How can one compare two seemingly polar-opposite works of art? Some people take that question quite literally – gawking at each individual piece and proclaiming the visual differences between the two. ‘This one has cooler tones, while this one has more warm colors,’ one would say, gesturing broadly to the respectful painting. ‘This one has more detail – I think they put more work into this one,’ another would sniff. Works of art may appear very different from one another on the surface, but when you dig underneath – that’s when you begin to see just how similar they really are.
This paper will compare one of the famous Waterlilies paintings by none other than Claude Monet with the Acoma, N.M painting created by William Sanderson. This paper will address not only the physical differences between each work but also the motives behind each piece and the similarities between the respectful artists.
Claude Monet, a luminary of the Impressionism and Abstract-Impressionism art movement, started painting his famous Waterlilies series during his last thirty years of life.
Monet was rather fond of focusing on landscapes and was once quoted saying “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment, but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true values.”
The Waterlilies painting chosen for this paper was created in 1904 – twenty-two years before the artist passed away.
The chosen medium for the piece is oil paint on canvas. The painting consists of deep greens and purples with a clustering of rich taupe, overlapping with bright creams and vibrant pinks. The focal point of the painting seems to rest right below the immediate center of the piece. The foreground of the painting would make one imagine that they are right at the lake’s edge – peering deep into its depths. Verdant greens, violets, and bright lilac swirl together in the deep – catching both the reflection of the bright lilies that rest upon the lake’s surface as well as the leaves of the trees that line the lake’s edge. The foreground primarily uses the deeper greens while lighter greens begin blending into the background as the viewer’s eye is drawn upwards towards what one would seem to be the opposite end of the lake.
A swath of lilies can be seen now – illuminated by the warm sunlight and resting delicately upon their lush beds. Their bright pink bodies shine like small stars, stippled against the rich green backdrop. The viewer’s eye is drawn upwards still, finally resting on distinct, flowing strokes of paint that would make one believe that they are staring at a field of fresh spring grass, swaying gently in the light breeze. During the last years of his life, Monet became determined to make his final creative statement and longed to enjoy the enduring prestige of a museum. At his home in Giverny, France, Monet built an enormous, lush garden and tended to it with the utmost care – intentionally for the purpose of making this series and capturing water lilies and nature in paint.
Monet’s motives behind creating his extensive Waterlilies collection were, in my opinion, a combination of tumultuous feelings. The series received little admiration during his lifetime, being regarded as too neo-classical, too decorative, or confusing and messy. Monet painted more than 200 of his Waterlilies paintings, yet they all remained in his Giverny studio for about 30 years, unsold, despite his desire to have his work portrayed in a museum.
Knowing that he was growing older, his eyesight was failing him and he still hadn’t yet reached the life goals he had wished for himself, the creation of the series consumed him. Monet, in a letter to a friend in 1909 is quoted as saying, “These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me. It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”  Monet ended up completing the series before he passed away – creating a final series of waterlily paintings commissioned by the Orangerie des Tuileries, a museum in Paris. He chose to make this series on a very large scale – wanting the works to serve as a “haven of peaceful meditation,” believing that the images would soothe the “overworked nerves” of visitors.
Our next artist, William Sanderson, was also a master of his craft and known for his oil-based landscapes. Born in 1905, just one year after the aforementioned Waterlilies painting was created, Sanderson knew from an early age that he would make art his lifetime goal. An immigrant from Russia, Sanderson came to the United States in 1923 where he was soon accepted into the Fawcett School of Industrial Art in Newark. He spent many years working on the East coast, during the Great Depression, before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 where he was shipped out – at his own request – to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. After his tenure in the military, he produced works consisting of oils and watercolors in both surrealism and stylized realism form – depicting the Colorado and Western-inspired subject matter that Sanderson had become so fond of. The painting that will be discussed in this paper is his Acoma, N.M piece that hangs in the Denver Art Museum.
The painting, created on an unknown date, consists of deep grays, powerful blues as well as contrasting rich greens and ochres. Foreboding storm clouds loom over the desert plain, rolling and undulating across a somber gray sky. The storm clouds, surrealist in their depiction, churn in thick waves with pleats of rain pouring down from their bellies in gradient streams. What could be Mount Taylor, a mountain close to the Acoma Pueblo, rests in the background and melts into the horizon line – backlighted by a rich cream that offers atmospheric perspective to the murky, sickly colors of the sky and storm. In the foreground is the plain, normally sandy in appearance shown now to be rich with the greens of spring. A road cuts through the middle of the plain, curving towards the mountain. Patches of bright ochres can be seen insinuating that above this thick thunderstorm, a sun shines.
Sanderson did a superb job at capturing the feeling of a sudden Western spring storm. Often appearing out of thin air and typically leaving just as fast, these miniature typhoons belch rain, lightning and oftentimes tornadoes before melting away into nothingness. The sickly greens, grays, and blues used to create the surrealist storm clouds capture the color and atmosphere of these storms to a tee. One could almost imagine that they too are viewing this same storm – the sudden humidity clogging up their lungs, the sweet smell of rain hitting dry earth, the crack of thunder and electricity hanging in the air seem to envelop the viewer. The use of analogous colors also helps bring a sense of realism to this painting despite its obvious surrealism theme. Unlike Monet, Sanderson wasn’t motived to create his works based off of an existential fear of failure to live up to his life goals. Sanderson was, put simply, just inspired by the beautiful landscape that he surrounded himself with while living in Colorado.
To conclude, while both artists differ in their own ways regarding the respective work they both have strong similarities. Both artists enjoyed the use of oil as their main medium for their works. Both artists preferred painting landscapes and focused on the landscapes that they surrounded themselves with during their lifetime. Both worked in an abstract field – whether it being abstract Impressionism or abstract Surrealism. The two artists discussed in this paper, while living drastically different lifetimes and have equally as different motivations behind each piece, ended up both being highly regarded in their field and seen as trendsetters for the art world – motivating other artists for years to come. Different stories and emotions can be taken away from each piece. Waterlilies typically could make one feel at peace – with a sense of tranquility and beauty. On the other hand, Acoma is powerful, dark and exciting. Two completely opposite sets of the emotional spectrum – yet somehow, perfectly in sync.