How To Read Paintings: Monet’s Water Lilies

Amorphous and puzzling paintings that gain more meaning by looking

Christopher P Jones
5 min readJun 9, 2019

Water Lily Pond (1917–19) by Claude Monet. Image source Wiki Art

When standing in front of a water lily painting by Claude Monet, you have the sense that a moment of magic is about to take place. Here is a painting that is many feet wide and six feet high, an expanse of misty, vibrating colour that fills your field of vision.

Somewhere in the meeting place between your eyes and the picture surface, a discovery is taking place. The magic of these pictures — and why they are so beguiling too — is that the encounter unfolds, repeats, returns and spirals like a piece of music.

Monet produced around 250 paintings based on the water lilies that were growing on the pond at his home in Giverny, a town in northern France where the artist lived for the last 40 years of his life.

Haystacks at Giverny, the Evening Sun (1888) by Claude Monet. Image source Wiki Art

Monet had long appreciated the value of working in ‘series’. His practice of painting the same subject again and again, had yielded one of the greatest achievements of Impressionist art: that the fleeting effects of light and changing weather conditions could be registered as an aesthetic insight. To compare and contrast the series of paintings Monet made of Haystacks, for instance, is to explore the transient nature of light, and to witness how the painted effects might utilise an extraordinary breadth of colour and texture.

The water lily paintings comprise the largest of all of Monet’s series projects. He painted them from around 1897 until his death in 1926. He used his gardens as the subject matter, and the paintings he made there occupied the artist with growing intensity as he aged.

The first point of interest in the water lily works is that there is typically no horizon to the landscape. Nor any sense of scale. We rarely see the pond’s edge. Monet’s vantage point is looking down into the water, whose surface is made up of two principal elements: the reflections of the sky and the water lily plants themselves. The effect of this manner of composition is to offer a swathe of enigmatic reflections broken up with more definite ‘events’ of the…