If you’re in and around the St Louis area in Missouri, time is quickly running out for you to appreciate and admire one of the most iconic works in the oeuvre of French Impressionist master Claude Monet. The exhibition, Monet’s Water Lilies, will be running at the St Louis Art Museum in Forest Park, St Louis, until the 22nd of January. It is the result of a recent collaboration between the St Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City and The Museum of Art in Cleveland, and has brought together three separate paintings that comprise Monet’s The Agapanthus Triptych for the first time since 1978.
It is believed that Monet began work on The Agapanthus Triptych around 1915 and that he continued to work on the oil paintings until the time of his death in December of 1926. The background and the historical context in which the works were created are key in understanding how they fit within Monet’s work as a whole, and how they came to be held in the esteem that they are today. For those unfamiliar with the term, a triptych typically consisted of three paintings or wood panels, hinged together and traditionally used as an altarpiece. Given their origins in religious art, triptychs would normally feature biblical imagery or themes, but Monet’s interpretation of the medieval art form was completely secular, featuring a subject that he had an almost religious fervour for – his water lilies.
At the time when Monet first started work on the triptych France was dominated by the activities of war, and even at Monet’s peaceful gardens at Giverny, the impacts of the First World War could still be felt. A railroad that carried troops to battle cut right across the artist’s gardens, and he would have been able to hear the sounds of gunfire even within the confines of his otherwise tranquil studio. As Simon Kelly, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the St Louis Art Museum said, “There’s a striking contrast between the calm, pastoral images and the terror going on around him”.
Alongside the colossal 45 feet wide triptych are studies for the work on loan from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, Water Lilies, Harmony In Blue (1914-1917) and The Agapanthus (1914-1917) (The unfinished nature of the studies, with patches of bare white canvas visible through the paint, suggests that Monet may never intended for them to be publicly displayed), the oil paintings Wisteria Numbers 1 and 2 (1920) that were originally intended as an accompaniment to the triptych in a never realised installation, as well as a rarely seen film of a 75 year old Monet at work in his garden n 1915. But it is The Agapanthus Triptych, reunited for the first time in 34 years, that is the true star of the show and as Kelly said, “The richness of Monet’s colour can be especially appreciated when the panels are viewed together”.