Impressionist Claude Monet wasn’t just a painter. At his home in Giverny to the northwest of Paris he created a wonderland of creeping roses, an ocean of nasturtiums, daisies and poppies, and weeping willows hanging elegantly over his waterlily pond. This garden he built over decades and sank much of his fortune into is the subject of more than 30 works on display at the NGV’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition Monet’s Garden. The exhibition lifts the veil on a painter who deftly explored the interaction of light, water and air and brought about a revolutionary change in art history in terms of subject matter and technique. Monet’s Garden is the largest collection of Monets to ever come to Australia at one time – courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet, the world’s premier repository of Monet paintings.
Following a group exhibition in Paris in 1874, a critic famously mocked that Monet’s painting ‘Sunrise: Impression’ for not appearing to be finished and that a new term for his style needed to be coined. Although the comment was intended to be negative, it gave Monet’s style validation and the term Impressionism was born. As NGV curator Sophie Matthiesson notes, “Claude Monet saw the world through radically modern eyes.” He turned his back on historical or anecdotal subject matter, and placed importance on landscapes, everyday life and looking at different lighting and weather conditions. He set out to capture the natural world with intensely beautiful colour blends and short brushstrokes. “As a result, much of 19th century art suddenly looked lifeless. Its cherished values became obsolete overnight,” Matthiesson says.
Monet’s garden gave him an endless source of inspiration for representing nature, life, death, growth and colour. In his ‘Water Lilies 1914-1917’, blue sky and clouds are reflected in the surface of a pond and aquamarine lilypads are floating dreamily on the surface. The painting is Matthiesson’s favourite in the exhibition for the fact it’s in reverse composition and still “makes perfect sense." “We perceive and understand nature in so many more ways than we conventionally depict it – upside down and inside out. Monet was showing us that a century ago.” Monet’s Garden also features two portraits of Monet by Auguste Renoir, and paintings produced by Monet while his vision had begun to deteriorate: an insight into the lesser-known period of Monet’s later life.