Monet's Water Lilies: How to get the Most out of Impressionist Paintings

One of Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ This one is at The Portland Art Museum.
One of Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ This one is at The Portland Art Museum.

One of the many things I like about living here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is the abundance of culture. For instance, I can see one of Monet’s famous series of paintings, Water Lilies , any day of the week by visiting Portland Art Museum. You can also see an early Van Gogh, a Picasso sculpture, a Man Ray sculpture, and much more among an impressive list of artists from virtually every era.

"Head of a Woman, Fernande" ~ 1909 by Pablo Picasso ~ Portland Art Museum
"Head of a Woman, Fernande" ~ 1909 by Pablo Picasso ~ Portland Art Museum
"Black Oxen" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1884 ~ Portland Art Museum
"Black Oxen" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1884 ~ Portland Art Museum
"Head of Saint John The Baptist" ~ 1894-1900 by James Vibert ~ Portland Art Museum
"Head of Saint John The Baptist" ~ 1894-1900 by James Vibert ~ Portland Art Museum
"Cadeau" by Man Ray, 1921/1974 ~ Portland Art Museum
"Cadeau" by Man Ray, 1921/1974 ~ Portland Art Museum
Alexander Caulder Mobile ~ Portland Art Museum
Alexander Caulder Mobile ~ Portland Art Museum

And there is nothing like seeing art, up close and personally, most especially Impressionist Art.

My first look at the Portland Museum’s Water Lilies by Claude Monet took my breath away. I felt I was in the presence of Monsieur Monet himself. So I spent a lot of time with this large painting, and realized that there was one and only one single distance in which the entire painting coalesced.

Monet's Water Lilies at what I call the "Coalescent Distance" ~ When the painting comes together as the artist intended.
Monet's Water Lilies at what I call the "Coalescent Distance" ~ When the painting comes together as the artist intended.
As you get closer, the brush strokes begin to stand out.
As you get closer, the brush strokes begin to stand out.
At this distance it doesn't even look like a pond with water lilies.
At this distance it doesn't even look like a pond with water lilies.
Close up detail of "Water Lilies"
Close up detail of "Water Lilies"
An extreme closeup detail of "Water Lilies"
An extreme closeup detail of "Water Lilies"

If you backed further away you still had a beautiful painting, but you did not have the absolute perfection that the artist intended. If you got closer, you’d see that the beautiful lilies are actually coarse -- almost brutal -- paint strokes, which look random, as if they collided with the canvas the way an asteroid occasionally collides with Earth.

That is the magic of Impressionism.

There is an engineering to the work of impressionist artists, an exquisite master plan. Yet the subject matter is ephemeral: an instant of light and how that instant of light plays over the objects the artist is painting, in this case, water lilies. It is firmly designed to look momentary. And in pursuit of that result, an impressionist painting looks different from every perspective, as if that light that is painted onto the canvas is playing over the painting with every step you take.

Impressionism is a very popular form of painting because it is either beautiful and appealing, and therefore, easy to take, or, as complicated as cubism, depending on how long or short, deep or shallow, a look you want to take.

Monet painted almost 250 water lilies and though most of them are studies of the pond in his own garden, they all look very different from each other.

Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ Chicago Art Institute
Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ Chicago Art Institute
Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ Chichu Art Museum, Tokyo
Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ Chichu Art Museum, Tokyo
Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ National Gallery, London
Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ National Gallery, London

The use of light and the practice of capturing the lilies at different times of the day and different times of the year, gives this single subject an almost miraculous diversity, and also supports the idea that Impressionism is about capturing a fraction of a moment in time.

The next time you have the privilege of seeing a work of Impressionist painting, take a lot of time and look from all different perspectives, and watch for that "coalescent distance."

Claude Monet (1899)
Claude Monet (1899)

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Comments 5 comments

libby1970 profile image

libby1970 4 years ago from KY

Very beautiful. I love how artist can use the illusion of light to bring a painting to life! It's amazing! Awesome hub.


KaisMom profile image

KaisMom 4 years ago from Keizer, Oregon Author

Thanks libby. I appreciate the comment. It really took my breath away to see that painting for the first time. Thanks again!


Eloise 23 months ago

Full of salient points. Don't stop beivnlieg or writing!


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