KANSAS CITY — One of impressionist master Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" triptychs, separated 50 years ago and sold to three museums, has been reunited in a multifaceted exhibit that highlights not only the three-panel artwork, but the artist too.
"I think all of us think of Monet as this father of Impressionism, as this painter who was spontaneous, who painted outdoors in his garden," said Nicole Myers, associate curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where "Monet's Water Lilies" opens April 9. "That was certainly true. He presented himself that way publicly, really to the end of his life."
But Monet had another side that's also detailed in the exhibition, which ends Aug. 7 and moves on to the St. Louis Art Museum and then to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
"With these later paintings from the 20th century that he's working on, you see the sort of obsessive, almost obsessive-compulsive, artist who came indoors and worked tirelessly making revisions again and again in this kind of obsessive way," she said.
It's unclear if Monet ever considered the three panels finished, she said.
"And it really blows out of the water this impression we have of this man who just sort of dashed off his first thoughts and left things alone. He worked on them almost consistently from 1915 to 1926," Myers said.
The three panels, each 6 feet tall and 14 feet wide, languished in Monet's studio at Giverny outside Paris after his death in 1926, Myers said. The pieces on display at the Nelson-Atkins comprise one of two of Monet's Water Lily triptychs in the U.S. The other is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they are a steady, popular selection.
"What's amazing about them is the mood they create in the room where they're installed," said Ann Temkin's, MoMA's chief curator of paintings and sculpture. "It's a magical one. It becomes a very quiet place. The visitors become quite contemplative."
The triptych at the Nelson-Atkins was brought to New York in the 1950s. It was then separated, and the individual panels were sold to the St. Louis Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins. It has been more than 30 years however, since they were shown as Monet intended for them to be seen — together.
"So for a new generation this is really a first time to get the chance to see these great paintings come together," Myers said.
The paintings, alone in the exhibit's main room where they provide a serene and powerful display of water, light and nature, are clearly the centerpiece.
But the artist and his process are also crucial elements of the installation, which includes brief film footage of Monet at work in his garden in 1915, dressed in a white suit and straw hat, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"We think we know this painter, and yet really ... he was ... more of what we consider today almost to be a conceptual painter," Myers said. "If you didn't know this was a "Water Lily" series would you think that's what these paintings are about?
"And is that as important as this experience of viewing them, which is of course, what he really intended."
A separate room also has displays about the artist's process, among them detailed cross sections of the panels that show the layers of paint Monet added over the years, changing the painting from its original to its current state.
Each of the museums also collaborated to X-ray sections of their panels for the first time, giving a better sense of what each painting looked like in 1921, and what they look like today, showing substantial changes.
Visitors can also use touch screen panels to "make your own Monet," which can then be displayed on the museum's website. Another display allows visitors to get a close-up look at and touch versions of the artist's short, loose brush strokes, and yet another gives visitors the chance to type a word or two describing their experience. Those words are then projected in light on the walls of that room.
In the "Water Lily" series, Monet said he wanted to create "an asylum of peaceful meditation in the midst of a flowered aquarium."
That flowered aquarium opens next Saturday.