I recently saw “Claude Monet’s Secret Garden” (on until October 1st) at the Vancouver Art Gallery. My sister in law and I were lucky enough to get a personal tour with a family friend who works there which included seeing the actual courtroom (the gallery is in the old Vancouver Courthouse) currently used for filming court scenes. During our tour, I learned that the curators had to make four separate trips to Paris to secure the works for “Secret Garden”, which included the last piece Monet painted.
I remember being impressed by the brushwork and colour in one of Monet’s large waterlily paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York several years ago. The VAG exhibit, however, gives a more intimate view of his work, including photos of him and paintings from many different points of his career as an Impressionist painter.
I bought a biography of Monet by Ross King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies at the VAG gift shop (there is a copy at Laughing Oyster in Courtenay), which reveals aspects of Monet’s challenging character in front of the backdrop of WWI France. Monet was painting his waterlilies, (these painted reflections were also called “upside down paintings”) during a time of many shortages, including canvas and paint. I was surprised to learn France employed “camoufleurs” who used 1.4 million square feet of canvas to paint roads, canals, airfields and trenches, as well as a fake Paris, to lure the German bombers away from the city.
Monet was called “the painter of happiness” and it was believed his paintings could soothe the soul and calm nerves. However his drive to paint his massive water lily paintings was fraught with much anxiety and he often found the process tortuous. He was highly successful during his lifetime, so he had the resources (despite shortages and because he was close friends with Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France) to undertake the ambitious project of creating his “Grand Decorations” into his 70’s and 80’s. Monet suffered from cataracts; however it seemed as his body aged, he “focused ever more intently on the fleeting rays of light that he had always chased and cherished”.
Monet did over 250 water lily paintings of his pond in Giverny. The largest ones, completed in his last years are in the Orangerie in Paris (go to the site to get a virtual tour) which was built by the state before Monet’s death in 1926, to permanently display these “incomparable masterpieces”. One of Monet’s waterlily paintings sold at an auction in New York for $27 million in 2014.
Reading King’s biography of Monet was a good reminder that the more information that you learn about an artist and also the time period they were painting in, may change or deepen your regard for their work.
Photo above: Detail of Monet waterlily painting, capturing morning light in his pond in Giverny – currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery