Since 1961, a painting of wisteria by French impressionist Claude Monet has hung in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, harboring a secret beneath its swirling brushstrokes. As Nina Siegal reports for the The New York Times, a conservator at the museum recently discovered that this artwork had been painted over one of Monet’s iconic depictions of water lilies—the garden subject that he painted obsessively during the last two decades of his career.
No one had taken a close look at Wisteria since it came to the museum nearly 60 years ago, but it was recently taken off of public view in preparation for an upcoming exhibition on Monet’s garden paintings. When modern art conservator Ruth Hoppe examined the artwork, she noticed that it had been retouched to cover up tiny holes containing bits of broken glass, the damage possibly caused by an Allied bomb that shattered the glass of Monet’s studio during WWII. Hoppe decided to X-ray the painting to get a better look, but found something entirely unexpected: water lilies hiding beneath the artist’s depiction of dangling wisteria.
“For us it was a big surprise,” Frouke van Dijke, a curator of 19th-century art at the Gemeentemuseum, tells Siegal.
The painting was part of a larger installation that Monet called his “Grandes Décorations”—a series of panels, stretching some 6-and-a-half feet long by 20 feet wide and painted with water lilies. Monet also created a series of wisteria paintings to be hung like a crown over the water lilies.
“These works … took the artist to pictorial territory he had not visited in more than 50 years of painting,” according to the Museum of Modern Art. “The compositions zero in on the water’s surface so that conventional clues to the artist’s—and the viewer’s—vantage points are eliminated. The shimmer of light on the water and the intermingling of reflections of the clouds and foliage overhead further blur the distinctions between here and there.”
After the First World War drew to a close, Monet donated a number of his “Grandes Décorations” artworks to the French state, which in turn opted to display them in the Orangerie, an exhibition space in the Tuileries gardens. But the show, which opened to the public one year after Monet’s death in 1926, was not a success. Impressionism was falling out of fashion, and viewers found Monet’s compositions strange, even messy; some speculated that his failing eyesight was to blame. And there was no room in the Orangerie to hang the wisteria paintings that Monet had envisioned as part of the installation. They remained in his studio, along with other late paintings that were neglected and largely forgotten until Monet was “rediscovered” in the 1950s. Eight of the wisteria works are known to exist today.
It is curious that the artist decided to paint the Gemeentemuseum’s wisteria piece over another artwork. He was, by this point, a wealthy man and did not need to resort to reusing canvases. Perhaps, Hoppe speculates in an interview with Siegal, Monet was experimenting with a transition to a new floral subject.
“The most logical reason for me was that he wanted to try something new, and he wasn’t sure yet where it would end,” she explains. “To my eye, this is a bridge between the water lilies and the wisteria.”
Monet’s water lilies have enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity, but his wisteria works remain underappreciated. “[A]ll the focus is always on the water lilies,” van Dijke tells Siegal, “so no one really cares about the wisteria.” But the Gemeentemuseum’s Wisteria will be a centerpiece of its new exhibition—boosted, perhaps, by a little water lily star power.