New York Times
December 2, 2016
Is there anything left to be said about Claude Monet, the celebrated Impressionist who took painting out of the studio and into the breezy, sneezy countryside? He gave us the defining view of French leisure and remains a perpetually bankable subject of museum blockbusters. His images of poplar trees and stacks of wheat, of stone cliffs off the coast of Normandy, of women strolling beneath the shade of their tilted parasols — they suggest that life is inherently pleasurable, a series of languorous afternoons whose only hazard is overexposure to the sun.
Yet Monet was plenty radical, especially in his Grande Décoration, as he referred to his wall-to-wall paintings of water lilies. He began the series in 1914, at the age of 73, setting up his easel beside his pond in Giverny and staying put as World War I flared around him. Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies is an engaging and authoritative portrait of the aged artist and his travails. By 1920, Monet was twice widowed and suffering from cataract-clouded vision. His confidence was at such a low that he frequently destroyed finished paintings. He had been famous for so long that many people assumed he was dead. As the last surviving French Impressionist, he pined for the company of absent friends — Renoir and Cézanne, especially — and felt estranged from a younger generation that considered his work passé beside the razzmatazz of Picasso’s demoiselles.
Les Nymphéas, as his water lilies paintings were officially titled, are among art history’s greatest last acts. Compared with Monet’s earlier paintings, with their direct transcriptions of the countryside, the water lilies dispense with contours and boundaries and veer toward abstraction. They mark the advent of “all-over painting,” a phrase that was coined in New York in the 1950s, when Monet was abruptly rediscovered. Critics who were eager to construct an instant lineage for Jackson Pollock’s then-new drip paintings looked to Monet, who, though trained as a 19th-century realist, helped pioneer the 20th-century belief that vision is fundamentally subjective, a rush of shifting sensations, a stream (or pond?) of consciousness.