Beneath the extraordinary surface of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies lies a hidden history of the artist’s working methods and thought process. Monet’s continuous reworking reshaped the painting’s composition and created dynamic interplays of texture and color. The Cleveland painting is the left panel of a triptych, a group of three paintings forming a complete work. The other two panels are located in museums in St. Louis and Kansas City. This triptych is part of an expansive group of 48 harmonized “water-landscape” paintings begun in 1914. In 1918, Monet decided to donate many paintings from the series to the French state (now permanently exhibited in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris) but kept a number of paintings in his studio, reworking them until his death in 1926. In its earlier state, agapanthus plants appeared along the riverbank in the lower left of the Cleveland panel.
The three midwestern museums’ desire to reunite and exhibit the triptych initiated further study of the Cleveland painting’s state of conservation to ensure that it could travel safely and to study the compositional changes with x-radiographs. X-ray images of all three paintings were envisioned as a major component of the exhibition. Imaging works of art with x-rays is a fundamental diagnostic tool and one of the most effective analytical techniques in conservation. X-radiographs, which record an object’s varying densities and sometimes reveal changes to its construction, provide critical information about the artist’s working methods and offer insight into the structure and state of preservation of a work of art.
For more than 25 years the Cleveland Museum of Art has used the same technique to x-ray paintings. The x-ray tube is enclosed in the base of a customized table with an opening cut in the top at the precise distance to expose a standard 13 x 16 inch film. Once the painting is positioned over the window area, a film is laid over the painting in alignment with the window. The painting is then repositioned over the table with each exposure until the entire painting is covered. This configuration works well for most easel paintings but not for oversize paintings such as Water Lilies, which measures more than 6 feet high and 13 feet long. Since the conservation department intends to replace its present setup with a more mobile and versatile unit, three different systems were compared to see how well each worked in situ as well as the quality of the resulting x-radiographs.
The diagnostic imaging departments from University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic, along with specialists from General Electric, agreed to bring mobile x-ray units into the Monet gallery to test a variety of imaging techniques. In all three experiments, the painting was removed from the wall and kept upright on a special stand designed and built by museum staff, with the film or cassettes containing digital imaging plates placed behind and the x-rays transmitted through the painting from the front.
In the first two experiments the digital capture of x-rays delivered high-quality images that could easily be manipulated with x-ray viewing software. However, processing the digital captures and placing the cassettes safely and securely behind the painting was time consuming and cumbersome. Certain advantages available with traditional x-ray film were lacking, especially its flexibility, which allows taping sheets of film together into larger arrays and increasing the area of capture for each exposure. Such a process was crucial since our goal was to x-ray the entire painting in only one day.
For the final experiment we decided to return to traditional film, knowing that later digitization was an option. The day began with the museum’s art handlers carefully placing the painting in its stand. Next, Dr. Pejavar Sridhar Rao, a radiological physicist from University Hospitals, and his team wheeled one of their mobile x-ray units in front of the painting. Using the museum’s x-ray developer, exposures could be quickly adjusted to obtain the best settings for the amount of energy and duration. Once these factors were determined, the large preassembled film arrays were placed, shot, and processed.
In total, 84 sheets of x-ray film (each measuring 13 x 16 inches) systematically “captured” the entire painting. The films were then later scanned and digitized to be stitched together with image-processing software, producing one huge seamless x-radiograph. The x-radiograph of the lower left showed the most impressive major change that Monet made to the painting. It revealed the underlying agapanthus plant for which the triptych had been named. The absence of this compositional element had led art historians to believe that the triptych had been lost.
Another important discovery was the presence of small mismatched retouches from past restorations scattered over the surface. Many were found in the upper left and had been applied to disguise a series of faint vertical streaks, most likely from water dripping down the face of the painting. Examination under high magnification revealed that the streaks were actually fine white fissures in the paint surface. The vertical streaks disrupted Monet’s gestural brushwork and his ingenious development of space through light and color. Period photographs of his studio show water-stained draperies under the skylights, confirming a written account of water-damaged paintings that had been seen there. Solvent tests confirmed that the retouching could be safely removed from the original paint surface. After consulting with William Robinson, curator of modern European art, we decided to remove the retouches and reduce the streaks with a small amount of transparent and reversible inpainting, allowing Monet’s dexterous brushwork to regain its momentum within the composition.
Technical examination and analyses are tools used in conservation to inform the curator and conservator about the artist’s working methods and to present the original intent of the artist to the visitor. In this instance, thanks to our partners in University Circle, an entire x-ray of this large-scale painting was made for the first time. Examination of the other two paintings in the triptych, only partially x-rayed, reveals that Cleveland’s Water Lilies was the panel most reworked by Monet. All three panels will be reunited as part of a special exhibition in 2015.
Dean Yoder Conservator of Paintings Marcia Steele Chief Conservator