In the summer of 1918, Claude Monet, the great French Impressionist, was facing disaster. In the distance, the 78 year old artist could hear the guns of the German army, signaling the advance of the enemy. World War I was in its fourth year and it was becoming increasingly likely that German soldiers could be at Monet’s beloved estate at any moment. The paradise he had created during the last thirty years near the French town of Giverny. At its core, the miraculous water lilies pond that was perhaps more important to Monet than his own life.
For Monet had refused to leave his home at Giverny, even when the majority of his family members had deserted it back in 1914 at the beginning of the conflict. As he wrote to a friend, Gustave Geoffroy, “Many of my family has left…a mad panic has seized all this area…as for me, I’ll stay here, all the same…in the midst of my canvases, in front of my life’s work.” (1)
Giverny had always been near the war zone, close to some of the heaviest fighting of the war, but Monet had remained. Demonstrating the stubbornness and resolve that had enabled him to help found the new art movement of Impressionism in the earlier days of his artistic career. However, as the war continued, inflicting a level of unprecedented death and destruction, Monet was inspired by a cause greater than he had ever known: to heal his people. To paint a vision of beauty that would restore the spirit of his French countrymen after the debacle was over. A water lilies cycle that would cover the walls of a vast room, and according to Monet, in an interview for an arts magazine, offer “an asylum of peaceful meditation in the center of a flowering aquarium.”(2)
By 1918, Monet had already created twelve water lilies murals which he called his Grandes Decorations. Measuring over six feet in height and nearly fourteen feet in width each, they dominated the space of his new studio. An accomplishment probably not possible without the support of the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, who was also the artist’s long time friend. For Clemenceau believed just as fervently in Monet’s mission, even at times allowing materials for his friend’s studio to take precedence over the transport of military supplies.
Now, as the Germans appeared to be winning, all would be lost. “I do not have long to live and I must dedicate all of my time to painting with the hope of arriving at something that is good, or that satisfies me if that is possible,” (3) he told Georges Bernheim Jeune, one of his collectors. But, after a counter-offensive by France and its allies in September, the course of the war suddenly changed and Monet’s country was saved.
Clemenceau visited Monet on November 12, 1918, the day after the armistice was signed, when the painter dedicated two works of art to the state of France. But the artist and the statesman had greater ambitions: the Grandes Decorations would represent Monet’s ultimate gift to his nation. As leader of France, Clemenceau would employ his influence and power to transform the Grandes Decorations into a national monument.
It would take, though, almost another decade to accomplish this dream. First, Clemenceau was voted out of office in 1920, inevitably slowing the project, especially the funding. Then negotiations stalled, regarding the location of the Grandes Decorations which was not decided until 1922, when the Orangerie (once the greenhouse of the French kings), next to the Louvre, was chosen as the final site. Next, the number of water lilies panels was expanded, from the initial twelve to nineteen (and eventually twenty-two).
Undaunted, Monet at the age of 81, agreed to this massive undertaking that would absorb the last years of his life, until his death in 1926. Yet, it almost never happened. Because Monet had to face another war: the battle for his eyesight.
In 1924, Monet had to endure three cataract operations on his right eye, in which he was legally blind. (The left eye with only ten percent vision remained untouched.) Although the surgery, still a difficult and often excruciating procedure, restored much of his sight in that eye, Monet’s perception of color was distorted for more than a year. During this period, he saw everything in blue and could no longer perceive red or yellow.
With the help of special tinted glasses, Monet did persevere and finally completed his Grandes Decorations, just months before he died of pulmonary cancer.
Today, Monet’s refuge of “peaceful meditation” in the Musee de L’Orangerie in downtown Paris draws millions of visitors. Where the individual viewer, surrounded on all sides by the spacious murals of endless water lilies, floating in dream-like colors, can escape the tumult of the outside world. Time no longer matters and every day pressures disappear. One can finally relax and revitalize within Monet’s painted universe.
For ultimately, the Grandes Decorations is a place of healing, not only of the French people, but of the world.
To view the highlights of the water lilies panels of the Grandes Decorations and other masterpieces of Monet, go to http://www.artseverydayliving.com To discover more about Monet and how to incorporate his vision into your own life, read Through an Artist’s Eyes: Learning to Live Creatively.
Excerpt from Monet’s letter to Gustave Geoffroy (1) and quote from Monet interview (2) are from Monet by Carla Rachman, while the excerpt from Monet’s letter to Georges Bernheim-Jeune (3) is from Claude Monet: Life and Art by Paul Hayes Tucker.