Monet: Cataracts and Anger Create a Post-Impressionist

Nymphéas, Japanese Bridge, currently displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was painted by French impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) circa 1918-26 in Giverny, France. This is one of his final works in his famous Nymphéas (Water Lilies) series and of his life.

In his later years, Monet developed cataracts in both eyes, which undoubtedly had a large influence on his work. Despite his handicap, which was especially difficult for him as a visual artist, Monet continued to paint, even stubbornly rejecting surgery for the sake of his color perception (which his cataracts were already affecting). Monet continued to document the world as he saw it, much like he had done up until that point.

Monet’s later works, completed while suffering from cataracts, are the epitome of impressionist works. Dedicated to continuing to paint the world as his eyes saw it, Monet methodically applied color theory to achieve a visualization of his vanishing sights. The aggressive painting style and color choices in his later works, such as Nymphéas, Japanese Bridge, point to post-impressionist influences, as they depict a visual world that would have been imaginary for anyone, even someone with cataracts.

The overall painting is hazy, and it lacks many details. However, it is clear that the painting consists of a small footbridge surrounded by some type of foliage. Though the form itself seems to follow dimensions and perspectives quite faithfully, the lines of the shapes are blurred, and, in many places, there is little distinction where the bridge ends, as at many points, the foliage and the bridge blend in together. The foliage is only distinguishable due to its unique greenness on the canvas and leafy presentation. The composition is very packed, and the subjects are arranged so that there is very little blank space left on the canvas; however, it is packed around the main focal point: the bridge. Though the painting is overall very hazy and mostly indistinguishable, the bridge’s arch creates a strong shape for the eye to follow throughout the canvas.

The color palette is interesting — made up of mostly oranges, reds, and blues — and highly aggressive. The colors are deeply saturated and mostly dark in tone. There are some respites of pale yellows, in the bottom left corner, top left corner and near the middle of the canvas. The reds and oranges, seem prevalent at first glance, but quickly become less prominent as people come to understand they mainly compose the background and underlying paints rather than the surface colors. The dark reds and oranges can be seen throughout the painting in glimpses that peak out from behind the blues and greens on top. Despite the heavy presence of the blues, the overall canvas is very warm. 

The bridge is covered with blues and greens, creating an overall dark silhouette. This adds weight to the bridge at the center of the canvas, drawing eyes to it and creating a heavy presence on the canvas. The foliage is lightest surrounding the bridge, as the reds and oranges are the most exposed, contrasting heavily with the dark bridge. The foliage is also heavily accented, not only with dark reds but also with very pale yellows that create an illusion of light and help depict the flowery nature of such foliage.

The brushstrokes are short and rough. There is little line drawing, and most forms are depicted through change in values and shapes. The brushstrokes seem to have been quickly applied, as seen in the hazy and blurry overlaps that occur when the brushstrokes interact. The painting is also highly textured, which, when combined with the short brushstrokes, creates a largely aggressive and lively painting, despite the gentle and inanimate subjects.

Undoubtedly, the most recognized subject in this painting is the bridge itself: the Japanese footbridge, located in Monet’s Giverny home. Monet first moved to Giverny in 1883 and set out to create a lush garden that would serve as a great source of inspiration and pride for him in the years to come: “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” he said. “I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers. Always. My heart is forever in Giverny, perhaps I owe it to the flowers that I became a painter.”

His garden became the main subject of his most famous painting series, Nymphéas, showcasing the famous water lilies and his Japanese footbridge. His footbridge appears in many of his paintings, and there are twelve paintings to this bridge.

Nymphéas, Japanese Bridge, painted 1918-26, is one of the last paintings of the bridge. As mentioned, the composition is busy, with little space lacking paint around the bridge. Unlike in some of Monet’s previous renditions of the bridge, there is little detail devoted to anything else. When compared to some of his earlier paintings of the very same bridge, such as Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny (1899), the contrast in overall palette and tone is stark.

Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool (1899) has finely rendered details and barely uses reds and oranges. Blues are used in higher quantities, and the light contrast is starker when compared to the Japanese Bridge (1918-26). The bridge is more clearly in the background and more thinly drawn as finer lines are used to render the railings of the bridge. Not only is the bridge more finely refined, but so is the vegetation surrounding it. Monet’s lilies are clearly defined in delicate pink, white, and sometimes blue. The leaves of the trees are precisely articulated with individual brushstrokes to indicate each leaf, instead of great blotches used in Monet’s later work. This shift in attention is also present in the change in titles; the earlier one taking care to mention the pond, while the later one mentioning the sole subject, the footbridge. Overall, a great abstraction seems to have taken place in Monet’s works during the last few decades of his life which goes hand in hand with his cataract diagnosis.

As his vision worsened, his world was seen through a yellowish filter, and he would have lost subtle color discriminations. The details of the world would have dissolved not just due to the blurring of small differences but also due to the inability to distinguish between similar colors.

Despite his inability to distinguish details in the world, Monet refused surgery for fear of losing his vision entirely, as he had seen some of his other artist friends, such as Honoré Daumier and Mary Cassatt, experience it. He claims that he was so adamant against surgery that he would have given up painting: “I prefer to make the most of my poor sight, and even give up painting if necessary, but at least be able to see a little of these things that I love.” Monet had claimed that he was ready to give up painting to keep his vision, but he never did, painting even when he couldn’t quite distinguish the different color paint tubes.

At this point in life, he was adamant in keeping up with his previous styles, trying to maintain a level of objective mimetic between his subjects and his paintings. However, as seen in Nymphéas, Japanese Bridge (1918-26), he quickly abandoned all efforts to maintain the façade of a scientific method that would result in a mimetically accurate picture. Now, he was drawing things as he saw them. His vision at the time of Japanese Bridge would have been so blurred and darkened that he would have barely been able to distinguish between the dark blues and oranges in his paintings and would have seen them all as similar shades. Though this means that Japanese Bridge probably wasn’t composed of colors that Monet saw (or didn’t), not all impressionist hope was lost. 

Despite his failing vision, Monet attempted to create a copy of what he saw in the world using complementary colors. At this point, he could barely distinguish between colors, but using what little vision he had left and his color theory knowledge, he used stark complementary colors — dark blues, oranges, and reds — to create dramatic values and deepen the shapes. With his blurry vision, everything looked thicker and hazy, which he dutifully copied, with the noticeably thicker lines used for the bridge and the lack of boundaries between the bridge and the foliage. Despite his inability to distinguish the different shapes and colors, he went to great lengths to utilize colors that transfer exactly what he saw with his own eyes directly onto the canvas. His scientific methods, to contrast colors to create illusions, and his achievement of creating  an image that is truly representational of how he saw shapes – objective mimetic imperative be damned –  are indicative of this work’s significance as an impressionist painting.

Not only does this mean that this painting is, in fact, a peak representation of the impressionist movement, but it also shows that this painting seems to align with other post-impressionist ideas. Monet’s darkened color palette of oranges, reds and blues, in addition to the heavy, thick textured lines, seems to better represent how Monet might see the world, but it also seems to represent how Monet felt while observing the world. He spent most of his artistic career painting his garden, which was his great pride and joy. How devastated must he have been to not be able to see something he loves so much? His later painting of the bridge portrays his anger and frustration at his eyes for failing him. The contrasting reds, oranges, and blues are so unnatural and aggressive that they make the viewers uneasy and scared. The textured brush strokes are heavy (even for a Monet) and almost make the painting seem to be alive as the paint starts vibrating and shifting around the canvas.

This painting is not only impressionist in that Monet tries to convey a sense of light and values through the scientific method of using complementary colors (the blues and oranges), but it is also post-impressionist, as it shows Monet’s own introspection.. His emotions and inner thoughts are portrayed directly on the canvas. Monet’s viewers are well aware of the way in which Monet used this series to lovingly depict the water lilies in the garden. To view this painting, Japanese Bridge, after all the other paintings, must have been a great shock to the people, as Monet’s anger and frustration is so tangible. It’s shocking to see a beloved subject painted in such a hateful way. What’s interesting, however, is that the hatred we feel is not for the subject — which is still painstakingly depicted despite his limitations — but for himself. The hatred and anger are directed inwards towards Monet’s own handicap. This in itself is also an exploration of Monet’s own emotions, directly reflected on the painting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading