Monet's water lilies: How the iconic paintings almost never made it to the canvas

His neighbours tried to stop the artist creating the famous lily pond

Nick Clark
Tuesday 07 July 2015 17:11
Claude Monet’s ‘Nymphéas’ (Waterlilies). The painter’s neighbours thought his lilies could poison their cattle
Claude Monet’s ‘Nymphéas’ (Waterlilies). The painter’s neighbours thought his lilies could poison their cattle

Monet’s paintings of water lilies hang in some of the world’s most prestigious institutions and are among the most expensive artworks in the world.

Yet if the French Impressionist’s neighbours had had their way, the instantly recognisable series of paintings, which have influenced generations of artists, may never have made it to the canvas.

Monet immortalised lilies in the water garden at his house in Giverny, Normandy, in close to 250 oil paintings. Had local farmers successfully blocked his plans to divert the River Epte and create the iconic lily pond, saying the flowers could poison their cattle, the course of art history would have been diverted instead.

A forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is to explore the role of gardens in painting, with Monet among the most prominent artist-gardeners. Among the highlights will be the three large water lily works of the Agapanthus triptych brought together in the UK for the first time.

A 1905 painting from Claude Monet's Water Lilies series sold for million

Tim Marlow, the artistic programmes director of the RA, said it was not just the oil paintings that were important: “His garden at Giverny was the first great art installation of the 20th century.”

Alongside the 120 paintings, a quarter of which are by Monet, the exhibition will display documentation including the artist’s order for the lilies as well as letters written to the Prefect of the Eure, asking for permission to divert the river to create his water garden.

Monet moved to Giverny after noticing it through a train window, renting from 1883 and buying a house seven years later. He lived there until his death in 1926. Today, 500,000 art lovers visit a year, with the garden its principal attraction, though few are aware of his battle to realise his vision.

The village council and locals attempted to block his plans from early 1893, complaining that “aquatic plants might be harmful to the water and alter its quality”.

RA curator Ann Dumas said there was a “real possibility that he would not have been able to carry out his plans”.

One document to go on display will be the letter from his friend Octave Mirbeau, author of Diary of a Chambermaid, after the commissioners originally declined planning permission.

In the missive to the Eure prefect dated 15 July 1893, he wrote: “The pond poses a threat to no one and in no way adversely affects the river. But local farmers have protested with their customary mischief.” He described the protestors as “bad neighbours” and “cantankerous peasants”.

A week later, planning permission was granted for a diversion in the Epte and two foot bridges for the pond.

Monet emerged as a “vanguard artist” with the large canvasses of his garden at Giverny in the following decades, anticipating major artistic movements to come, according to the RA curators.

The RA show Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse opens at the RA in London in January. Others on display will include Paul Klee, Emil Nolde and Wassily Kandinsky, who were keen gardeners themselves.

This is the latest in a series of Monet exhibitions in London at the National Gallery, Tate and the RA. Ms Dumas said: “This was why we didn’t want to make it just a Monet exhibition, which we could have done.”

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