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90 Years On, Claude Monet's Water Lilies Still Captivate


Everyone knows French artist Claude Monet's "Water Lilies," which he painted in his garden. You find the images everywhere from galleries to dorm rooms and dentists' lounges. Today is the 90th anniversary of Monet's death. And reporter Karen Michel visited his house outside of Paris to see why the work has lasted.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Claude Monet made his home in Giverny, a brief train ride from Paris. It was here that he created both the ponds and the paintings that secured his legacy. Ombeline Le Maitre, the Monet Foundation's communication director, grew up here. Her husband's grandfather knew Monet, unlike most of the residents.

OMBELINE LE MAITRE: He came from Paris. And he's an artist. He had a lot of friends who came here. They are different attitude and Claude Monet didn't meet people who live here in Giverny, he lived only in his property.

MICHEL: Le Maitre's first job was in the gardens, kept just as they were during Monet's time. And over time, he alienated nearly everyone here, not only with his privileged attitude but later by diverting a river to feed the lily ponds he built. The last years of Monet's life, the ones he spent exclusively painting the grounds, are the focus of Ross King's recent book "Mad Enchantment."

ROSS KING: Monet had retired. He was wealthy. He was, you know, he was earning a vast sum from interest alone. And in some ways, he seemed ready to rest on his laurels. But, of course, Monet was not that kind of character.

MICHEL: Ross King says Monet was a bit possessed.

KING: Between 1914 and 1926, when he died, he painted essentially nothing else. He just painted the pond. And it was as if he was bewitched by it. Every day as dawn broke, he made his way down to that water lily pond and he painted it. And he stared at that reflective surface in all lights, all weathers, all seasons.

MICHEL: There are photographs of Monet bundled up against the cold, short, stout and long-bearded at his easel with his oversized canvases, some more than six feet high and several times that wide. Monet wanted people to believe that he painted only out of doors and quickly. But in fact, he took the canvases back to his cavernous studio, now the gift shop, where he reworked the surfaces as many as 15 times.

Today when you visit any of the many places where Monet's huge water lilies are exhibited, it's like being in a sacred space. To look at the paintings is to be within them floating among the water lilies, dobs of pink or white among the blues and greens.

ALEX KATZ: He made the colors that - paintings or colors that no one's ever seen before.

MICHEL: Artist Alex Katz has a lily pond at his home in Maine. When he paints that pond, he does it as an homage to Monet.

KATZ: I mean, he didn't illustrate atmosphere. He painted atmosphere.

MICHEL: But in the end, Monet thought he never got it right. And he couldn't part with the water lilies. Rich collectors sought them, and as Ross King lays out, he'd promised a series of the monumental paintings to France.

KING: And only when he was dead was it possible to pry these paintings from his hands and get possession of them.

MICHEL: Monet said, I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers. And when he died, it was his gardeners who carried his coffin. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Michel