One man’s gift. To soothe, to heal, to honour –
Not poppies – waterlilies.
Creating the Centena.
Why Monet? The seed was planted a couple of years ago at the Royal Academy’s Painting the Modern Garden exhibition.
I was stopped in my tracks in the final room not only by a stunning triptych of Monet’s studies of waterlilies – huge canvases that circled the gallery space – but also by the curator’s accompanying text.
“they confirm the artist’s deeply felt need, following the trauma of the war, to restore the world to harmony and balance, to find beauty to counter ugliness, joy to overcome sorrow, life to overcome death.”
When thinking about a subject for my centena, Monet came to mind. I needed to find out more about the artist’s response to the First World War, and the armistice that followed.
I began my research on the Royal Academy’s website, and was delighted to find detailed accompanying information for the exhibition. This gave me the background and context of Monet’s work during the war.
By 1914, Monet had been living at his house in Giverny for some 30 years, and over time had designed and cultivated the garden which inspired much of his work. In this year, he built a bigger studio, allowing him to work on large-scale paintings – his Grandes Décorations.
But 1914 also brought the outbreak of war. Monet could hear the sounds of battle from his garden, but was determined to stay in Giverny. Having lost his eldest son after a long illness, his surviving son and stepson were called up. Hearing little from the front Monet was left in a state of helpless anxiety.
Now an old man, Monet was unable to fight. But he threw himself into the war effort – helping at Giverny hospital, raising money and morale. In his garden he found the closest thing to solace – distracting him from the war and all its horrors. His feelings are expressed in his work: the blue colour palette, waterlilies and the weeping willow.
After the armistice, Monet wrote to George Clemenceau, then Prime Minister of France. He proposed donating 12 huge paintings to the French state “to honour the victory and peace”. They were eventually installed in the Musée de l’Orangerie near the Louvre, where they still are today.
I’ve visited those paintings twice, and had no idea that they were Monet’s response to the war – why would I? They instill a sense of calm, of peace. But that’s the point. This is what Monet wanted for his country and all who he held dear. This was the gift he wanted to give.
This project prompted me to visit Monet’s house and garden in Giverny. Calm, peaceful, despite the crowds. How many visitors know the connection between Monet and the First World War? It’s not advertised. But I think it’s important to know.
Walking around his lily pond, I could imagine this humble genius, armed only with paints when faced with war. When we think of armistice, we think of poppies. Perhaps waterlilies should come to mind as well.
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