To capture the light, the colors, the moment: such was the obsessive quest of Claude Monet, master of the Impressionists but also of the American abstract painters, his rambunctious successors. The Orangerie museum in Paris presents their works in dialogue.
The only way to fully take in Monet’s water lilies is to enter them body and soul, to swim amid the very substance of this volatile, atmospheric painting—aquatic clouds opening onto an infinitely expanding space; ponds and gardens steeped in a mesmerizing array of colors; variations in light and atmosphere suggesting the glow of dawn or dusk. Monet does not impose his point of view, but rather invites viewers to immerse themselves in his huge canvases, which offer a representation of nature that is but a distant echo of this world. His willows, bridges, blossoms and water lilies are quivering reflections of the dizzying sensations he felt. MoMA acquired a water lilies panel in 1955 and displayed it for the first time in its galleries, near the vibrant paintings of the Abstract Expressionists. Critics of the time immediately detected the strong links between the old French master and the new generation of American artists. Unexpected connections emerged, recasting the narrative of art at the time. A quarter century after his death, the octogenarian painter who had shut himself away in his secret garden, the late Impressionist whose monumental works were shunned when they were displayed in the Orangerie in Paris, turned out to be the first abstract artist, the man who liberated the motif from the limitations of the canvas, long before Pollock’s drip paintings, Clyfford Still’s all-over compositions and Mark Rothko’s color fields.
One after the other, young American painters made the pilgrimage to Giverny, fascinated by the master’s surfaces that quivered with color. Sam Francis, Philip Guston and Ellsworth Kelly all visited the enchanted garden with its shifting reflections. Joan Mitchell even moved to France, setting up her easel in a studio in Vétheuil, just a few miles from Giverny.
Nymphéas. L’abstraction américaine et le dernier Monet
© Musée de l’Orangerie, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/photo : Sophie Crépy Boegly - 2015 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc/ADAGP, Paris, 2018.
Photo : Timothy Pyle, Light Blue Studio Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.
Photo : Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago - Mark Rothko/ADAGP, Paris, 2018 / 1998 Kate Prizel & Christopher Rothko.
Fondation Beyeler/Robert Bayer