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The pond in Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, France. Photo: Alamy
The pond in Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, France. Photo: Alamy

Water lilies and quietude

How rivers, ponds and water bodies can inspire. Look at Monet's water lilies for proof

A week ago, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, I saw an exhibition of paintings about gardens. One of the main posters advertising the exhibition was a close-cropped shot of Claude Monet’s water lilies. It was no coincidence that a large exhibition with paintings by many impressionists, including Camille Pissarro, Édouard Manet and Henri Matisse, chose that image of Monet’s water lilies as its mascot. For an important element of that painting was water—the liquid source from which life emerges.

Monet was obsessed by his garden, and in the exhibition you see his letters to his gardener and staff, sending precise instructions about what is to be planted and how the garden is to be tended. But the centrepiece for him, and for the multitude of tourists who make the journey that’s a little more than an hour from Paris, is that pond, the bridge across the pond, and the water lilies. When I was there on one visit, the large number of tourists taking photographs was distracting, and the way to eliminate the noise around you was to focus on the flowers, the water, the reflection, and you could begin to understand what it was about that still landscape, stirring occasionally, that mesmerized Monet.

Monet painted those water lilies many times; on another visit to Paris, I saw those canvases laid out on the curving walls of that storehouse of artistic gems, Musée de l’Orangerie, in Jardin des Tuileries. In that museum, those walls offer the water lilies fluidity because of the walls’ sweep, and the paintings surround you and you feel you are in that pond, in that body of water.

The appearance of stillness, the opportunity to reflect, the gentle disturbance of that reflection whenever there is turbulence—even if mild, and the dappled dispersal of light, make bodies of water, be they rivers, streams or ponds, a source of inspiration. A decade ago, in the Lake District in north-west England, I went driving with my family, aware that it was where, two centuries ago, William Wordsworth had seen that “host of golden daffodils" while he “wandered lonely as a cloud". Those flowers are now turned into kitsch on plastic trays and coffee mugs, all made in China (and not necessarily of china). The moment in which he saw the flowers, and the image, remained etched, pure, in his mind. He would recall it later, and he would describe poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…emotion recollected in tranquillity."

Daffodils in Lake District, England. Photo: iStockphoto
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Daffodils in Lake District, England. Photo: iStockphoto

What entranced Wordsworth were not just the flowers; it was their presence near the body of water, and their graceful ballet in the wind. And that moment inspired words that became the motif for the lake poets. We discovered the flowers accidentally, when least expected; I hadn’t gone looking for them, and that made the discovery more charming.

A more conscious search was for swans at a pond in Ireland. This was when I was heading for Galway. On the road from the airport to the university, I saw a sign for a place called Coole. William Butler Yeats immediately came to mind. The following day, I went back and saw the turlough, the home for swans, but the swans would only come in autumn. The sunlight had begun to fade and the wind was getting chillier, and I kept looking for the birds. There was a lesson in that—you don’t always get what you want when you want it; a salutary reminder in the age of instant gratification.

A little later, I did catch a glimpse of white birds on the other side of the lake, and decided to believe they were swans; a smug, self-satisfying compromise, willing myself to believe that I had overcome the rites of nature. But in my heart, I knew that I would have to come again, another time, to see those swans dancing by the lake. That patience is the building block of contemplation; and that contemplation made Yeats write the poem, The Wild Swans At Coole.

Rabindranath Tagore too sought quietude, and he found it in Shilaidaha, now in Bangladesh, about a hundred kilometres from the Indian border. The Tagores had a large estate there, called Kuthibari, and the Padma flowed along the estate. Here, Tagore sat and wrote his verses, many of which became part of Gitanjali, for which he would win the Nobel Prize for literature. I did not know that many of those poems were born there. But once there, I could understand how that elemental landscape could have inspired Gitanjali. A group of musicians sang Rabindrasangeet; the river was calm, and you could hear the faint echo of an occasional fisherman singing as he took his boat along the river. As twilight descended, and the sky turned golden, the mood became magical; my eyes glistened.

There is a spot on the estate around Kenwood House in Hampstead, in north London, which my mother had grown to like on her only visit to England, nearly 14 years ago. We would walk down the gentle slope into the woods, and then we would come across a bridge. We would walk along that bridge and stand at the centre, looking below. It was a still lake. Leaves had fallen on the water, and they stirred gently at the slightest hint of wind. I saw her face break into a lovely smile. “This is like paradise," she said. And I began to understand what Monet felt when he saw water lilies in his garden, and kept painting them, again and again, for years.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint. He tweets at @saliltripathi.

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