The Nelson’s new immersive Monet exhibit finds a moment of peace amidst the pandemic

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Photography by Gabe Hopkins, provided by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The newest exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Monet’s Water Lilies: From Dawn to Dusk, was born of the pandemic—two pandemics, actually.

Claude Monet worked on his famous Water Lilies series while seated in his garden in Giverny during the Spanish flu epidemic, as World War I raged so near that he could hear the sounds of battle as he painted. 

In the early months of our current pandemic, Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, the museum’s senior curator of European arts, was trying to envisage the mood when the public returned to the museum. That brought her back to the Monet in the Nelson’s collection—the right-hand panel of a triptych whose siblings reside in Cleveland and St. Louis. (The trio is occasionally reunited, with much fanfare, as happened in KC back in 2011.)

“We do what we do because we love to be around art, and I just felt so disconnected,” Marcereau DeGalan says. “I started thinking about how the conditions that Monet was painting this in were very similar. He hoped others could find refuge, and a place for peaceful meditation, in this work.”

Marcereau DeGalan wanted to accentuate the immersive, transportive nature of the Water Lilies in a “quiet, contemplative space.” That ended up taking the form of a dedicated gallery where the painting is accompanied by a ten-minute light program that imitates the daylight cycle from sunrise to sunset along with a backdrop of nature sounds. Those sounds were carefully sourced from amatuer orthological field recordings of European robins and tawny owls.

“I thought, ‘Maybe we should try to recreate that immersive moment that Monet was experiencing,’” she says. “We have the technological capability to do that—we have state-of-the-art sound equipment and the ability to tune all of the lights individually to the paintings. We’ve messed around with a few things, but we’ve never fully realized something with sound and light. This might be a really great moment to bring these things together.”

GO: Water Lilies: From Dawn to Dusk will be on display through January 2022 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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