Water Lilies, acquired by the museum in 1960, was originally part of a monumental triptych executed by the impressionist master in the last decade of his life. The panels, found in the artist’s studio after his death, sold in the late 1950s as independent works of art. It was first discovered that the paintings formed a triptych when they were being considered for inclusion in an exhibition of Monet’s late works, Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978 where they were displayed together for the first time. When the exhibition closed, the triptych was installed in each of the museums owning a panel of the work: the St. Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland’s installation ran from September 1979 to February 1980.
The triptych is just one of many paintings by Monet of the lily pond that he created on his property at Giverny, northwest of Paris. During the last decades of his life, the artist was completely absorbed in painting views of this pond. In the earlier, smaller works, executed between 1902 and 1908, the pond is depicted in a somewhat conventional manner. The clumps of lilies receding toward the distant banks of the pond, and the reflections of sky and trees on the surface of the water give the viewer a clear sense of space and distance. In the late paintings, represented by the triptych, the horizon is eliminated, forms and space are no longer clearly defined, and the viewer is invited into the depths of the pond to observe the pattern of light beneath the lilies and reflections.
Monet began the large-scale paintings in 1916, carrying out a long-cherished wish to transform his paintings of the pond into a single decorative scheme that would run continuously around a room. In the course of this project, Monet produced many immense canvases. In 1922, he agreed to donate a cycle of these paintings to France as a peace memorial. Shortly after his death, nineteen of the panels were installed, as he had wished, in the Orangerie of the Tuileries in Paris. Of the remaining versions left in his studio, the triptych of which Cleveland’s painting is a part is one of the finest.
The triptych came together again for the museum’s centennial exhibition "Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse".