Roy Lichtenstein emerged in the 1960s as one of the leading figures of the Pop Art movement, standing shoulder to shoulder with contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Born in 1923 in New York City, Lichtenstein's distinct style was immediately recognisable by its utilisation of Ben-Day dots, bright primary colours and appropriation of comic strip panels, bridging the gap between high art and popular culture. This fusion not only challenged prevailing notions of what constituted 'fine art,' but also provided astute commentary on post-war America's burgeoning consumer culture.
Lichtenstein's journey from his early abstract expressionist works to his more mature pieces showcased an artist deeply engaged with redefining visual narratives. His meticulous renditions of works of art were not mere reproductions, but rather sophisticated reimaginings that questioned authenticity, originality and the role of mass media in society – and this approach is evident in his Water Lilies series. This transformative approach ensured Lichtenstein's place as a pivotal figure in 20th-century art.
This celebrated series comprises six screen-prints on stainless steel, reinterpreting an art historical motif while sticking to Lichtenstein's style – a work featuring elements simplified to their fundamental visual components. The organic shapes are emphasised through bold outlines and strong blocks of vibrant colour, although Lichtenstein slightly deviates from his signature use of primary colours alone.
Lichtenstein's career had a long and prolific history of searching for inspiration and appropriating from other artists. In this series, he pays homage to iconic artist Claude Monet and, in particular, to the water lilies he Frenchman painstakingly painted over the course of several decades.
Monet, one of the founding figures of Impressionism, developed an enduring fascination with water lilies, dedicating the latter part of his career to capturing their beauty and serenity in a series of paintings. This fixation was deeply tied to his garden in Giverny, where he meticulously designed a lily pond that became the primary subject of his work. Through these paintings, Monet explored the interplay of light, reflection and colour, producing masterpieces that transcended mere representation to evoke the fluidity and impermanence of nature.
By the '90s, Lichtenstein's career had been more than solid – his prominence had led to numerous retrospectives and global exhibitions, cementing his place in art history. Moreover, he undertook several public commissions, translating his signature style into larger architectural projects.
He would pass away five years after creating Water Lilies, in 1997.
Because Lichtenstein created this series in sheet metal, the light and colours are at constant interplay with one another. This allows Lichtenstein to harness Monet's Water Lilies transient and ephemeral nature, still transporting the motif into his Pop Art style.
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His interposition of several colours and patterns give the impression of a collage or a woodcut print, reminiscent of Japanese art such as that from the ukiyo-e tradition.
He is quoted as saying: "When I did paintings based on Monet’s I realised everyone would think that Monet was someone I could never do because his work has no outlines and it’s so Impressionistic. It’s laden with incredible nuance and a sense of the different times of day and it’s just completely different from my art. So, I don’t know, I smiled at the idea of making a mechanical Monet."
Lichtenstein was preoccupied with reflections throughout much of his career and, in various ways, many works in the Water Lilies series are yet another instance of that.
This is perhaps most evident in the Mirrors paintings created between 1969 and 1972, and this theme persisted in the Reflection series of artworks – both in paintings and in prints – in the early 1990s.
Lichtenstein had sought inspiration from Monet from an early stage in his career. Beginning in 1969, he created two series of prints after the French painter’s work, his Cathedral and Haystack series. In each of these, Lichtenstein puts his mechanical creative process in direct opposition to Monet's famous en plein aire methodology, which meticulously considered elements such as time of the day, lighting and season of the year.
While most people are aware of Lichtenstein's appropriation of the work of comic book artists, he also sought inspiration from bigger names in the modern art world such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
By providing his own spin on these iconic artworks, Lichtenstein was sending a strong message about his own positioning in the history of art, and making a statement that Pop Art deserved to be appreciated just as any art movement before it.
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