man-in-the-moon” illusion, when our minds piece together a face out of nothing but lunar mountains, craters, and plains too indistinct to be made out individually.  Perhaps because impressionistic art corresponds so remarkably to actual phases of human perception and memory, it often evokes a feeling of comfortable familiarity, even if the viewer has never seen the particular work before.

            A case in point is Claude Monet’s Waterlilies, an impressionist plein air painting of 1903, currently owned and exhibited by the Dayton Art Institute.  It is oil on canvas, approximately a meter in width and a bit less in height, yielding an aspect ratio of about 5 × 4.  Its genre is somewhat indistinct, combining elements of both landscape and still life, and infused with a mood of serene introspection.  As one approaches the painting, the view is of a dozen or more water lilies of various colors floating upon a glass-smooth pond, with a bit of foliage overhanging the top of the image.  Indeed, one can divide the essential features of the work into these three components:  the branch, the lilies, and the reflecting surface.

            There is no horizon; the entire background comprises only the surface of the water.  At the bottom—nearest the viewer—it is dominated by a muted purple, while near the top it blends to ochre, yellow-green, and teal.  Between foreground and background, the placid surface is a more heterogeneous assortment of muted blue, magenta, brown, and green, suggesting the reflection of unseen sky, shrubbery, and trees outside the direct field of view.  (Though subtle, these reflections are crucial, for they define the pond’s very surface.  With neither reflections nor ripples, the lilies would appear to be artificially stuck onto a flat background, rather than naturally floating upon a transparent liquid.)

            Lack of a visible horizon affects the visual perspective.  If Waterlilies were a classically representational work, its vanishing points would be beyond the borders of the image.  The fact that perspective is not anchored to visible points may give rise to a vague sense of disconnection, between the world of the viewer and that of the pond.[1]  To fathom the treatment of perspective in this work, we must shift our attention to the water lilies themselves.  First, we note that, absent a horizon line, the oblate plant groupings themselves establish a horizontal reference.  Second, the plants diminish in size with apparent distance, in accord with traditional linear perspective.  But perhaps most noteworthy, we observe that the lily pads in the foreground are distinctly elliptical, while those seen nearly edge-on in the background become almost flat horizontal streaks.  This shifting of shape presents a kind of perspective that might be described as lenticular, characteristic of wide-angle photography.  Although this device is not at all uncommon, its prominence in this work is elevated by the relative scarcity of traditional linear depth cues.

            Yet even as we move closer to examine Monet’s technique, the illusion of water and vegetation abruptly shatters into a seemingly random confusion of strokes, swirls, slashes, daubs, and scrapes.  Suddenly we no longer see the scene, but the raw medium.  Viewed close up, from a distance of a meter or two, the artist’s technique becomes apparent almost at the very instant that the scenic illusion is lost.

            What appeared at a distance to be lily pads are, upon closer inspection, horizontal streaks of pale green, olive, and gray, most of them apparently swift brush strokes.  Dark accents, marking the shadows beneath the curled edges of the pads, are deep blue-green to purple.  Many of these have a ragged texture, and appear to have been executed, either with a nearly dry brush, or perhaps with the swipe of a palette knife after the underlying color had hardened.

            Likewise, the water lily blossoms are revealed to be little more than heavy smudges of color.  Although within each grouping these multiple smudges exhibit a vague uniformity—a similarity of color accent and brush dynamics—there is no meticulous representation of petals or other details, even on the foreground specimens.  Despite this, they attain an illusion of substance and three-dimensionality through the shallow relief afforded by the thick application of paint.  By their colors, the clusters of blossoms clearly distinguish each water lily plant as an individual.  Most vary from white to yellow or pink, blending with undertones of green, the colors brightening noticeably on those individuals lighted by direct sun.  However, even the lilies in the dappled shade of the foreground are not to be denied their share of glory, for the cluster nearest the viewer displays a seductively bold, red-accented bloom that bids the eye linger.

            Lazily overhanging in the immediate foreground is the tree foliage, which partially frames the view, and also suggests that from a vantage point behind this ephemeral screen[2] the viewer is free to enjoy the idyllic scene without disturbing it.  The tree’s compound leaflets are sinuous swirls of several shades of green, accented with blue-black, and a bit of muted yellow where the sunlight has caught this sprig or that.  The foliage seems curiously active in an otherwise still scene, perhaps caught by a stray air current.  The small visible bit of branch supporting the foliage is mostly dark; however, even this minor element at one point teases the eye with a playful highlight of burnt orange.

            Yet while we examine Monet’s work at close range, we are conscious, perhaps even annoyed, that all we truly see is not nature, but paint, paint, and more paint—rapid strokes here, a few clumpy daubs there, an almost vicious swipe over there.  To transform this busy mass of pigment on canvas back into the tranquil pond, we must step back.  Two meters… three… four… Ah!  The change is abrupt, and the sensation is visceral.[3]  As the eye loses contact with the technical details, the brain simultaneously leaps to a different plane of awareness.  Instantly the paint vanishes, once again swallowed up in the magical depths of that tranquil pond, its mirror-smooth surface unmarred by even a ghost of a breeze, the delicate lilies serenely floating, almost hovering just above the surface.  Peace!

The treatment of flowers and water in this work contrasts markedly with that in a much earlier (1867) Monet painting, Terrace at Sainte-Adresse (Stokstad 1021), in which both the flora and the fluid are quite “busy.”  This, along with the depiction of human activity, contributes to an entirely different mood.   Although both works are pleasant and agreeable, Terrace is youthful, vibrant, congenial, a casual glimpse of human activity; Waterlilies, on the other hand, is serenely contemplative and mature, a subtle and intimate communication between artist and viewer.

            During his later years, Monet painted many views of his property at Giverny, including several of his “water garden” and its water lilies.  Yet of those which I have seen, this particular work strikes me as both the most peaceful and the most absorbing.  Moreover, the illusory image of Waterlilies, when it materializes in the mind, is surprisingly realistic—extraordinarily so for an anti-realist, impressionistic work.  It reminds me vividly of a lily pond of my own experience many years ago, and transports me to a time of long, sweet summers, good friends, and no worries.[4]  Perhaps because of that magical similarity between the mechanism of impressionism and the intimate workings of the mind, the art draws me in, binds me to itself.  It is good to know that a fellow human being, from another place and another time, also knew and valued that kind of tranquility, and reached out to touch me and others with it.




[1]This sense of disconnection was probably somewhat more disconcerting in Monet’s own time.  Today’s viewers are accustomed to such bizarre perspectives as wide-angle aerial and space photos, by comparison to which the vertical sweep of Waterlilies seems rather tame.

[2]Incidentally, the overhanging branch affords an indicator of scale, for any viewer who might be unacquainted with water lilies.

[3]The transformation is eerie.  Rod Serling, creator and host of the monochrome television classic series The Twilight Zone, might have described it as entering “a dimension, not only of light and shadow, but of mind.”

[4]Oddly enough, that was about the time Waterlilies was donated to the Dayton Art Institute—1953.  Although there were plenty of worries during that era, they were not the sort that might trouble an eight-year-old boy.

References

 

Monet, Claude. Waterlilies. 1903. Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio.

<http://www.daytonartinstitute.org/daicollection/european/212/212monet.html>

 

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 2nd ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 2002.


Writer’s Memo

 

            I find that I enjoy modern art more than the average person, probably because I appreciate that art doesn’t have to be pretty or realistic in order to be good or to make a statement.  Perhaps this arises from my musical background.  For example, Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, is a brutally ugly work that nevertheless fires visceral reaction and makes the heart pound.  There are so many ways in which art can connect with the receptive viewer:  the intense anxiety of Munch’s The Scream, the exquisite intimacy of Klimt’s The Kiss, the sarcastic surrealism of Dali’s Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire.  Even completely abstract art has the power to delight, enchant, seduce, or disturb.

            Slightly old-fashioned by comparison, the impressionist style has been a long-time favorite of mine.  Yet until now my enjoyment of it has been on a superficial level.  This is the first time I have explored the reasons for that enjoyment with anything more than casual interest.

            The only difficulty I have encountered in describing this artwork is that, aside from Monsieur Monet’s personal motivations (whatever they might have been), there is no behind-the-scenes action or history, such as is typical of mythical, religious, historical, or situational subjects.  Waterlilies conveys a message, but it is more the sharing of an emotional meditation than a communication of intellect.  Instead of examining its relevance to the outside world, one must reach into the work to appreciate how it functions as an intimate connection between artist and viewer.  Even so, the process of analyzing that emotional connection has turned out to be an intellectual exercise—a rare opportunity for the joyous interplay of both left and right cerebral hemispheres—which to me makes the experience even more enriching.


NOTES:

This undergraduate paper was submitted on 7 April 2003 for academic credit in Art History: Renaissance to Present.  The paper was written in MLA format using Microsoft Works®, and was converted to web page format using Microsoft Word®.  Since submitting the paper, I have viewed other works in the Waterlilies series and have expanded upon my original thoughts below.


Reflections upon Reflections

A Comparison to Monet's other Waterlilies Works
(2004)

Claude Monet created a number of fêtes champêtres on the Waterlilies motif at his country home in Giverny.  Despite the common theme, the treatments and effects of each work are as strikingly different as, for example, in another familiar grouping of the same artist's impressions of the Rouen Cathedral at different times of day.

Others of Monet's Waterlilies paintings strike me quite differently.  In some cases the serenity is only superficial, a thin film of tranquility over an undercurrent of disconcertingly inconsistent elements.  For example, in one painting depicting a footbridge over the pond with thick foliage beyond, where one would expect to find these features mirrored in the water's surface below, the direct and reflected patterns of foliage do not correspond at all, and there is no reflection whatever of the bridge!  It is as if the water and the world above it are in different universes—an eerie effect perhaps not immediately obvious, but that before being recognized jars the subconscious, and that afterward gnaws at the mind.

In having its focus entirely beneath the horizon, the 1903 work reviewed in the foregoing essay neatly avoids this conflict, by presenting only reflections of otherwise unseen background foliage and sky.  By avoidance of visual dilemmas, this particular work attains an absorbing mood of natural serenity that others fail to approach.

=SAJ=


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