"Monet, just an eye, but what an eye!” Cézanne used to say. But it was a sick eye, which almost made the painter blind, at the time when he was working on the Nymphéas or Water Lilies series, the legendary masterpiece of Impressionism which he donated to France in 1918 to celebrate the French victory at the end of the First World War. A fascinating exhibition being held at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris until 15 February, shows, with the aid of eminent ophthalmologists, how Monet (1840-1926) won his fight against cataracts. A dreadful visual, more or less incapacitating, handicap which forced him to change his palette in order to put specific moments on canvas under his visual conditions. The aim of the exhibition “at the crossroads between art history and the most advanced scientific knowledge on the eye and vision”, showcasing some sixty works from the museum’s collection (for which the Institut de France is legatee) or loaned from other institutions or French and foreign collections, is to “help us understand more clearly the real essence of a painter, which gives him his originality, his vision”.
Nymphéas, 1917-1919, Marmottan museum Monet, Paris/ The Bridgeman Art Library.
Claude Monet, who moved to Giverny in 1883, where in a “water garden” straddled by a “Japanese bridge” he grew every variety of water lily then in existence – including the white water lilies or “water moons” which were to inspire his famous Water Lilies series – wrote to his friend Georges Clemenceau, then head of government, following the 11 November 1918 armistice, “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory Day and I am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary. It’s little enough, but it’s the only way I have of taking part in the victory”.
Clemenceau hurried to Giverny where he suggested that Monet hang his Water Lilies in the Orangerie of the Tuileries Gardens, on the banks of the Seine, a particularly suitable place for a painter who had revered nature throughout his life. Monet planned to give France a decorative set of eight huge compositions that he had not yet finished but which would be hung in two elliptical galleries, lit by natural light. These would consist of 22 two-metre high panels covering almost 100 linear metres, depicting a water scene punctuated with water lilies, willow branches and reflections of trees and clouds. The group was to give the visitor “the illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no bank”.
Monet, who had set up a new studio at Giverny, worked constantly to finish his historic gift to France. But from 1912, at the age of 72, he had begun to suffer the effects of a cataract, losing the sight in his right eye. A specialist he consulted diagnosed a bilateral cataract, more pronounced in the right eye than the left, which changed his vision of colours in a kind of fog – a tragedy for this painter who loved light and colour. At first Monet refused to have the operation urged on him by his friend Clemenceau, fearing that the intervention might leave him blind or alter his perception of colour. It was not until 1923, when his left eye became too weak for him to read and write, that he finally agreed to the operation, which proved successful. He did go on to complete his Water Lilies series, to which he devoted the last twenty years of his life, but he never saw his museum, this magical place which the painter André Masson called “the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism” and which opened in May 1927, a few months after his death on 5 December 1926.
The American artist Lilla Cabot Perry, a neighbour and disciple of his who spent ten summers at Giverny, recounts that Monet said that, “he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight, so that he could have begun to paint in this way without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him. The first look at the subject, he stressed, was always the truest, the most faithful”.
In the fascinating catalogue of the exhibition Dr Philippe Lanthony, an ophthalmologist specialising in the pathology of colour vision, explains that “Claude Monet stated that he wanted as new as possible a view of the world. He did not paint a leaf, he said, he painted the green patch that he saw without concerning himself whether it was a leaf or on which tree it was (...). He dissociated from the outset information about the colour from that about shape and spatial situation. Modern neurophysiology research has now shown that this process is exactly the way the visual apparatus works”.
Before the operation, Monet could already no longer see colours with the same intensity (“reds seemed muddy to me”) and he found it difficult to recognise the actual shades of his paint. He recalled that he had begun to put away his tubes of colour very carefully, relying only on “the labels” and “the invariable order” in which he had chosen “to place each colour on his palette”. And he could no longer see blues.
After the operation, he complained of quite the reverse, of seeing the world “too yellow, too blue”. The tinted glasses he wore after the operation – the most moving object on display in the exhibition along with his wooden palette – were prescribed to him to remedy these faults. These were due in fact, explains Dr Anthony, to the fact that “the retina of an eye operated on to remove a cataract takes in a lot more light than the retina of a normal eye” because of the ablation of the crystalline lens that acts as a filter. The tinted lenses are designed to “imitate the colour of the normal crystalline lens”.
“The amazing thing about Monet’s retina,” remarked Georges Clemenceau, not a specialist but a caring friend, “is that at less than a metre away, in the group of colours or shades accumulated by juxtaposition or superimposition into a field of inextricable mixes, he is able to see the representation of the subject equally accurately from up close and from a distance. I know of no other explanation than the state of the painter’s retina which could adapt instantly from one point of view to another ...”. “By looking at the Water Lilies more and more closely each year,” noted art historian René Huyghe, “Monet, as though hypnotised, passes from the sight normally inscribed within his field of vision to a closeness that absorbs him; he leans over the pond, he calls for easels at ground level; and finally he forgets balance, with no longer anything to indicate which way is up, the sky, and down, the water, both mingling intimately, in the same way that Monet and nature ended up becoming absorbed in one another”.
To emphasise this originality of the Water Lilies, the exhibition’s curators have chosen to present these canvases by Monet at “ground level” (not those of the Musée de l’Orangerie of course, as they are permanently fixed in their oval galleries), obliging visitors to look into the water as the painter wanted. This presentation takes away all sense of perspective, a feature which had however been broadly developed in almost all of Monet’s work.
“With the Water Lilies viewed up close and from above,” stresses Prof. Jacques-Louis Binet, permanent secretary at the Académie Nationale de Médecine, “distance is abolished, as is perspective. The surface of the pond becomes flat with no horizon line which is erased from the first canvas. It is a “mirror of water”, with no vertical or horizontal orientation. The gaze is no longer directed (...) Narcissus no longer sees himself in the mirror. He is no longer above; he is within. He is transformed into a water lily”.
The colours also participate in this transformation of space, because Monet’s palette has changed: “no more colour contrast, no more reflection of the brushstrokes. Large, almost, monochrome areas of fluid colours close to one another on the chromatic scale, green or blue, sometimes tinted with violet in which the water of the pond and the reflections of the sky become mixed up, and large fairly dark areas on which the white or yellow, and sometimes red of the flowers or of several water lilies stand out, barely sketched, rather surrounded or encircled but spreading their swirls of light...”
One colourful little detail – throughout his dazzling career as a painter, Claude Monet never once painted a rainbow.