In observing nature the European landscape painter appeared to have forgotten the real colour of things; he scarcely saw more than light and shade. . . . The Japanese did not see nature swathed in mourning . . . it appeared to them as coloured and full of light. . . . Among our landscape painters Claude Monet was the first to have the boldness to go as far as the Japanese in the use of colour.—Théodore Duret, 18801(p2)
Look closely at this flower with its petals turned by the wind; is it not Truth itself? . . . And here, near this Hokusai woman, look at this bathing scene: look at the bodies, can you not feel their firmness. . . . These people have taught us a different way of composing, no doubt about it.—Monet, at age 80 years, to Edward, the Duc de Trévise1,2(p340)
Throughout his life, Claude Monet (1840-1926) retained his enthusiasm for the Japanese art that had first inspired him and his fellow artists in the 1860s. He displayed his precious framed Japanese prints (he had more than 230) in the yellow dining room and up the stairs at his home in Giverny, France. In 1920 the Duc de Trévise observed that Monet, despite his failing vision,3,4 was still lyrically describing the impact of Japanese ukiyo-e colored woodblock prints on his work, calling his attention (epigraph) to Katsushika Hokusai's Pink and Red Peonies Blown to the Left in a Breeze and a Butterfly. Drawn particularly to the work of Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), he diligently studied their style, coloration, brush strokes, and subject matter as he developed his own.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), French. The Water-Lily Pond—Symphony in Green, 1899. Oil on canvas, 89 × 93.5 cm (34¾ × 36½ in). © 2007 Musée d’Orsay (http://www.musee-orsay.fr/), Paris, France, Lauros/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library. Special thanks to ophthalmologist James Ravin, MD, for his advice on the accompanying commentary.
Japanese works of art gained worldwide attention only after Japan's self-enforced isolation during the Edo period (1603-1868) was ended by US intervention in 1853 by American Commodore Matthew Perry, who compelled the opening of Japanese markets to the West. The Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867 included a major display of colored ukiyo-e prints that captured the imaginations of French artists. The Japanese word ukiyo originally referred to the materialistic, medieval Buddhist world of attachments (samsara), that endless round of birth, decay, and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release through enlightenment. In the Edo period, the meaning of ukiyo was turned upside down; the Japanese character for floating was substituted for the one referring to suffering (both were pronounced the same). Now uki (floating) yo (world) e (pictures) embraced transient pleasure, focusing on entertainment (art, theater, geisha). Ukiyo-e artists embraced the life the Buddhists warned against, short, unpredictable, and fleeting, like a dream. Instead they celebrated, rather than renounced, the immediate pleasures of the moment.
Hokusai extended ukiyo-e to landscape paintings and is best known for his series 36 Views of Mount Fuji (Fuji-san). He painted it from many perspectives, in different seasons, in different weather conditions, and at different times of day. Monet's familiarity with the Fuji-san series (he owned 9 prints) may have led him to paint his series of haystacks, poplars, faces of the Rouen cathedral, and even water lilies and the Japanese bridge in his water garden under different lighting conditions.
The Water-Lily Pond—Symphony in Green (1899) (cover and thumbnail) is reminiscent of Hiroshige's drum bridge in his Inside Kameido Tenjin Shrine (1856), but Monet's colors are more striking with water lilies in the foreground and the bridge framed by long vertical willow fronds and their reflections in the water that “penetrate the entire surface and are woven in and out of the horizontal plates of lily pads as if to lock every detail in stillness.”5(p238)
In 1908 cataracts were diagnosed in both of Monet's eyes, and they worsened over the ensuing years until he was legally blind.3,4 Yet despite his cataracts, he continued to paint. He said that he knew colors only by the names on the tubes and their location on his palette. At age 83 years Monet had cataract surgery in his right eye. By that time, he had only light perception in that eye and 10% vision (20/200) in his left eye.4 Following surgery when the cataract was removed, he developed cyanopsia, seeing everything as blue in his right eye while still dimly seeing brown yellow in his left, unoperated eye. When the lens in his right eye, which had been acting as a dense yellow-brown filter, was gone, short-wavelength colors could come through, especially the violets and blues. Monet was overwhelmed by the change in color perception and psychologically distressed, fearing that he would never see colors properly again. The second thumbnail, The Japanese Bridge at Giverny (1918-1924), shows distortions in coloration and acuity resulting from his visual difficulties.4 Eventually a new ophthalmologist, Jacques Mawas, MD, prescribed yellow-green tinted lenses that helped solve these visual problems.3 Still Monet struggled with depression and psychological problems linked to altered color perception for more than a year before settling back to work. In the right eye, his near vision was now 20/30 and his distance vision was 20/50 to 20/70. With new lenses for his right eye and the occlusion of his left eye, he regained his optimism and completed his water lilies paintings for the French people; they are now housed in the Musée de l’Orangerie.6
Claude Monet (1840-1926), French. The Japanese Bridge at Giverny, 1918-1924. Oil on canvas, 89 × 100 cm (35⅛ × 39⅛ in). © 2007 Musée Marmottan (http://www.marmottan.com/), Paris, France, Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.
Monet wrote to a friend on July 17, 1925, that his vision was totally ameliorated and he was working again “with unequaled joy. . . . I am content with what I do, and if the new glasses are even better, then my only wish will be to live to a hundred.”5(p285) Ten days later he wrote to his physician: “I am happy to inform you that finally I have recovered my true vision. . . . I am happily seeing everything again and I am working with ardor.”3(p399)
In The Water-Lily Pond—Symphony in Green, Monet brings new perspective to the meaning of ukiyo; for him it is neither a medieval Buddhist reminder of suffering and the ultimate futility of attachment to the cycle of birth, decay, and rebirth, nor a celebration of fleeting pleasures, but a calm meditation on the inner joy that arises from contemplating nature deeply, that sense of stillness that makes transcendence possible.
C Monet and Japan. Canberra, Australia National Gallery of Australia2001;
CFed Monet, A Retrospective. New York, NY Hugh Lauter Levin Associates1985;
MF Ophthalmology and art: simulation of Monet's cataracts and Degas' retinal disease. Arch Ophthalmol
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