Given Impressionism’s longstanding popularity, it is hard to imagine that Claude Monet’s late work was once so out of fashion that the final iteration of his most well-known series, Water Lilies (Nymphéas), spent several years stashed in a warehouse. The water lilies of the gardens at Monet’s home in Giverny inspired no fewer than 250 paintings, some of which can be seen in “The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet,” an exhibition that combines Water Lilies with about twenty works of the New York School of American abstract art influenced by Monet. The exhibition is hosted in the Water Lilies’ original home in Paris’s Musée de l’Orangerie: in 1927, the twenty-two panels of Water Lilies were posthumously installed in two specially designed oval-shaped rooms. At the time of their unveiling, the critics were harsh. The Italian art historian Lionello Venturi, voicing a common judgment on these radical late works, denounced them as “the greatest artistic error committed by Monet.” The more analytical Post-Impressionism of Cézanne having supplanted airy Impressionism as primary inspiration of the avant-garde, Monet’s atmospheric Water Lilies had all the looks of an aesthetic dead end.
It was only some two decades later that Monet began to reclaim his pedestal. The Orangerie’s Water Lilies sat out the rest of the inter-war era in obscurity and were placed in storage after an errant shell during the liberation of Paris damaged their display rooms in 1944. But as early as 1948 Clement Greenberg had begun to notice the influence of Monet in the works of such American artists as Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey, who were drawn to the Frenchman’s motifs of repetition and his “polyphonic” approach to natural elements. Greenberg would later incorporate these formal qualities as seminal elements of what he called “American-Type Painting.”
Monet’s final works thus bridged not merely the evolution of European artistic style, but the Atlantic itself, in what was arguably the last hurrah of European influence on American art.
By the time of their next public viewing in 1952, the critic André Masson (who had spent the war in exile in New York) was calling the Orangerie’s Water Lilies room “the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” In a 1955 ARTnews essay “Subject: What, How, or Who,” Elaine de Kooning claimed that “while the impressionists tried to master the optical effects of nature, their followers [American abstract expressionists] were interested in the optical effects of spiritual states, giving an old style to a new subject.” An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that same year gave the New York artists direct access to Monet’s final panels. His final works thus bridged not merely the evolution of European artistic style, but the Atlantic itself, in what was arguably the last hurrah of European influence on American art.
The exhibition ends in the museum’s ground-floor vestibule, which is exclusively dedicated to the works of Ellsworth Kelly, who died in 2015 and remained under Monet’s spell until the end. Centered on his Tableau Vert (1952), the works hypnotically undulate greens and blues in shades that resemble underwater vegetation. The display also includes a series of drawings executed in 1968 that grasp at the essential form of the lily pads themselves. Kelly, who viewed Monet’s panels in Zurich in 1952 and immediately wrote Monet’s heirs with a (happily successful) request to visit Giverny, remembered nearly a half-century later that they “had a great influence on me, and, though my work does not resemble his, I believe that I want its spirit to be the same.”Splayed through the Orangerie’s subterranean rooms and a vestibule that abuts the original oval-shaped galleries, the results are impressive indeed. The New York School’s Barnett Newman, Clifford Still, and Mark Rothko are represented with powerful canvases of large, monochromatic forms. Pollock followed by eliminating the suggestion of form altogether and, with his signature dripping technique, indulged in what Greenberg perhaps too generously described as a “vaporous dust of interfused lights” that reminded him of Monet’s late style. Willem de Kooning’s Villa Borghese (1960) reduced the classic Italian residence to its warm essential colors, delivered in deliberately broad strokes that hark back to Monet more than to any other predecessor. In the work of Joan Mitchell, who eventually bought a house and settled down near Giverny, form as well as place falls by the wayside in her Untitled (1964). The repetitive geometry of Sam Francis’s blocked-in forms, evident in his 1958–59 Round the World, recalls a similar rhythm in the reiterated ovals of Monet’s lilies.