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Writing historical fiction: sometime journal of a New York City novelist

Water lilies and other Monet garden paintings from NYC MOMA exhibit

It took me a long time to get down to the much-loved exhibit of six of Monet’s late garden paintings, created in his 70s and 80s at Giverny. Fortunately, though the one large exhibit room was crowded, one could still spend some time with the paintings which I did.

Two are very large (rectangular, one being a triptych). These are both of the water lilies. The single canvas is largely pale colors, ethereal and delicate and worked on over several years. The triptych is amazing; we drown in the blue and swim to the light reflection of clouds in the center. We fall into it.

The four smaller paintings (though by no means small) use richer, darker colors and almost violent, slashing and swirling strokes. Here is the old man in his studio and his garden; age has not quieted him. This is not mouse pad Monet. A late painting of the famous Japanese bridge is startling. The bridge is almost lost in the intense oranges and rusts and maroons. Gone is any sense of the tranquility which has made him the most loved artist of our time, the sense that all is well and orderly. One thinks of what he had endured then! He had lost his wife Alice, his beloved older son, his beautiful step daughter, and suffered the death and destruction of the First World War. He had lost many colleagues of his youth. He was also in danger of blindness.

In another painting, a wispy African lily plant which he planted at the pond’s edge seems to stretch up and lean sideways with some tremendous inner fierceness.

By his final brush strokes at the age of eighty-six, Claude Monet had been painting nearly seventy years. He had been born into a world where the railroad was new; he lived to see early planes, the telephone, and of course the car which he owned but never drove himself. He went from the poverty of his early years as an artist when he sometimes had no paint or food and was thrown naked from his rooms in the middle of the night because he could not pay. But some people felt he was old school in his last years; the days when impressionism was new were long past.

The MOMA exhibition holds both his tranquility and his rage. His times and losses shaped him and changed him. It was a long road from the boy of twenty who came to Paris in 1860 to become a painter.

The exhibition runs through April 12th. http://www.moma.org.
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