Lost Masterpieces

When Claude Monet Slashed and Destroyed His Own Paintings

In 1908, Claude Monet slashed his way through 15 of his own paintings, causing an artistic disaster that one paper reported was worth $100,000, or over $2 million today.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In the second half of his life, the already famous Claude Monet began creating art on two separate canvases.

On the more traditional, he plied his paintbrush to bring to life his famous Impressionist paintings.

On the more natural, he used his green thumb (and the help of some seriously skilled professionals) to craft an incredible garden at his home in Giverny, France out of the surrounding landscape and his soon-to-be-iconic imported water lilies and Japanese bridges.

These two areas of art converged around the turn of the 20th century when Monet turned to his garden for inspiration.

For the remainder of his life, he would continue to work on a series of paintings popularly known as the Water Lilies that may have varied in size and composition, but all revealed his obsession with perfecting the light and likeness of his garden.

Ultimately, Monet created over 250 water lily paintings that still exist today (except for one destroyed in a fire at MoMA in the 1950s), and that are coveted by museums and private collectors around the world.

While these works continue to be critically acclaimed—not to mention fetch a pretty penny at action (we’re talking a $54 million pretty penny)—they did have their critics when they first came to life (most of whom cruelly blamed the impressionistic qualities they didn’t like on Monet’s failing eyesight). But perhaps the toughest critic of all was Monet himself.

In 1908, after three years of working on a new set of paintings—and right before they were scheduled to travel to Paris for the opening of a new exhibition of his work—Monet decided that at least 15 of his precious canvases weren’t up to snuff. He took a knife and errant paintbrush to the canvases and destroyed the would-be masterpieces. (The show, naturally, had to be postponed.)

The tortured artist has become a tired trope, especially in our age that increasingly emphasizes the importance of self-care and mental health. But for Monet, the label often rings true. “My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear,” he once said.

And it wasn’t just talk. There is a long tradition of artists who destroy their work…or the building blocks that reveal how they conceived their greatest masterpieces.

Gerhard Richter trashed over 60 of his pieces; Charles Dickens burned 20 years worth of letters and papers; and a young Jasper Johns destroyed his earliest creations, to name just a few. Not to be outdone, the famous Father of Impressionism more than earned his place among their ranks over the course of his career, most painfully with the water lily paintings.

In 1890, after several years of renting, Monet bought his house in Giverny and began to construct his beloved garden. As Susan Stamberg reported for NPR, he “planted, nurtured and composed his garden” assisted by no less than six gardeners. Everything was crafted according to the artist’s impeccable eye. Ponds were added where there were none before, bridges modeled after Japanese tradition were built, and a colorful and verdant masterpiece of flowers was thoughtfully planted.

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Nothing could stop the realization of his vision for his outdoor paradise—not nature, not cost, not even concerned local citizens.

And oh how those neighbors did try. In order to create a pond on his property, Monet rerouted a nearby river to cut through his land and provide fresh water to his new hole in the ground.

As if appropriating a local water supply wasn’t obnoxious enough, the town got wind that he also planned to fill it with exotic imported flowers. Concerned that these water lilies would poison their water, the town tried to levy fines against the now popular artist. But Monet successfully fought them off and his water lily-filled garden was born.

A life-long fan of painting 'en plein air,' Monet naturally took advantage of his gorgeous new yard as an outdoor studio. “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” the artist said, and in 1895, he began capturing on canvas for the very first time what would become one of his favorite subjects.

The stakes were high for the artist. Not only was he becoming more of a perfectionist with every passing year, but he also wanted to do justice to the surroundings that were so near and dear to his heart. And he just couldn’t get them right much of the time.

In 1908, a 68-year-old Monet wrote to a friend: “These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession. It is beyond my powers as an old man, and yet I want to arrive at rendering what I feel…[I] hope that after so many efforts, something will come out.”

Posterity may have deemed these sessions in the sun a success, but their creator was not so kind. Monet was getting downright surly about his work in his old age. “His paintings have a kind of therapeutic value because most of them are so beautiful and restful.

However, he himself, as a perfectionist, found painting them anything but restful,” Ross King, author of Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies told the Dallas Morning News. “He would rip them to shreds or even put his foot through them if he was unhappy with his work. He once threw his easel and paintbox into the river in a fit of temper.”

The thought of the works of art that were lost is enough to send today’s Monet lovers into temper tantrums of their own. But the timing of Monet’s early water lily massacres were particularly inconvenient given that he had a knack for breaking out into fits of destruction right before the said works were meant to be shipped off to exhibition.

In 1907, in what was by no means his first bout of self-destruction, Monet was forced to postpone a Paris exhibition of his new garden pieces for a year after an outburst rendered several canvases incapacitated. As the spring of 1908 rolled around and the rescheduled show loomed near, things were still not looking great despite the year-long extension.

On April 12, 1908, Monet’s second wife Alice wrote to a friend, “Today Monet is so very frustrating; he has just told me that he would definitely refuse to have the exhibition. He punctures canvases every day, it is truly distressing. One day, things are not too bad; the next day all is lost.”

Her foreboding words proved prescient. On one particularly bad day the very next month, Monet ruined at least 15 major water lily canvases in a bout of destruction that was so significant it made the news.

This time, using a knife and a particularly lethal paintbrush, Monet slashed his way through the offending works causing an artistic disaster that one paper reported was worth $100,000 (or over $2 million today).

The show had to be postponed for yet another year. Finally, in 1909, the water lilies made their appearance in Paris much to the relief of the saintly gallerist, one could imagine.

Monet would continue to explore the subject of his garden for the next two decades until his death in 1926. The paintings that survived would begin to accumulate and to grow even more massive in scale, with immersive canvases created that were meant to cover whole walls with the dreamy strokes of the Impressionist’s garden landscapes. They would become some of Monet’s most well known works, and deservedly so.

“Monet’s anguish was caused more than anything by his attempt to do something entirely new and different, indeed revolutionary,” Ross wrote.

And in this, he succeeded. Today, millions of visitors immerse themselves in the artist’s garden masterpieces each year, both those of the painted variety in museums around the world (where Monet’s water lilies are prominently displayed with nary a boot-kick to be found) and of the more natural kind in Giverny, where the botanical creation of the genius artist and gardener continues to bloom.