Mirrors of water

Nymphéas (1905), de Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Nymphéas (1905), de Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Monet’s reflective mirrors of water, by Soko Phay

Claude Monet, at the end of his long life (…), has addressed the most docile, the most penetrable element – water – which is at the same time transparent, iridescent and reflective. Thanks to water, he has become the painter of what we cannot see. He addresses that invisible spiritual surface that separates light from reflection”, wrote Paul Claudel in his journal on the 8th of July 1927. His musings remind us that Monet regarded water as an art subject in its own right, providing the pretext for a wide variety of atmospheric and light-filled depictions featuring a range of colours, shifting light, and a certain tension between the surface and the depths beneath…all bathed in constantly moving light.

Monet painted hundreds of canvases in which the dormant wave is a recurring motif, from the first piece of work dated 1858 (the foreground featuring a river in the countryside) to the Grandes Décorations de nymphéas (Water lilies) at the Orangery in which the eye is literally immersed in water and all its reflections. Of all his Nymphéas, the series painted in 1908 marked a turning point in his new pictorial research: canvases were round instead of square, the leaves of the water lilies morphed into the reflections of clouds and the countryside, where water could be mistaken for the sky, is practically reversible. The riverbanks have disappeared giving rise to two worlds, one fictitious and full of reflections, the other real, a world of water lilies: two different universes gliding past each other without fusing, like non-Euclidean geometry.

The water garden may never have been as flat, but paradoxically, the space that has opened up to the artist has never been so complex either. An expanse of water without edges or a horizon line. The water lilies become less prevalent than before and appear secondary to the shimmering water. All that remains is the subtle interplay between the water and the sky reflected in it; its glimmering variations of light seem to slip through the foliage as if flitting across the canvas, slipping under the bushes and emerging as darker reflections. The boundaries between the water, earth and sky gradually fade; details become less charged, contrasts less marked, bringing a serenity and softness to the picture. The muted effect amplifies the impact of the monochrome effect, bringing the image back to the surface and making spacial decoding tricky.

Monet achieves a degree of abstraction here, cleverly toying with impressions and pictorial reminiscences. At his exhibition entitled “Water lilies, a series of watery landscapes” at Durand Ruel in 1909, Edgar Degas hit the nail on the head when he said to his artist friend: “All these reflections on water are giving me eye-strain…


Soko Phay is an historian and theorician of art, teaching in the plastic arts department of the University of Paris 8 and at EHESS. She just published Les vertiges du miroir dans l’art contemporain, Les Presses du réel.