Monet’s lilies make a splash at Art Museum

| Scene Reporter

Courtesy of SLAM

Claude Monet’s impressionistic masterpiece, “Agapanthus” (“Water Lilies”), is currently on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The 42-foot triptych, which consists of three panels, will be on display until Jan. 22.

Almost 100 years ago, French painter Claude Monet began one of his last great masterpieces. After his death, the work, the triptych titled “Agapanthus,” was eventually split up. Today, after more than 50 years of separation, its pieces hang together in the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM), located on Art Hill in Forest Park.

The exhibition, organized by Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at SLAM, is titled “Monet’s Water Lilies.” “It’s the first in its generation; it’s never been done before,” Kelly said. “These pieces have never been brought together before.”

The pieces lay in Monet’s studio for years after his death before eventually being auctioned to different collectors. They ended up in three museums.

SLAM received the central section, while the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Cleveland Museum of Art received the right and left sections, respectively. Recent collaboration between the three museums has allowed all the sections to be shown together.

“The exhibition was previously at the Nelson-Atkins Museum and will go to the Cleveland Museum next, after a break,” Kelly said.

The show consists of three studies for the work, “Agapanthus” itself and a small diptych, titled “Wysteria Numbers 1 and 2.” All are painted by Monet.

When viewers enter the exhibition, they are first presented with a short, black-and-white video; it shows Monet painting in his garden in Giverny, where he created the famed series “Water Lilies”—which includes “Agapanthus.”

Consisting of approximately 250 oil paintings, “Water Lilies” serves as an emblem of the Impressionist movement, the 19th-century artistic movement in France that emphasized the depiction of flowing light over form, often leading to the incorporation of motion into paintings.

Monet was one of the founders of the movement; the term Impressionism is taken from one of his early paintings.

Few works of art enter into the general public consciousness: pieces such as “Mona Lisa,” “Starry Night” and the Sistine Chapel come to mind. “Water Lilies” also falls into that category. Such is its influence that the state of France built the Musée de l’Orangerie, now considered one of Paris’ greatest museums, as a home for eight of the “Water Lilies” murals.

Kelly is aware of this, and factored it into the planning of the exhibition. “We can reach a wider audience,” he said. “The works are widely known and recognized.”

Beyond the film, the three studies are available for view. They all showcase different aspects of the lilies. The first, “Agapanthus,” painted between 1914-1917, is the darkest. It depicts two tall stems against a backdrop of reds and violets, and light reflects off the water. They reach upward toward lighter colors, possibly an impression of the sky in the pond.

“Water Lilies, Harmony in Blue,” painted at the same time, takes a lighter tone. Two groups of lilies float on blue-green water. Instead of an angry red, however, these lilies are a mix of white, yellow and pink.

The final study is titled merely “Water Lilies.” Rather than taking a broader view like the first two, this painting instead focuses on one group of lily pads with flowers—they take up the majority of the painting and are surrounded by water.

These three studies offer excellent examples of the Impressionist movement’s goal. Instead of trying to capture a single instant in time, each study focuses on a different moment. Monet then combined and repainted them to form the final work, allowing for the expression of movement over time; different sections of “Agapanthus” were painted at different times during the day, at different points during the seasons.

The final two works hang at the end of the exhibit. “Wysteria Numbers 1 and 2,” a diptych, display hanging wisteria, framed against a blue-black background. The wisteria appear to emerge directly out of the light, a roiling mix of blue, green, purple and brown. It complements and is secondary to the centerpiece of the exhibition, the triptych “Agapanthus,” which hangs on the opposite side of the room.

Measuring 42 feet in length, the painting is magnificent to behold. There are several lily pads, interspersed throughout a sea of blue-green and violet. The upper third is lighter, resembling the reflection of the sky, while the rest of the painting is darker, reminiscent of the bottom of the pond. Monet worked on it from 1916 until his death 10 years later, painstakingly going over each section numerous times. Some areas have as many as six layers of paint; over time, the remodeling became so extensive that the series of African Lilies, from which the painting takes its name, was painted over.

His hard work paid off, however. “The colors are luminous,” Kelly said.

Clusters of lilies emerge out of both the muck of the pond and the impression of the sky on the water. This creates an almost-smoky effect, with the lilies blending with the background, another mark of Impressionism.

Each section can stand alone; they have for more than 50 years. However, when brought together the painting seems to flow together in ways the panels individually lack. The combination of the sections, the vastness of the work and the care and the delicateness with which it was executed stands testament to Monet’s ability and the importance of the work.

Though the exhibition is small, it is very concentrated. By examining only one work, it allows the viewer to see its evolution, from conception to the final result. The observer is allowed insight into the artistic process of Monet, resulting in a greater appreciation for his artistic process and the nature of Impressionism.

“Monet’s Water Lilies” is on display until Jan. 22. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and are free on Fridays. Reservations are recommended.

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