Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ hidden in plain sight

Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ hidden in plain sight
Conservator Ruth Hoppe working on 'Wisteria'. Courtesy the Gemeentemuseum.
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Water lilies and Claude Monet (1840-1926) more or less go hand-in-hand. One of the best-known and loved Impressionist painters, Monet’s most iconic paintings are those he did of the water lilies that inhabited the pond on the grounds of the house he and his family lived in in Giverny from 1883. The lily pond there inspired his series of paintings entitled ‘Water Lilies,’ which he began painting in 1899, and still to this day the paintings in the series are some of the most coveted paintings that many museums would love to have in their collection.

Claude Monet, ‘Wisteria’, 1917-1920. Courtesy the Gemeentemuseum.


In May, the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague inadvertently became another museum to own one of the sought-after paintings. It had been in their collection since 1961 and on view ever since. However, no one knew the water lilies were there because they’d been painted over by the artist creating a less-known series of works used as a frieze around a large-scale series of water lily paintings. The painting in question, titled Wisteria (1917-1920), is an aesthetically pleasing combination of blues, purples, and greens creating a dreamy fringe of wisteria hanging from the top. The painting, though one of Monet’s lesser-known paintings, has been one of the Gemeentemuseum’s prize paintings and it’s now become a far more exciting piece given its history.

The underpainting was discovered while conservationists were working to remove varnish that was added to the painting after World War II. During the process, the team found other interesting characteristics on the painting’s surface. ‘We discovered a lot of teeny tiny in-painted parts concealing very small damages to the painting,’ said Doede Hardeman, the Gemeentemuseum’s head of collections. It turned out that these imperfections were covering small holes that were created by shards of glass, some of which were still imbedded in the wooden canvas stretchers. To better examine the damage, which was caused when the glass roof of Monet’s studio collapsed during wartime, Ruth Hoppe, a restorer and colleague of Hareman’s, x-rayed the painting. It was then that the underpainting of lilies beneath the wisteria were discovered. ‘It feels like we are building a new, small part of art history,’ said Hardeman of the finding.

Conservator Ruth Hoppe working on ‘Wisteria’. Courtesy the Gemeentemuseum.


It is now believed that Wisteria may have been one of the first paintings of seven works that Monet created to frame the aforementioned large-scale cycle of water lily paintings, which he gifted to France the day after the 1918 Armistice to memorialize the war. Monet wasn’t one for reusing canvases so experts now think the artist may have painted over the final painting of water lilies to begin the frieze. Thus, Wisteria may serve as a link between the series of water lily paintings and the wisteria paintings. The finding might even boost interest in the floral paintings that the Gemeentemuseum has long loved.

In an upcoming exhibition titled ‘Monet: The Garden Paintings,’ which will open October 12th and run through February 2nd of the following year, Wisteria will assuredly be the centerpiece of the show.