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On the water's surface, borne by the powerful palettes of their leaves, the motionless water lilies await the fulfillment of destinies, no beginning, no end: we have but to gather the vision in its moment. . . . G. Clemenceau1(p356)
Claude Monet (1840-1926). Waterlilies: Green Reflections. Detail of left side, room 1, east wall, Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, France. Copyright Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource NY.
CLAUDE MONET'S (1840-1926) final masterpiece, Le cycle des Nymphéas, was a gift to the French nation to celebrate France's victory in the First World War. Housed at the Musée national de l'Organgerie des Tuileries in Paris, there are a series of 22 water landscapes in 2 adjacent rooms. The paintings of water lilies, weeping willows, and the reflections of light onto the surface of the water are a final and permanent record of 25 years of Monet's observations and reflections in his water lily garden at Giverny, his home outside Paris. The water garden, Monet said, was a way to experience as in microcosm the instability of the universe that transforms itself at every moment before our eyes; he said he tried to stop the universe with the blue dome of heaven reflected in its shadows. The paintings are
carried along the walls [of the Organgerie, producing] the illusion of an endless whole, a wave without horizon and without shore; nerves strained by work would relax in its presence, following the reposing example of its stagnant waters, and for him who would live in it, this room would offer an asylum of peaceful meditation in the midst of a flowering aquarium. . . .2
During the First World War, Claude Monet had been surrounded by its tragedy, seeing the wounded pass on the road outside his home daily. In the midst of this tragedy, Monet sought to express his patriotism by continuing to paint to maintain the standard of French culture despite the barbarity of war. During the war years, he built a large new studio that allowed him to paint year round—outside in summer and inside in winter. The large canvases were placed on rolling easels so that he could arrange them in a circle, surrounding the viewer and allowing him to see them as they would be in their final placement. When victory came, in 1918, he offered 2 panels of Green Reflections as a memorial to the French people through his friend, the French statesman Georges Clemenceau. Throughout the years, the size of the gift grew to 22 panels.
He struggled, battling old age and experiencing the death of family members and close friends, and he was often depressed; yet, he completed this final offering. But the greatest impediment was his declining vision. The man who Cézanne had described as, "only an eye, but what an eye," was slowly going blind. During a visit to Venice, Italy, in 1908, he became aware of cataracts. He then felt a feverish compulsion to paint his gardens before his sight failed. When he allowed his vision to be tested and bilateral cataracts were confirmed, he refused an operation, fearing it would further affect his color vision. He finally relented when he was legally blind, and in 1923, at age 83 years, had cataract surgery on his right eye. The time of recovery was difficult, requiring that he lie in a dark room with his head held in position with sandbags for 10 days. An attendant or family member stayed with him constantly because such sensory deprivation was a risk for delirium.
The only specific cause proposed for his cataracts was myotonic dystrophy (DM), which was diagnosed in 2 of Monet's great grandnephews and one great-grandniece, leading to speculation about Monet because DM may occur with isolated cataracts.3 An autosomal dominant disorder thought to involve a pathogenic RNA message, DM is caused by expansion of a CTG repeat in the DMPK gene on chromosome 19; it shows anticipation, worsening from one generation to the next.4 In DM, fine polychromatic granules (usually red and green) are followed by subcapsular stellate lens opacities that can be detected with the naked eye. Monet was examined by many ophthalmologists, and there is no mention of such findings; his course is more consistent with the more age-related nuclear sclerotic cataracts. After his surgery, Monet continued to see a yellow/brown world with his unoperated left eye, the typical yellowing effect of a cataract, and initially, a bluish world in the right eye that was operated on.5(pp175-177) Occlusion of his left eye and corrective lenses restored his vision sufficiently, allowing him to complete his Grand Decorations at 86 years of age.
The noted linguistic philosopher Wittgenstein wrote:
If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration, but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits."6
At the end of this life, Monet sought to illustrate timelessness, asking the viewer to suspend judgment, observe deeply, and with unfettered perception, harmoniously link emotion and cognition, feeling and knowing.
Harris JC. Waterlilies: Green Reflections. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60(2):120. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.60.2.120
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