Under a Monet Painting, Restorers Find New Water Lilies
THE HAGUE — The pioneering French Impressionist Claude Monet spent the final decades of his life obsessed with his gardens in Giverny, France, painting hundreds of images of water lilies and Japanese footbridges there.
In 1918, he announced to the French state that he would donate some of those images for a major installation that he called his “Grandes Décorations,” consisting of many continuous panels of water lily paintings, and, above them, a series of canvases showing garlands of wisteria, as a decorative crown. The idea was to create, in his words, “the illusion of an endless whole.”
He wanted to have a museum in Paris dedicated to this final masterpiece, but the French state decided to show them in the Orangerie, a building in the Tuileries gardens which, at the time, was a multipurpose hall for everything from art exhibitions to dog shows.
The wisteria paintings couldn’t fit in this new space, and were left behind in Monet’s studio with hundreds of other paintings he made in preparation for the “Grandes Decorations.” It would be decades before these late works would be recognized as perhaps his most important contribution to art history. Now, they are Monet’s most prized paintings.
Only eight of the wisteria paintings are known to exist, and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague owns one of them. Recently, the museum took the painting off the wall for the first time since it bought it in 1961, to prepare it for a Monet exhibition planned for the fall.
Ruth Hoppe, the modern art conservator for the museum, noticed that the painting had been retouched to cover up tiny holes in it. On closer inspection, she found that there were shards of glass wedged into the canvas.
Ms. Hoppe decided to do a more extensive investigation. She X-rayed the work, and discovered something extraordinary: Underneath the “Wisteria” was another painting — of water lilies.
“For us it was a big surprise,” said Frouke van Dijke, a curator of 19th-century art at the Gemeentemuseum, “especially because all the focus is always on the water lilies, so no one really cares about the wisteria.”
“There are not many stories about finding water lilies behind another painting by Monet,” she said. “That could mean that this painting was kind of an experiment. Otherwise, you would begin with a clean slate.”
Ms. Hoppe said she had a theory that the painting underneath the wisteria might be the final water lily Monet painted.
“There is no obvious reason why he would reuse a canvas,” Ms. Hoppe said in an interview at the Gemeentemuseum, pointing out that Monet was wealthy at the end of his life, and had hundreds of yards of blank canvas in his studio that he could have used.
“The most logical reason for me was that he wanted to try something new, and he wasn’t sure yet where it would end,” she added. “To my eye, this is a bridge between the water lilies and the wisteria.”
Marianne Mathieu, the head curator at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which owns one of the largest collections of Monet’s works, said she agreed that the painting underneath was a water lily work, but wasn’t so sure that it would have been the final one.
“Who knows?” Ms. Mathieu said in a telephone interview. Monet may have realized that he could use the green background of the old painting as part of the new wisteria painting, saving himself some time, she said.
It’s impossible to know the exact sequence of events that led to Monet using the canvas again, Ms. Mathieu added, because, “No one saw them but a few friends.”
“He didn’t sign them or date them, he didn’t sell them, but for a few exceptions,” she said.
Monet worked up until his death in 1926 at age 86. When the “Grandes Decorations” were finally presented to the French state in 1927, the reception was poor. Some critics attributed his blue-green blurs of color and light to the painter’s failing eyesight.
So, back they went to Monet’s studio, where they collected dust. The glass shards in the wisteria, Ms. Hoppe said, might have been the result of the Allied bombardment of Giverny in World War II, which damaged other paintings in the studio, according to a 1957 report by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (MoMA’s “Water Lilies” triptych suffered “cuts in the canvas made by falling glass and metal fragments,” according to the report.)
This is partially substantiated by an account from the American painter Ellsworth Kelly, who in 1952 made a pilgrimage to Monet’s studio and found works still on the easel and stacked against walls, broken glass, and birds flying around indoors.
It was during this time that Monet’s late paintings were rediscovered. The French surrealist André Masson described the Orangerie display as “the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism,” and later the American critic Clement Greenberg wrote that the “Water Lilies” were the precursor to Abstract Expressionism.
Under the direction of Alfred J. Barr, MoMA bought a series of water lilies in 1955 — the first American institution to do so — and the triptych in 1958. After that the rest of Monet’s late paintings sold very quickly. Now many modern art museums own at least one.
The wisteria works remain lesser cousins, so having a water lily contained within the Gemeentemuseum’s painting may change the perception of the work in at least one way, Ms. Hoppe said.
“From an art historical sense,” she said, “it makes them more valuable.”