Seeking the Present: Monet and Mania

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Claude Monet painted The Water Lily Pond in his famous garden at Giverny which he himself had planted so that the iris and willow trees would cause the reflections he desired to paint. Amazingly, he “created” his paintings first as a gardener then as an artist. He pruned dead water lily blossoms and even trimmed water lily pads. As he planted his flowers, he imagined how the garden would change throughout the day as the light changed. It was this movement of light, form and color that he wanted to capture moment to moment. He would have enjoyed doing this more if he had remained in that moment himself. Instead, he often got caught up in what he felt his paintings “should” look like rather than what flowed from the joy-filled, present moment process of painting.

He was a temperamental painter slashing his paintings with a knife in anger and throwing away many paintings which did not please him. His friends remarked that he often seemed frustrated by the weather and otherwise trying to control nature. He was, in short, obsessed with the outcome of his painting. Perhaps he enjoyed his gardening more than his painting. Maybe he was a right-brained gardener and a left-brained painter. In any case he got caught in the trap of not appreciating the joy of the present moment while painting because he was trapped in the future by focusing on the end product. In the spontaneous process of creation, one is not worried about what the outcome will be. He nevertheless created beautiful “impressions” of his magical garden. Too bad he didn’t enjoy painting it as much as we love seeing its beauty today.

In 1892, Monet rented a room opposite the west front of the Gothic Cathedral at Rouen. He then created twenty paintings of that same facade under different conditions of light. “Monet was not a pious Frenchman. Never had so historically venerable a structure been painted so resolutely in the present tense, or so famous a religious object been treated in so secular a way. In fact, there is still something a trifle disquieting about Monet’s decision to treat Rouen like a poplar, a haystack, or a patch of lawn, thereby implying that consciousness is more important than any religion.”  That’s because it is, of course.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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