THE HAGUE — The pioneering French Impressionist Claude Monetspent the final decades of his life obsessed with his gardens in Giverny, France, painting hundreds of images of water lilies and Japanese footbridges there.
In 1918, he announced to the French state that he would donate some of those images for a major installation that he called his “Grandes Décorations,” consisting of many continuous panels of water lily paintings, and, above them, a series of canvases showing garlands of wisteria, as a decorative crown. The idea was to create, in his words, “the illusion of an endless whole.”
He wanted to have a museum in Paris dedicated to this final masterpiece, but the French state decided to show them in the Orangerie, a building in the Tuileries gardens which, at the time, was a multipurpose hall for everything from art exhibitions to dog shows.
The wisteria paintings couldn’t fit in this new space, and were left behind in Monet’s studio with hundreds of other paintings he made in preparation for the “Grandes Decorations.” It would be decades before these late works would be recognized as perhaps his most important contribution to art history. Now, they are Monet’s most prized paintings.
Only eight of the wisteria paintings are known to exist, and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague owns one of them. Recently, the museum took the painting off the wall for the first time since it bought it in 1961, to prepare it for a Monet exhibition planned for the fall.
Ruth Hoppe, the modern art conservator for the museum, noticed that the painting had been retouched to cover up tiny holes in it. On closer inspection, she found that there were shards of glass wedged into the canvas.
Ms. Hoppe decided to do a more extensive investigation. She X-rayed the work, and discovered something extraordinary: Underneath the “Wisteria” was another painting — of water lilies.
“For us it was a big surprise,” said Frouke van Dijke, a curator of 19th-century art at the Gemeentemuseum, “especially because all the focus is always on the water lilies, so no one really cares about the wisteria.”