I dipped my brush into my water jar and then swirled it in a patch of vibrant green. I swished it across my canvas, applying a quick base coat. And then I looked up, snapped out of my trance, and remembered where I was. From where I was sitting, I could see a quaint little Japanese bridge. I could hear the stream passing by under the bridge, strewn with lilies. I was in Giverny. I was in Claude Monet’s world.
Two years ago, I did an art course in Paris College of Art over the summer. Titled Painting en Plein Air, the class aimed to make us follow in the footsteps of the Impressionist painters. Consequently, during the third week, we took the TGV train up to Giverny to explore Monet’s house and gardens. The weather was beautiful, so we rented bikes and cycled through the lush, green landscape, feeling as though we were plunging headfirst into one of Monet’s paintings.
However, the most exciting moment during the trip had to be the time when we got to paint near his famous Japanese gardens, the setting for his Water Lilies paintings that are now displayed everywhere in the world (including the PUAM!). After visiting the Musée de l’Orangerie, which has massive displays of the water lilies, I saw how two people can see the same thing and yet produce something totally different on their canvas.
The lilies that I painted in Giverny were part of the entire landscape. In my paintings, I included the bridge in the background the fleeting silhouettes of passing tourists. I viewed the scene as a whole, overwhelmed by the breathtaking scenery and wanting to include every possible little detail.
But in the Oval Room of the Musée de l’Orangerie, Monet’s lilies almost have a life of their own. When the viewer stands in the center of the room, they are faced with nearly one hundred metres of the lilies. They are the heroes of their own painting, painted in isolation and with reverence. They create an “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore”, in the words of Monet himself. Even though my painting showed the whole landscape of Giverny, these paintings truly succeeded in transporting me back.
Now that I’m in Princeton, I’m glad that our art museum has Monet’s Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge (1899) in its permanent collection. I often find myself drifting back to the Impressionist gallery for a glimpse of the work, because it reminds me that I was once there. Looking at the pictures I clicked on my camera is not enough. I need Monet’s paintings to remember the entire landscape, the total experience of being surrounded by the lilies.