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15 Facts About Monet's Water Lilies

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Chris Young/AFP/Getty Images

Claude Monet's Water Lilies is beloved around the world, a radiant example of French Impressionism and the glory found in nature. But their path from the artist’s yard to museum walls was one paved with obstacles, perfectionism—and a lot of gardening. 

1. Water Lilies is not one painting by Monet. 

The title Water Lilies refers to a series by the father of French Impressionism. Over the course of the series, Monet painted countless individual water lilies in around 250 oil paintings. 

2. Before he painted Water Lilies, Monet planted them.

The beauty of the French village Giverny struck Monet when he passed through on a train. The artist was so inspired that in 1883 he rented a house there; it would become his home in 1890 (which was as soon as he could afford it). 

When he wasn't painting the plant life on his property, Monet was remodeling its landscapes and gardens to better inspire his work, or as he put it, “I’m good for nothing except painting and gardening.” Basically, he created the perfect place for quiet reflection, then spent the rest of his days capturing it in oils.

3. There would be no water lilies if Monet had obeyed the city council. 

The ambitious painter imported water lilies for his Giverny garden from Egypt and South America, which drew the ire of local authorities. The council demanded he uproot the plants before they poisoned the area's water, but (thankfully) Monet ignored them. 

4. These paintings were the focus of Monet's later life. 

Commenting on what he called his "water landscapes," Monet once declared, "One instant, one aspect of nature contains it all." No wonder he dedicated much of the last 30 years of his life to painting them, forging on even when cataracts began threatening his vision in 1912.  

5. Monet's Japanese footbridge is the focus in 17 paintings.

In 1899, Monet completed setting the scene of his pond, despite his neighbors' protests. Across it, he built a quaint Japanese-style bridge. Monet was apparently quite pleased with how it turned out, as he painted the structure 17 times that very year, with each painting reflecting changes in lighting and weather conditions. 

6. Monet's Water Lilies earned scorn in his lifetime.

Critics called the Impressionist paintings messy and suggested the works were less about a creative vision than Monet's blurred vision. As his eyes were failing, critics sneered at Monet's color palette and his argument that his depiction of flora, water, and light was an artistic choice, spurring an initial disdain of Monet's now-revered series. 

7. The rise of Abstract Expressionism resurrected interest in Water Lilies. 

For 20 years following Monet's death in 1926, his Water Lilies series was largely ignored, with many paintings sitting forgotten in his Giverny studio. But in the 1950s, curators rediscovered Monet, crediting him with paving the path to the fashionable art of the day. By 1955, the Museum of Modern Art had purchased their first Monet from this series, and it quickly became one of the famed museum’s most popular holdings. 

8.  Some Water Lilies were lost to fire.

In 1958, a terrible fire broke out at MoMA. While many paintings were saved, including Georges-Pierre Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884, six were damaged. Two of these were recently acquired Water Lilies works. The loss devastated art lovers, who sent sympathy letters to the museum. In 1959 MoMA got another crack at owning part of the series when it acquired a massive Water Lilies triptych.

9. Others were lost to Monet's frustration. 

Sometimes the painter's passion turned violent. In 1908, Monet destroyed 15 of his Water Lilies right before they were to be exhibited at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris. Apparently, the artist was so unhappy with the paintings that he decided to ruin them rather than have the work go on public display. 

10. Monet became a perfectionist about his paintings near the end of his life.

Considering how cruel his critics were, it's little wonder that in his later years Monet became incredibly selective about which paintings he would sign and attempt to sell. Just four paintings made the grade in 1919. One of those lucky few can now be seen on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  

11. Water Lilies became increasingly focused on the surface of the water. 

Over the years spent painting his beloved aquatic garden, Monet moved closer and closer to it. The edges of his pond moved to the edges of the frame and beyond until he had cut out the horizon altogether. From there, his works became a study of water and how it reflects light and the world above it. 

12. His large Water Lilies were intended to envelop the viewer. 

In 1918, Monet completed a series of 12 paintings he intended to be laid out side by side in a specially made oval room where viewers could step in and be given (as he put it) "the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank." Monet said these were meant to create "the refuge of a peaceful meditation in the center of a flowering aquarium." Today three such panels (displayed as a triptych) are on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art, measuring more than 6 feet by 41 feet.

13. Monet celebrated the end of World War I by giving France Water Lilies. 

On the day after Armistice Day in 1918, Monet promised his homeland a “monument to peace” in the form of massive water lily paintings.

14. In Paris, you can see Water Lilies as Monet intended. 

In exchange for some of Monet's grandest works, the nation honored him by displaying these at the Musée de l'Orangerie, just as he dreamed. Two specially made oval exhibition rooms were built to house his massive Water Lilies, creating a complete panorama of the painter's favorite views. 

15. Water Lilies broke from impressionism’s standards.

As MoMA curator Ann Temkin explains:

In early Impressionism you had these views of nature where you were out looking at a seaside or out looking at a field and there were markers of location that you could understand, "Here I am as a person. Here's the view that the painter is portraying for me." With the Water Lily panels, he's changed it completely so that rather than you being larger than the view that you're looking at on an easel-sized canvas, somehow you have become immersed in the scene of this water lily pond. All the normal markers, like the edge of the water or the sky or the distant trees, have disappeared, and you’re just right in the face of those water lilies and the surface of the water with the clouds reflected from above you become lost in this expanse of water and of light.

In this way, Monet's unique vision forever changed Impressionism, creating a new form that inspired untold artists and admirers.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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