Strolling through the galleries of European art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this piece literally took my breath away. I had already been captivated by countless other works hanging from the walls by Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Cassatt, but this oil painting by Claude Monet left me breathless. It was the colors that attracted me at first. They were bold and intense and not the foggy pastels I was used to in a Monet. Nymphéas, Japanese Bridge quickly became the standout for me of this museum trip. Sold by Monet’s son, the painting belonged to two collections before being gifted to the museum in 1974.
It took me a minute, but soon I was able to pick out the form of the motif that Monet is so well known for – that Japanese bridge in his garden at Giverny. I know what you’re thinking, “Seriously, Monet? Another Japanese bridge?” We’ve seen the form many times in his work, but this painting is different from the more popular pieces. Painted between 1918 and 1926, his depiction of the bridge differs greatly from those done in 1899-1900. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art describes the contrast in Monet’s work: “Compared to the harmonious order of the bridge paintings from the turn of the century, these late works exude a breathtaking sense of daring.” Perhaps he was experimenting with color or simply trying to reflect the way the bridge had changed. After 1910, the bridge had apparently been covered by foliage growths and this depiction may have been trying to capture the way the structure blended with the garden using heavy brushwork.
On a tour, this would be a good piece to engage visitors with visual thinking strategies. An educator could lead with the question, “what do you see?” and asking visitors to only describe shapes, colors, or lines without adding any of their own interpretations. Because of the heavy brush strokes, this painting could lead to some interesting observations from guests. Asking further, “what is going on here?” allows the visitor to finally make some inferences of their own. In this engagement there are no wrong answers. Perhaps visitors will make the leap to Monet’s garden but perhaps they won’t, and any other interpretation would be just as interesting!
One of the more fascinating aspects of this object, is the way that it is displayed. This painting is hung in a hallway off of the large, main gallery in the European Art from 1850-1900 gallery. Unfortunately, this piece is behind the main wall and is very easy to miss. However, once I discovered the painting, it felt like a hidden gem. However, from the back of the wall you could see through to the main room and another Monet, The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny, is hanging.
This was an amazing perspective to be able to see an earlier depiction of the same motif. I am not sure if it was intentional by the museum, but it was appreciated nonetheless. The juxtaposition of the traditional depiction of the lily pads and the later interpretation of the bridge allows a viewer to see the progression of Monet’s style.
It was extremely beneficial to understanding the painting to read some of the further information about Monet’s garden at Giverny, France. He created the garden outside of Paris in order to have an outdoor model to paint without requiring travel. The museum has some great information about the garden and the bridge on their website. The Royal Academy of the Arts teamed up with the garden at Giverny to create a video exploring the garden with great comparisons to Monet’s paintings.
This piece was the highlight of my Philadelphia Museum of Art trip. I hope that you enjoy this painting as much as I did!
Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 40.