Water Lilies (Nymphéas)
Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 36 1/4 × 31 15/16 in. (92.1 × 81.2 cm) Frame: 47 × 42 1/2 × 2 1/2 in. (119.4 × 108 × 6.4 cm)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Although born in Paris, Monet grew up in Le Havre, a port city in Normandy, France, where
his precocious caricatures attracted the attention of the landscape painter Eugène Boudin.
Boudin introduced Monet to the practice of painting en plein air (outdoors), a practice which
informed Monet’s entire career. Although Monet studied with the academician Charles Gleyre
in Paris, he always credited nature as his true master. His great pleasure in the contemplation of
natural beauty and his desire to capture the essence of nature on canvas led him to a completely
new style of painting that would eventually be known as Impressionism.Monet’s harmonious
combination of unmixed colors, smaller and more varied brushstrokes, and masterful studies
in light presented paintings that provided the absorbing pleasure of the immediate impression,
while refusing to be completely legible. After many years of struggle, during which Monet
experienced extreme poverty, he finally achieved much financial, critical, and popular success.
Nearly 70 years old when he completed this canvas, he was still very much in the prime of his
career and still pushing the limits of landscape painting.
Monet purchased his home in Giverny in 1890 and spent the next twelve years planning and
cultivating his flower garden. Thanks to his growing success as an artist, Monet was able to
employ a staff of six gardeners to help him develop a garden paradise complete with elaborate
flower beds, ponds, bridges, and footpaths. Monet’s garden at Giverny served as his primary
subject matter from 1900 until his death in 1926. He completed almost 350 canvases of his
garden, which vary in subject matter and effect.
Monet developed the concept of painting series of pictures with a single motif in 1876,
including famous scenes of a Paris train station, haystacks, and the cathedral at Rouen. His
water lily series began in 1899. There has been much discussion about the purpose of the water
lily paintings. The plan for his “great decorations”—“a cycle of water lily paintings intended as
a gift to the French state”—was conceived in 1916 and occupied Monet in his final decade.
Although Monet always said that the beauty of nature inspired his canvases, critics call his
quasi-abstract water lily paintings masterpieces of rhythmic brushwork and illusion.
Throughout his water lily series, Monet focuses on only one small portion of the pond at
Giverny, eliminating any reference to solid land. The flowers blend into the water, while the
reflections of sky and trees seem almost as tangible as the water lilies themselves. Monet has
created a complex level of illusion by creating a two-dimensional painting of a two-dimensional
surface (water) that reflects a three-dimensional world. Although many of his works were painted
entirely en plein air, his late large canvases of the water lily series were created in a studio built
especially for this purpose in the garden of Giverny.
The notion that Monet spent his last few years at Giverny peacefully painting his beloved
garden is a myth. In fact, Monet was so incredibly ambitious and obsessive about his water
lily series that he is known to have periodically burned or slashed canvases in fits of frustration
How would you describe this work to someone who is not here today?
Describe the brushstrokes and how the paint is applied. Do the brushstrokes imply that the subject was carefully considered or quickly captured? Explain your reasoning.
Look closely at the composition. How does the artist divide the space?
The artist was fascinated with light and atmosphere. How is light captured in this work of art? How would you describe the light? Is it warm or stark?
What type of mood does the artist create? How does the use of cool, blue tones add to this mood?
How would the mood of this work change if it were painted in warm, earthy colors?
How does the artist use color and brushstrokes to depict an immediate impression of light and atmosphere and the sensation of pleasure that it brings?
The artist’s contemplation of natural beauty and his desire to capture the essence of nature on canvas led him to a completely new style of painting that would eventually be known as Impressionism. How does this work embody the style of Impressionism?
This artist was one of the first artists to paint en plein air (outdoors). How do you think the direct study of nature might affect his depiction of the Water Lilies?
The artist often painted the same view in nature under different conditions of light and season. For the Water Lilies series, Monet painted about 250 versions. In your opinion, why do you think the artist would chose to paint the same scene over and over?
The artist attempted to capture the transitory effects of light. Do you think he successfully achieved this goal? Why or why not?
The artist said, “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment, but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.” How does this quote apply to the painting?
At the time this was made, critics scorned the work of Monet and other Impressionists as being messy and unclear. What role do artists have in introducing new ideas?
• Imagine sitting on the bank of Monet’s pond. What plants do you see? How does the artist portray those plants through his choice of color, texture, and brush strokes?
• What is reflected in Monet’s pond? (trees, sunlight, clouds)
• List parts of the environment, depicted in the paintings, that need water and/or sunlight to survive? How do those plants get water and sunlight? What process is involved? (photosynthesis)
• Collect leaves from school grounds. Create a leaf rubbing and label parts used in photosynthesis.
Subject Matter Connection
Students can develop perseverance when challenged with extensive problems. It is important for them to know that it is okay to have to work and rework problems in order to come to the best possible solution for themselves. The desire to rework ideas and the openness to a range of solutions are all part of the investigative scientific experience. Developing possible scenarios that could occur in the environment require students to rework their ideas as they formulate reasonable explanations.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider