With a railway line bisecting his famous garden, Claude Monet could hear the trains carrying troops to battle in World War I, and the front lines were so close that the artist could hear the guns of war. Though the sounds and the times were chaotic, these were the years when the famous impressionist created what is perhaps the most enduring of his works: the serene Water Lilies of Giverny. Eight of the murals are on permanent display at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, and the three paintings known as the Agapanthus triptych have been reunited for the first time in more than 30 years in Monet’s Water Lilies, opening in October at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The three sections are from the collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Simon Kelly, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, curated the exhibit and also wrote the exhibit catalogue, Monet’s Water Lilies: The Agapanthus Triptych. “For me, it’s very exciting to have the triptych reunited,” he says. “The painting from our museum’s collection is amazing, but to see it with the other two panels, as Monet intended it to be viewed, is to see it in a totally different light.”
Monet is believed to have begun painting the Water Lilies triptych around 1915, and Kelly explains that the artist revised the work often. “We know from archival photographs, taken in his studio with the triptych behind him, that Monet revised the paintings several times,” Kelly explains. “Many of those photos are featured in the exhibit, as well as rare footage by director Sacha Guitry of Monet painting in his garden in 1915.” New technology has offered further evidence of Monet’s reworking, he adds. “We X-rayed each of the panels and also took paint cross sections from one of the panels. When you look at the X-ray, you can see the painting as it was before he changed it, by examining the paint layers. That was a particularly interesting discovery—in some places there are eight layers of paint where Monet changed the colors over time.”
The exhibit displays the three panels at a slight angle, echoing the eight-panel display at the Musée de l’Orangerie. “Monet was very interested in the concept of the panorama, of works encircling a room,” Kelly notes. “If you go to l’Orangerie, you will see that those panels actually are glued to the wall, all the way around, enveloping the space. We have angled the panels in this exhibit to mimic that effect.”
In addition to the triptych, Monet’s Water Lilies also will include two oil studies on loan from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris: The Agapanthus, 1914-1917 and Water Lilies, Harmony in Blue, 1914- 1917. “It also will feature the diptych Wisteria Numbers 1 and 2,” says Kelly. “These were originally intended by Monet to be installed in a pavillion in the garden of what is now the Musée Roden. It is most exciting to have the opportunity to have these works available and see how they relate to the exhibition!