This story originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine.
As the sun rose over Giverny, France, a gardener paddled a small boat out into Claude Monet’s backyard pond. Then, he began gently submerging lily pads into the water one by one, washing away any dust that had accumulated overnight. Monet watched from the bank, his palette in hand. He was ready to begin the day’s work, but first, as always, he insisted that the lilies be properly dusted.
Monet was captivated by his pond: the distorted reflections on the surface, the swirling weeds below, the way the light played on it all. He hadn’t always paid it so much attention. At first, he said, “I grew [water lilies] without thinking of painting them … then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond. I took up my palette.”
Now in his mid-70s, the renowned painter had already been attempting to capture the scene for more than a decade when he struck upon an idea in 1914: giant, wall-sized paintings that would fill an entire room, giving “the illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.” But making his vision a reality would be a race against time. The artist was going blind.
From a young age, Oscar-Claude Monet enjoyed prodding authority with art. In school, he doodled caricatures of his teachers. By the time he was 15, he was charging commercial rates for cartoons lampooning local bankers and politicians. He received little encouragement from his parents—he was supposed to join the family grocery business. So to get feedback, he’d linger outside a local shop that displayed his drawings in the front window, eavesdropping on what customers had to say.
In 1861, the young man made a seven-year commitment to join the military, but shortly into his second year, he contracted typhoid. His aunt agreed to pay his way out of the army, with a catch: He had to attend art school. Monet enrolled in art classes and quickly came to resent the French art establishment, the Académie.
The Académie was uncompromisingly stodgy. Paintings were supposed to look as smooth as exquisitely polished Roman statues. Scenes had to show classical myths and histories. In short, paintings had to follow a formula.
Monet found the whole system antiquated. “I was born undisciplined. Never, even as a child, could I be made to obey a set rule,” he wrote. Why should he copy the Old Masters at the Louvre when modern life was happening outside? He rebelled, ditching art school for painting sessions in the country.
But he was torn between his renegade impulses and his desire for approval. The Académie was France’s artistic gatekeeper, and without its blessing, he’d struggle to make a living as an artist. He regularly submitted works to the Salon de Paris, the Académie’s annual art exhibition, but they were rarely accepted. By 1868, he was penniless and depressed, with a girlfriend and a young child to support. He asked his father for money but was rejected. At his wit’s end, he jumped off a bridge spanning the river Seine.
Monet came to his senses the moment he hit the water, and he hauled himself to shore. Soon, he found company in the misery of other artists chafing under the Académie: Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Edgar Degas. Their styles were similar—bright colors and fudged details—but ire for the Académie truly brought them together. Every afternoon, they gathered at the Café Guerbois. Manet charmed with his manners, Degas offended with his waspish tongue, Pissarro tried to convert them all to socialism, and Cézanne glowered in the corner, his pants held up with a piece of old string. Monet hit them up for loans.
They talked about organizing something that would compete with the Académie’s snooty salon. After endless discussions, in the spring of 1874, the group—dubbing itself The Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.—opened a monthlong exhibition. Thirty artists showcased 165 works of new art, many of which had been rejected by the Salon de Paris.
Parisians who attended the show soon realized why. The canvases looked unfinished. The colors were all wrong. The models were ugly. Critic Jules Claretie moaned that the artists had “declared war on beauty.” People marched to the door and demanded their money back. One critic cleaned his glasses, certain he wasn’t seeing the art clearly.
The press gleefully ridiculed the work by fixating on a title Monet carelessly gave one seascape—“Impression: Sunrise.” Critic Louis Leroy mocked them by calling them impressionists, and the name stuck. Shortly after, the artists gathered at their favorite café to nurse their wounds: Nobody wanted to buy their paintings. When the exhibit closed a month later, Monet had earned only 200 francs—what would be about $800 today. All the while, society muttered that the impressionists must be blind.
The show was a financial failure, but it made waves. “For the first time, Paris had witnessed a large-scale independent exhibition of avant-garde art mounted as a direct challenge to the salon,” writes Paul Tucker in the journal Art History. Over the next 12 years, the group held seven more exhibitions, but Monet had trouble selling. He grew so despondent that his colleague Manet conspired to anonymously buy 10 to 20 of his paintings, just to lift his spirits.
But as France embraced the Industrial Revolution, critics began to appreciate the Impressionists, who captured everyday scenes that modern Parisians recognized. In 1877, Monet convinced the managers of the Saint-Lazare train station to clear the platforms, cram the engines with coal, and pump billows of steam into the vast train shed so he could paint it. Novelist and critic Émile Zola celebrated the work, declaring, “This is the painting of today; modern scenes beautiful in their scope. Our artists must find the poetry of railway stations, as our fathers found the poetry of forests and rivers.”
By the mid-1880s, Monet’s fortunes reversed. His art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, had been championing Impressionism for years, and in 1886, he brought 289 artworks to the United States for an exhibition. American art lovers didn’t care about the French Académie’s rules. “The American public does not laugh,” Durand-Ruel said. “It buys!” The show’s success catapulted Impressionism into the limelight. In the late 1870s, Monet had peddled canvases for 25 francs each; by the 1890s, he was asking 15,000.
People fawned over Monet’s style, which reflected his fascination with light. The artist insisted he painted only what he saw—not just a pond or landscape, but the quicksilver experience of a pond or landscape, something that could never be duplicated. This was a fundamental leap from the imitation-obsessed Académie. When a young painter showed Monet an obvious pastiche of his work, Monet said, “Do you really see nature like that? Impossible, my dear friend; that is how I see it.”
Having achieved success, Monet and his girlfriend, Alice, moved to the village of Giverny in 1883, where he focused on painting and plants. Their estate came with a traditional French garden, and over the years the couple turned it into a living work of art. Every planting decision was weighed for its artistic impact: red and orange poppies, for example, were placed in the west to best capture the rays of the setting sun. Eventually the garden required six full-time employees to maintain.
But Monet’s idyllic country life was unsettled in 1908, when he noticed something wrong with his eyesight. He was petrified. He’d seen colleagues lose their livelihood from eye disorders: Edgar Degas suffered from a retinal disease, and eventually gave up on making art. Mary Cassatt had cataracts, and two failed surgeries ended her career. Afraid he was next, Monet avoided treating the problem. He began a race against the clock and started working on his backyard “Water Lilies.”
With each passing month, Monet’s vision became cloudier. (He was, in fact, suffering from cataracts.) “Reds looked muddy to me, pinks insipid, and the intermediate or lower notes in the color scale escaped me,” he said. Soon he couldn’t see colors at all and relied on the labels on paint tubes, memorizing where he put the colors on his palette. He painted the giant pond scene the best he could, but it just wasn’t the same. By the 1920s, his “Water Lilies” were muddy brown, with flashes of red and streaks of acid green. “A waste of effort,” he said. “I slashed all my pictures with my penknife.”
Cataract surgery requires doctors to remove the lens of each eye. In the 1920s, the recovery was slow and agonizing, and infections were common. So was failure. But, still a renegade at heart, Monet was determined to fight. “As long as my paint tubes and brushes are not mixed up … I will paint almost blind, as Beethoven composed completely deaf,” he wrote in 1921 to his friend Marcel Pays.
By the time Monet finally consented to treatment in January 1923, he could hardly see. But after two surgeries, he was painting again. His color perception was still distorted: he complained of seeing mostly in blue. He wore yellow-tinted glasses to correct for this, and though his color perception would eventually return to normal, the few canvases that survive from this period are as blue and purple as his presurgery paintings are red and orange. The magnum opus he was working on, which he called his Grandes Décorations, would prove revolutionary nonetheless. Unlike traditional landscape paintings, the scenes lack both a horizon and an anchor to the land. All you see is the surface of the pond water. The paintings are humongous, the size of a small pond themselves. They force the viewer to experience the world Monet’s way—all perception.
Monet intended Les Grandes Décorations to be a gift to the French people, but when the eight massive canvases were unveiled in 1927, one year after Monet died, the public response was tepid. After three decades as the country’s artistic poster boy, the once radical artist seemed too mainstream. (Plus, they had a big price tag for a gift: Building a space to hold the works at the Musée de l’Orangerie cost the government millions.)
But by the 1940s and ’50s, Monet began to regain his stature as an artistic giant. Critics found new relevance in his work as Abstract Expressionism swept the art world: Monet’s giant and murky flat planes of color made him the movement’s rebellious forefather. When the Museum of Modern Art bought its first “Water Lilies,” it said it was “for the young abstract painters of our mid-century.”
Today, he’s nothing short of an icon: His work is instantly recognizable from Tokyo to Tulsa. Because major exhibits of his work in the 1990s coincided with the rise of museum merchandising, his images abound on everything from refrigerator magnets to switch plates, explaining his popularity in college dorms and doctor’s offices. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit his gardens in Giverny.
But they all see his water lilies differently from Monet, not just because of his eyesight, but because Monet wasn’t painting objects—he was painting the way light enveloped those objects. To him, the pond wasn’t just a pond, but a mirror that captured an often forgotten truth: that a person’s perspective is fleeting, and what you see is not nearly as important as how you see it. As Paul Cézanne said of his friend, “He is only an eye. But what an eye!”