A Change in Scenery

Germaine Hoschedé, Lili Butler, Madame Marie Jenny Durand-Ruel, Georges Durand-Ruel and Claude Monet at the water lily pond in Giverny in 1900.

The Speed Art Museum eagerly welcomed Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas” to the scene last April


By Elizabeth Scinta
Photos provided by The Speed Art Museum


The click-clack of my heels echoed off the floors and walls of the empty Speed Art Museum as Erika Holmquist-Wall, the Chief Curator and Curator of European & American Paintings & Sculpture of the Speed Art Museum, led me up the grand staircase. At the top of the white marble stairs is a gallery that has housed Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas” since its loan period began in April. “While this painting has timeless appeal for everyone, it feels like an important moment to be able to share it with our visitors. First of all, Monet is known for the waterlilies, and Monet is about as famous and recognizable of a name as you can get. Even people who barely know anything about art recognize the name,” Holmquist-Wall elucidated. “Monet’s popularity over the years has made him a household name in art history, and the waterlilies are inextricably linked with his name.”

When one thinks of Monet, the waterlilies come to mind. Similar to “Mona Lisa” and Leonardo da Vinci or “The Starry Night” and Vincent van Gogh. The name goes with the painting, but what about the history and meaning of the piece?

During the summer, Monet would pack his bags and travel to the North of France to paint the exquisite scenery and subject matter that lay before him. However, as he grew older, escaping to the countryside every summer wasn’t as enjoyable or feasible, so he decided to create his ideal artistic environment. So, in 1883, Monet purchased land in Giverny, France, where he began to craft a splendid waterlily pond and surrounding gardens that would fuel his creativity for the remainder of his life.

Upon completing the waterlily pond, he created his first series of waterlily paintings, including “Nymphéas.” “This work comes from the first series of waterlily paintings when his garden at Giverny was brand new to him, and he’s discovering its charm. There is an element of wonder and discovery in the early waterlily series; they are so modern in feel that they are nearly abstract. The focal point is not necessarily about the subject matter of the waterlilies themselves. It’s about capturing the quality of the light,” Holmquist-Wall said.

You’ll notice “Nymphéas” is a close-up view of the subject matter, and that’s because it’s supposed to evoke a complete sensory experience from viewers. “If you let your eyes relax, it’s an invitation to slow down and bring all of your senses to a work of art. When you let it wash over you, so to speak, you start seeing the sunlight rippling off the water and the water lilies that sit just below the surface of the water. If you listen, you can almost hear the water burbling, the buzzing of the bees or dragonflies and the birds chirping,” explained Holmquist-wall.

After completing the first waterlily series, Monet put them away in his studio to work on other projects. It wasn’t until the end of World War I that Monet revisited painting the waterlily pond. According to Holmquist-Wall, the Water Lilies Cycle, the second series of waterlily paintings, was gifted to the French state as a symbol of entering peace following the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Unlike the first series, the artworks in this series vary in size and are much more loosely painted (signifying his aging eyes). This series can be found in the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

Holmquist-Wall paired “Nymphéas” with a selection of photographs from “The Gardens at Giverny: A View of Monet’s World,” a portfolio series by the American photographer Stephen Shore and the Speed’s recently restored Monet painting, “The Church at Varengeville-Sur-Mey, Grey Weather.” “The three artworks in the gallery explore Monet’s fascination with light and color and his search for the perfect setting. This story is told through an early work made during his travels, a key work from his Giverny period, and a contemporary photographer looking at the world Monet created,” explained Holmquist-Wall.

So, as you step into the gallery, take a breath and let your imagination take you back to Monet’s oasis where ripples cascade across the pond, dragonflies float past blissfully and the artist crafts mystical paintings that will be paired with his name until the end of time.

Speed Art Museum
2035 South 3rd St.
Louisville, KY 40208