Symbol of the Orient and modern science
Waterlilies (Nymphéas) (detail) 1907
oil on canvas
92.1 x 81.2 cm
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
Gift of Mrs Harry C. Hanszen, 1988 (68.31)
Photo:Thomas R. DuBrock
Today the waterlily subject is identified almost exclusively with Monet’s paintings. In the 1880s, however, the waterlily was a powerful emblem of the Symbolist movement. It signified femininity, desire and the occult. The waterlily also represented resurrection, opening afresh each day, unsullied by the muddied waters in which it grew. Its mysteries were dwelt upon by Monet’s friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and the painter Gustave Moreau. In 1897 the writer Maurice Guillemot visited Monet’s water garden and noted the artist’s ‘unusual varieties of aquatic plants, with wide, flat leaves, and disquieting, strangely exotic flowers’. During Guillemot’s visit, Monet spoke of his vision for a decorative scheme that featured the waterlilies: ‘Imagine a circular room, the lower walls covered with paintings a metre high, entirely filled with a plane of water scattered with these plants, transparent screens, sometimes green, sometimes almost mauve’.
The waterlily commonly grew in France in its simple white form. Monet saw new coloured hybrids at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 shown by the Bordeaux botanist Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, and in 1894 ordered three varieties from him. Monet experimented with raising both tropical and Northern Hemisphere waterlilies. He had particular success rearing blue cultivars from South America, white Egyptian types with external pink petals and yellow lilies that blushed to red as they aged. Eventually Monet designated a greenhouse specifically for waterlilies, which his gardeners lifted from his pond late each autumn and replanted in early spring.