Monet's Water Lilies and more

This is a long-winded post I'm afraid. A couple of people have asked to see the notes I used for my talk tonight as part of the After Hours series at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. If you like your information aurally, you'd best wait until the video of the talk is posted online at: (probably next week some time). But, if you can't wait....

Art Galley of New South Wales
Tim Entwisle, 3 December 2008

Let me start by saying I haven’t visited Monet’s Garden in Giverny…

I did receive my invitation to speak at the Gallery while I was sitting in a Paris apartment, a short walk from Gare Saint-Lazare, preparing to fly back to Sydney that night.

I was holidaying in France with my wife Lynda, who unlike me (as will be obvious already), does speak French.

Just the day before we’d decided to visit Versailles (with the fountains running and period music – quite fun), instead of Giverny, and there was no time left to visit Monet’s garden.

The slides behind me are mostly water lilies or similar plants from various gardens around the world, including a borrowed picture of Monet’s Garden, with a few other relevant pictures thrown in. They are to divert you when I mispronounce French words…

As you’ll see in the pictures, we did manage to visit the Orangerie, and saw Les Nymphéas. These are the giant water lily paintings from the very end of Monet’s life and as my artistic friends here at the Gallery tell me – thanks Sheona White, Terence Maloon and Jethro Lyne – Monet started with landscapes and moved almost microscopically towards the lily pad.

Using this iconic image Monet made pictures towards the end of his life that could be the universe, a lily pond or perhaps even the insides of a plant cell.

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But I readily accepted the invitation. It’s always a pleasure to visit the Art Gallery of NSW, and to of course to talk about plants. The galley is quite like the botanic gardens, except there are artworks instead of plants, it's mostly indoors, and more people come to hear me talk…

Interestingly, botanic gardens sometimes get criticised for putting all those lovely labels on our plants - it looks like a graveyard some people say. But it’s the same here of course. In the botanic garden we could have the plants without their labels and in theory you could enjoy the plants, or artworks, based purely on merit. Beautiful flower, beautiful painting.

But of course knowing who painted a painting, when it was painted, and maybe even why it was painted adds something to the experience.

The same goes for botanic gardens. The name tells you all sorts of things about the plant and where it fits into the tree of life. We find out where it grows naturally and maybe about how you can eat or wear it.

So as a botanist let loose in the Art Gallery, I’m thankful for the labels on the paintings and the wonderful pamphlets and books produced by the curators here. But blame me if I get any art facts wrong.

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Edmond Capon tells me he takes a walk in the Botanic Gardens to get away from art. I take a walk in the Gallery to get away from plants. But if you wander around the Art Gallery and in particular look at the works of Monet, you’ll see plants everywhere (I must talk to Edmond about this – but of course he’ll argue there is plenty of sculpture in the Gardens).

There are lots of connections between plants and art, and I won’t bore you with trite examples, but obviously Monet was aware of this.

In the slides behind me you’ll see particularly how beautiful water lilies are and why they would appeal to an artist.

One of the pictures is from the Hantaek Botanical Garden in the Republic of Korea. The curator there planted out a converted rice paddy with different species of water lily after being inspired by Monet’s paintings.

You’ll see examples of water lilies from all over the world, as well as the giant amazon lily and the lotus. Included are images from the Northern Territory were water lilies share the wetlands with crocodiles, and their roots are pounded up and eaten by the local Aboriginal people.

While you soak up the beauty of these aquatic plants, I want to tell you a little bit about water lilies. In doing this, I’ll point out something you’ll never see in a Monet painting, and something else you probably haven’t noticed in his works.

What you won’t see is a lotus (or indeed the giant Amazon lily for that matter).

What you might see are bits of his garden, literally.

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First to the Lotus, or the absence of it.

I was reading one very interesting article on Monet and the connection between his work and Buddhism, which strayed a little too incautiously into botany. There were a couple of comments made about Monet being aware of the spiritual meaning of the lotus in Buddhist imagery because he painted so many of them. Although he probably was aware of this meaning, he would also have been very aware that lotus and his water lilies are quite different things.

I should point out here that the ‘Egyptian lotus’ is a kind of water lily. But the lotus of Buddhist temples is a quite different beast.

The water lily family is probably one of the oldest lineages of plants in the world. If we draw the tree of life for plants, the water lilies are one of those branches you swing on at the bottom of the tree. So this branch was one of the first to emerge once flowers evolved in the world – although the water lilies today have continued to change and evolve over millions of years. It means that just about every other flowering plant on earth has evolved quite separate to the water lilies.

The lotus, though, is in an entirely different part of the plant Tree of Life, mixed up with lots of other flowering plants. In fact it is more closely related to the banksia family (Proteaceae) and that engineering solution to streetscape planting, the Plane Tree. (You’ll see a bit of that evolutionary tree in one of the images behind me – with three scientists peering out at you.)

The differences between your typical water lily and the widespread lotus are quite clear. You’ll see a lotus appear in the images behind me from time to time. The leaves stand upright out of the water and have that almost magic surface where water-drops form glistening spheres, and roll down to the middle and then off the leaf. I can report today that the first Lotus flower bud has appeared in our main pond today – look out for the display over the next few weeks…

(As it happens the fact that water and dirt can’t stick to the lotus leaf has inspired scientists to study the complex wax particles on the leaf and to use these to develop self-cleaning paints.)

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As I said, Monet would not have been fooled.

He developed a passion for botany, exchanging plants with his friends and he was always on the look-out for rare varieties. In fact, he was a bit of a collector. (I can understand this – the gallery here and our botanic gardens are full of collections. In fact for the next two weeks we have an exhibition of collections by 40 of our staff – from pigs to pop-up books – in the Red Box Gallery…just down the road.)

Apparently he bought young plants at great expense. He was inspired to grow water lilies after seeing a display at the 1889 Paris World Fair prepared by the notorious water-lily breeder called Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac. Monet bought water lilies from Marliac over the next ten years.

Marliac was enthusiastic breeder of water lilies, but renowned for misleading people about the parentage of his hybrids, apparently to protect his intellectual property. He was also keen to breed sterile cultivars, again to protect his business interests – incidently today we would welcome sterile forms as a way of stopping horticultural plants becoming environmental weeds.

The yellow water lily in some of Monet’s paintings is likely to be one of Marliac’s mystery hybrids.

I like Monet’s approach to gardening. Apparently he didn’t like organized or constrained gardens. He planted flowers according to their colours and left them to sort them selves out.

This to me is what home gardening is all about – not necessarily creating great landscapes but planting and arranging plants as the mood hits. A very personal garden.

Giverny with its water lilies is clearly a very personal garden – reflecting the owner and gardener. And Monet’s paintings that drew their inspiration from that garden are very personal pictures. But like the garden, they are pictures we can all share and enjoy today.

But let’s return to the pond, and to the water lilies themselves.

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One of our senior scientists at the Botanic Gardens, Surrey Jacobs, is an expert on aquatic plants and continues to describe new species of water lily from Australia. There seems to be subgroup of species that are of a long Australian heritage and others we share with SE Asia. Although Australian species were grown in Europe at the time of Monet, mostly in glasshouses, none seem to be in Monet’s paintings.

It is very unlikely Lotus (Nelumbo) would grow in the ponds at Giverny. It’s mostly a tropical or subtropical plant. Although there are cold climate variants and it grows as far south as Victoria in Australia, even these would have to be moved indoors in Paris during winter.

In any case, in all the pictures Surrey and I have seen of the ponds there are ‘water lilies’ (Nymphaea alba and relatives) and not Lotus.

And if you are interested, you can tell they are cool climate species of water lily, because the flowers all sit just at or above the water level. Look at the pictures behind me and you’ll see water lilies sitting up to a foot above the water – these are the so-called tropical species.
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As an aside, have a close look at the water lily flower next time you bump into one. Most of the water lilies have flowers with petals that open each morning and close at night. On the first opening, the outer ring of male bits (the stamens) is active and ready to shed pollen.

The next day they shrivel back and the next inner ring rises up for action. The number of times the flower opens depends on how many rings of stamens there are and the flower may last from a few days to a week. You can see two nice pictures (taken by Surrey Jacobs) of this in the close up of a blue water lily in my slides.

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So you won’t see any Lotus. But there is probably something else you didn’t think to look for in Monet’s paintings. Here we move away from the water lilies for a while.

I wrote about this in the magazine Nature Australia a few years ago. As I put it then:

“French impressionists of the late 19th century suffered for their art. You could say it was de rigueur to paint en plein air [I never thought I’d have to read that out…]. The leading artists applied layers of oily pigment to a canvas battered by scorching sun, or wind and rain. Sometimes the finished work did more than evoke the scenery; it contained bits of it.

Claude Monet ‘discovered’ the very scenic Belle-Île, off the south coast of Brittany, in late 1886. He was at the height of his powers and looking for new challenges. The Belle didn’t disappoint.

However, frustrated by unstable weather, and the daily machinations of tides and light, he strayed from the impressionist dictum and completed some of his works indoors. A famous painting of this period, Port-Goulphar [in the exhibition here, and part of the AGNSW’s own collection] was signed and dated in the year following his trip to Brittany.

Art conservators, like Paula Dredge of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, had assumed the inscription date and a heavier-than-usual build-up of paint placed this work firmly in Monet’s studio-worked category.

However, several grass seeds discovered a few years ago in the outer paint layer and identified by our botanists as grasses growing on the French coast, along with evidence of water droplets in the paint, suggest that much of it was painted outdoors.

Paula concluded that Monet might have put some minor finishing touches on the painting on his return from the beach, catering to his dealer’s preference for highly worked paintings, rather than painting the entire picture in his studio.

[The other possibility, of course, is that Monet painted the picture somewhere near one of his haystacks rather than the coast…]

Incidentally, one of our botanists also helped with the particularly difficult restoration of a bark painting by Arnhem Land artist Mith-inari Gurru-wiwi. The Wuyal was painted in the late 1960s using traditional methods, starting with a natural binding agent mixed with red ochre, over which water-based pigments were applied. The painting was in poor condition with the white layers, in particular, flaking badly.

The problem was that conventional conservation-grade consolidants (solutions that strengthen and hold the paint pigments together) allowed the red ochre pigment in the lower layer to migrate to the surface, changing the colour of the white pigments.

Botanists at the Botanic Gardens suggested the likely source of the natural binding agent was the sap from a species of rock lily from northern Australia, Dendrobium affine. And so restoration of the picture could begin.”

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But enough of science… I can see more in the Monet pictures than grass seeds and water lilies.

However I do want to make the observation that it was important that Monet used the cool temperate water lilies. The Lotus, and even the tropical water lilies, would stick out of the water rather than create his dreamlike surfaces.

It’s also important to discover bits of seed and the like in his paintings. They remind us, pretty obviously I admit, that he painted from nature.

These are the extra bits of information and the stories that art galleries and botanic gardens provide to their visitors. We are more than just art or plants, or both.

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