Daily Dose of Europe: Monet’s “Water Lilies”

Monet’s “Water Lilies” float serenely in two pond-shaped rooms in a Paris museum. Painted on eight mammoth curved panels, they immerse you in Monet’s world. It’s like taking a stroll in the gardens at Monet’s home at Giverny, enjoying his tranquil pond dotted with colorful water lilies.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in a book called “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces.” Here’s one of my favorites.

Monet shows the pond at different times of day. Panning slowly around the museum’s hall, you can watch the scene turn from predawn darkness to clear morning light to lavender late afternoon to the glorious golden sunset.

Get close to see how Monet worked. Each lily is a tangled Impressionist smudge composed of several different-colored brushstrokes: green, red, white, lavender, blue. Only when you back up do the colors resolve into a single “pink” flower on a “green” lily pad. Monet wanted the vibrant colors to keep firing your synapses.

Now step farther back to take in the whole picture. Only then do you see that the true subject is not really the famous water lilies but the changing reflections on the pond’s surface. The lilies float among sun-kissed clouds and blue sky reflected in the water. It’s the intermingling of the classical elements — earth (the lilies), air (the sky), fire (sunlight), and water — the primordial soup of life.

The canvases at the Orangerie Museum are snapshots of Monet’s garden. In 1883, middle-aged Monet, along with his wife and eight kids, settled into a farmhouse in Giverny, near Paris. He turned Giverny into a garden paradise. Monet landscaped like he painted — filling the “blank canvas” with “brushstrokes” of shrubs and colorful flowers. He planted a garden with rose trellises, built a Japanese bridge, and made an artificial pond stocked with water lilies (nymphéas in French). Then Monet picked up his brush and painted it all — the bridge, trellises, pond — creating hundreds of canvases that brighten museums around the world. His favorite subject of all was the water lilies.

In 1914, Monet, now in his seventies, began a water-lily project on a massive scale. It would involve huge canvases — up to 6 feet tall and 55 feet long — to hang in purpose-built rooms at the Orangerie. Monet worked at Giverny, in a special studio with skylights and wheeled easels to accommodate the big canvases. He worked on several canvases at once, moving (with the sun) from one to the next to capture the pond at different times of day. For 12 years, Monet labored obsessively, even while he — the greatest “visionary,” literally, of his generation — was slowly going blind.

Like Beethoven did when going deaf, Monet wrote his final symphonies on a monumental scale. Altogether, Monet painted 1,950 square feet of canvas. In the final paintings, he cropped the scene ever closer, until there’s no reference point for the viewer — no shoreline, no horizon, no sense of what’s up or down…leaving you immersed in the experience. The last canvas shows darkness descending on the pond — painted by an 80-year-old man in the twilight of his life.

Monet never lived to see the canvases in their intended space. But in 1927, the “Water Lilies” were hung as Monet had instructed, in this specially built space to enhance the immersive experience. He’d created what many have called the first modern “art installation.”

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europe, my free collection of 400+ teachable video clips — including a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny.