Volume 22, Issue 1 | Spring 2023

Why Monet Matters: Meaning Amongst the Lily Pads by James Henry Rubin

Reviewed by Alexis Clark

James Henry Rubin,
Why Monet Matters: Meaning Amongst the Lily Pads.
University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2021.
392 pp.; 78 color and 82 b&w illus.; notes; bibliography.
$49.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 978–0–271–09116–7

On May 17, 1927, the Musée de l’Orangerie, its walls lined with expansive panels of the Water Lilies (1914–26), opened to the public. Intended as a memorial to those who had fought and died in the First World War, Claude Monet’s flatly painted murals blurred the boundaries of water and sky.‍[1] Surely, numbered amongst those viewing the paintings of the recently deceased impressionist’s limpid pond of Giverny in the opening days and weeks of the Orangerie were the professionally trained eyes of art historians, curators, and art writers. Likely standing side-by-side with them were individuals who had seen action on the battlefields of the First World War. What did the presumably untrained eyes of these men and women, to whom Monet had dedicated his murals, see? What did they think, their minds perhaps ricocheting between the paintings, the elegiac words spoken at the Orangerie’s opening by Monet’s comrade Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and their memories of wartime trauma such as the sights of bloodied bodies, the sounds of canon blasts and the dying, and the smells of smoke and putrid flesh? More poignantly, what could these men and women see, as some of them had had their eyesight dimmed, scarred, or even obliterated by the chemical weapons choking the trenches of the First World War? What could the former poilus (infantrymen) with their eye sockets now emptied, covered in patches, or protected by tinted spectacles, intuit, surrounded and immersed in the panoramic Water Lilies?

It would seem only right, given Monet’s dedication, that the perception of military service members be recounted in the reception history of the Water Lilies.‍[2] That the perceptions of les poilus standing before the Water Lilies have not been more a focus of art historians speaks, I think, to whose view and whose vision still tends to count in the history of art. In contrast to tendencies within the discipline to write to those already well-versed in the language of art and art history, James H. Rubin intends, with Why Monet Matters: Meaning Among the Lily Pads, to address both twenty-first century specialists and non-specialists whose eyes and bodies are “mobilized” and so conscripted into the perceptual experience of the Water Lilies (xiii, 5). Announcing his high ambitions, Rubin states that his

aim is to offer both original perspectives and new depths intended to exemplify how Monet’s art can be experienced historically and presently through both mind and body. Indeed, I claim that its historical specificity is linked to the way it is experienced. No other book on Monet does so with as much attention to thematic issues such as literature, decoration, gender, philosophy, and politics. And so my aim is to write the most original, comprehensive monograph yet published on Monet’s Water Lilies (xiii).

Rubin’s claim to unprecedented comprehensiveness depends on his thorough knowledge of the substantial research already published on the Water Lilies, much of which he cites in his substantial bibliography and notes.

What Rubin seeks to do in recounting the importance of Monet’s Water Lilies in relation to literature, decoration, gender, philosophy, and politics may seem novel for a history of art meant to reach non-specialist readers (or perhaps wide-eyed due to present-day ideological and political divisions). Art, Rubin sympathetically believes, may elevate us beyond our contemporary, polarized debates. Standing before the Water Lilies, specialists and non-specialists, stalwart humanists and anti-humanists alike may be moved to see Monet’s painted panoramas as speaking a “language universally understood by those members of all nations who travel faithfully to view them” (5). By undertaking this pilgrimage to the Orangerie—vicariously via Rubin’s book—we may see ourselves as more united than divided. Spurred by this hope for solidarity, Rubin’s title impresses upon his readers that Monet matters, because art matters to us all (xii).

In addition to embracing a universalism that is hardly fashionable in the discipline of art history, Rubin eschews limiting his approach to any one methodology, though Why Monet Matters extends his abiding interest in questions related to the perception and experience of impressionism.‍[3] Rubin has explicated the many historical discourses that may be layered onto the shallow surfaces of the Water Lilies, thus lending these panels philosophical depth and, paradoxically, reestablishing the interest of the expert views of artists and art writers, psychologists, color scientists, and philosophers. Across these three hundred pages, one may thus read about Monet and Georges Seurat (and, by extension, Ogden Rood and Charles Henry); Monet and Paul Cézanne (and, by extension, Maurice Merleau-Ponty); Monet, Roger Marx, and Stéphane Mallarmé (and, by extension, symbolist ideas of vision and visionaries); and Monet and Henri Bergson (and, by extension, notions of sensation, intuition, and duration). Retrieved from his supposed late-in-life loneliness and isolation through these intellectual engagements, Monet and his œuvre are given a central place in discussions of perception.

Rubin explores the links between Monet and his impressionism with neo-impressionism, symbolism, fauvism, and cubism, rendering them contemporaneous and so disrupting the typically straightened timeline of modernism. Rubin furthermore traces the longue durée effects of Monet’s work on interwar and postwar debates between abstraction and figuration. This last line of argument flows from the extant substantial research into the mid-twentieth century dialogue between the “Monet Revival” and abstract expressionism. As Michael Leja wrote about the recuperation of Monet in the mid-twentieth century, this revival

engineered a reinterpretation of Monet’s art, giving it new historical importance and contemporary relevance, thereby motivating further exhibition and critical attention. The Monet phenomenon of today, with museums and art publishers dependent upon the seemingly inexhaustible ability of his work (and Impressionism at large) to generate large audiences and revenues, springs from this moment. . . . [T]he Monet revival was enmeshed in both the making and the crucial assessment of contemporary American paintings. It participated both in the devising of formal analyses and modernist genealogies from Abstract Expressionism and in the development of new departures from this increasingly academic mode.‍[4]

Largely responsible for promulgating this renewed interest, William C. Seitz helped to develop Claude Monet: A Loan Exhibition (1957) and curated Claude Monet: Seasons and Moments (1960). An erstwhile artist involved in the New York scene, Seitz effectively introduced US audiences from coast to coast to Monet’s series and late paintings.‍[5] Taking a page from Seitz, whose exhibition programs and publications consistently traced Monet’s importance forward to abstract art in the 1920s and 1930s and onwards to the abstraction of the 1950s and 1960s, Rubin similarly concludes his present study by recounting connections between Monet and Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian, as well as the post-1945 New York scene artists dripping, spilling, splattering, staining, spraying, and rolling paint. Ellsworth Kelley, Morris Louis, and Barnett Newman all turned to Monet to meditate on how to re-present the physical but also philosophical processes of perception informing the production of a work of art.

Rubin encourages readers to chart their own course through his book, an approach suited to the diversity of the subjects taken up by the various chapters. Thus, while Rubin’s eighth chapter outlines Monet’s importance for twentieth-century artists, his sixth chapter engagingly discusses how Monet and the philosopher Henri Bergson shared an interest in perception. While Monet took to the canvas to relay his vision of nature, Bergson took to the lecture podium and the printed page to expound on the nature of vision: Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Time and Free Will, 1889), Matière et mémoire (Matter and Memory, 1896), and Evolution créatrice (Creative Evolution, 1907). Immediately before the First World War, Bergson achieved transatlantic popularity. In 1913, he traveled up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, propounding his ideas of sensation, intuition, and duration before rapt audiences crowded into university auditoria. His US colleague, William James, shared his interests in the duration of memory and “stream of consciousness,” as Rubin details; and John Dewey, who penned an introduction to a bibliography on Bergson, drew on his ideas of experience. In his books and lectures, Bergson proposed the impossibility that any one moment could be experienced in isolation. Time was instead experienced as duration (la durée) or, in effect, the simultaneity of multiple remembered past moments and the lived present. To experience one moment was to simultaneously re-experience all past moments. Coupled with duration, Bergson contended that sensation and intuition dictated experience. Sensation melded an immediate physical sensory input (taste, touch, sight, smell, sound) with the emotional and psychological resonances of those inputs (intuition).

While, as Rubin warns, Monet did not read Bergson, the painter and the philosopher shared interests in time, experience, and perception. All that Monet painted may be understood as a meditation on time, whether the supposedly instantaneous moments captured by the quick flick of his brush in his early paintings, or extended periods spent before the motif recorded by rhythmic strokes and flattened expanses of color in his late paintings. In his last decades, Monet applied a “decelerated gaze” (206) to painting lanes of poplars and misty mornings on the Seine. The artist, Rubin persuasively shows, thus not only represented nature but contemplated and painted what it meant to see “with the body” (192); his work “materializes vision” (xii). As outlined in Bergon’s Matière et mémoire, the physical and psychological processes of perception could not be separated. But the eye binds mind and body, making perception an intellectual as much as a physical experience. In turn, the work of art becomes a conduit connecting the eyes and so the perception of the artist to that of the viewers. Following from Bergson, Rubin instructs his readers that as Monet “thinks in nature,” they must “think in art” (192). Through such deep empathy, readers and viewers may plunge beneath the painted layers of the Water Lilies to glimpse the connections between the artist’s intuition and their own. Rubin’s insistence that Monet’s meaning emerges from physical and optical experiences only to be had in person before the actual work of art provokes the question of how reproductions and publications may limit our connection to art and history.

Such empathetic viewership provokes another question: what does it mean to now think in an impressionist art steeped in depictions of nature? Monet’s oeuvre—from his representations of his early rambles in the forest of Barbizon; to his years trawling Paris with its manicured gardens and rambling around its more rural suburbs; to his time in tourist destinations and abroad; to his final works painted in the relative seclusion of his sprawling estate at Giverny—may be rife for reconsideration from a perspective attuned to the current environmental catastrophe. At various points, Rubin alludes to this potential view. For example, he recounts that on taking possession of Giverny in 1883, Monet incrementally extended his property through a series of purchases, rerouted a small tributary of the Seine, and proceeded to plant greenhouse-grown hybrids and non-native flower species. In curating his environment, Monet’s gardens come to be discussed as the “bourgeois descendants of aristocratic landowning” (61). His interest in the land and landscape painting further motivated the artist’s cooperation with a sawyer to delay felling poplar trees lining the Epte, leading Rubin to conclude that Monet “became conscious of the value of conservation and indeed became an environmentalist” (75). Whether this act signals any sort of environmentalism, Monet unquestionably controlled his environment, late in life, sometimes conserving it, sometimes changing it, but always curating it. His ability to control the environment was only possible because of his financial stability and status as propriétaire. In the nineteenth century (as now), property ownership eluded many living in Europe and the United States; with imperialist expansion, many living outside Europe were dispossessed of their ancestral lands, with their plants shipped to the latter continents as desirable exotic flora. How Monet thought in nature must have been dictated by these very material terms; in turn, how one thinks in his impressionist landscape paintings may depend on one’s own relation to the history of and perceived responsibility towards the land.

To think in Monet’s landscape painting in the twenty-first century, as we careen toward environmental catastrophe, may be to perceive questions of lingering environmental impact, property ownership (and dispossession), and economic inequity. Writing a history of Monet’s panels, with an eye on their relation to our experience of the environment today, may be an important step in speaking to non-specialists, especially our students engaged in climate change-related causes. Shining a light on such issues may be planetary but also Bergsonian, humanist, and, in keeping with Rubin’s desires for art and its appreciation, universalist.‍[6] Thinking in nature now may mean thinking more about Monet rerouting that tributary in relation to the Seine River Basin today. It may mean thinking about the effect of planting non-native vegetation in fragile ecosystems as well as the work, and workers, required to cultivate, harvest, and ship plants like the agapanthus lily, native to southern Africa. It may mean thinking about seemingly incidental actions that inadvertently ripple beyond the boundaries of private property to our present shared planet.

Rubin intimates the importance of impressionism as an argument for humanistic thinking: “I hope to come closer to an understanding of why Monet matters while offering a case study of how art and art history can matter. My effort is inspired by those fundamental questions of what art is and what it has to do with our humanity, which I believe lie at the core of humanistic studies” (14). For those who still must be persuaded that the arts and humanities hold value, Monet’s may be a point of détente. Certainly, if we may sympathize with Rubin’s call for art history to address specialists and non-specialists and to argue for the importance of art to us all—and I do—then I hope future students in impressionism will read this book rooted in a deeply humane commitment to learning from our colleagues, to listening to all our audiences and communities, to seeing ourselves as sharing but one planet.


[1] The scholarship on the Water Lilies exceeds the bounds of an endnote. To cite but one important contribution to the recent historiography, see George T.M. Shackelford, ed., Monet: The Late Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). The essays by Simon Kelly, Emma Cauvin, and Marianne Mathieu detail the conception, installation, and reception of the Water Lilies from the 1920s to the 1950s.

[2] For a discussion of the Orangerie and the impressionist retrospectives mounted in the interwar period, see Michela Passini, “Microhistoire des processus de patrimonialisation: les impressionnistes exposés à l’Orangerie,” Revue de l’Art, no. 191 (2016): 61–70.

[3] James H. Rubin, “Monet, Bergson, and Proust: Observations on Place, Displacement, and Poetry,” in Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature (Munich: Prestel, 2017).

[4] Michael Leja, “The Monet Revival and New York School Abstraction,” in Monet in the Twentieth Century, ed. Paul Tucker (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 98.

[5] William C. Seitz, “Seasons and Moments: The Landscapes of Claude Monet,” Claude Monet: Seasons and Moments (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1960).

[6] For a discussion of planetary approaches, see Gayatari Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). Griselda Pollock has addressed the importance of art historians adapting a more planetary perspective on their discipline. See “Whither Art History?” The Art Bulletin 96, no. 1 (March 2014): 9–23.