Words by Brit Parks

Pelate shields masked in verdant holding their ancient fleurs with strong capture. The sharp-edged lily bloom floating in its own hallowed myths. A mild air of reciprocity as Chinese Vermillion was culled by its Master. A certain spell born of the Greeks, as nymphs were the sacred keepers of springs.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1906, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection

Claude Monet (1840-1926) decreed his fevered strokes were driven by an impulse to express, in visual terms, his emotive experiences as a devout student of his own created pond and its water lilies. His
floral morphology from mind’s eye to canvas demonstrated a meticulous comprehension of his landscape. Monet’s color palette has been extensively recorded informally and categorically; we can precisely identify through an electron micrograph the composition of his colors. This modern scientific analysis is perhaps not far removed from his practice, in which the chemical stability, opacity, and durability of oil paint were of paramount concern for his process. Oil paint in the late nineteenth century was viciously toxic unbeknownst to their users therefore producing works which contain colors that only exist in this historical context. One can recall the mythos of Napoleon, hastened to his death by the arsenic-laced green paint that bathed his walls.

There is an ardent depth to Monet’s color palette, consistent throughout his life. He prepared his canvas with a lead white bound in poppy seed oil, and employed a distinct hue of cobalt blue, first produced
by a flowering plant in the prehistoric era, creating a circular relationship of artist to material across long history. For his botanicals he was loyal to Viridian Green, also known as Emeraude, which exudes a cold blue undertone—easily confused historically with Emerald Green, a bottle green favored in London. And of course Monet’s vital yellow: both he and Renoir preferred cadmium yellow, though Monet opted for slight variations, often referred to as his “trinity of yellow.” Cadmium became prominent with the French Impressionists as the highly ductile silver metal imbued pigments with better tone and viscosity. Chinese Vermillion red—one of the rarest pigments, originating from the mineral cinnabar—has an exotic history of use, and it’s notable that we find it in small quantities in Monet’s paintings.

Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1900, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection

The elusive nature of Monet’s water lilies lends a quality of floating in an atmospheric, unending beauty that seeps beyond the canvas. Monet painted the light as it shone across his beloved pond, his work akin to that of a steadfast monk studying his subject in repetition. Monet’s liturgical study of his water lily pond paralleled the consistency of his painting process. He mixed his oil paints on canvas in a wet-on-wet technique that requires great mastery. He used heavy brush strokes, perhaps a side effect of the intensive act of mixing. His canvases are heavy in their textural weight, when one examines them: a kind of rough-trodden surface discloses itself in intimate proximity. The true Master is revealed when you stand ten feet back and suddenly the weighty canvas has become a soft, floating, hypnotic halo.

The master’s grasp on reflected light is evident in lapping nuances of depth, which become a kind of visual illusion. It’s fitting that Monet considered the refraction of light-on-water, intercepted by his water blooms, as “impressions” of light. He ushered in the dawn with quiet movements of his waking lilies, their leaves spread out like long botanical arms. And with the falling light he documented all manner of shadow playing at the ruminative surface, pulling at the eternal form of his watered muses.

Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1917/19, The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Mrs. Harvey Kaplan

Kind appreciation to The Art Institute of Chicago.