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Chloe Effron

The Dying Art of Skywriting

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Chloe Effron

Steve Oliver never had a chance to practice. And how could he? Writing mile-high letters across the sky is not something a pilot can just go out and do. All that paraffin oil—"liquid smoke," as it's commonly known—is expensive, and skywriting being a low-margin industry, you don’t want to go spraying the stuff around unless someone else is footing the bill. There’s also the issue of visibility: With each message hanging way up there in the clear blue yonder, able to be seen for miles, what do you write that can build your skill set without creating too much of a buzz? You really don’t need a write-up in the local paper, much less a visit from the police department.

No, skywriting is a trial by fire for the uninitiated—the sort of ridiculously high-pressure, no-margin-for-error enterprise that has drawn many a white-knuckle flyer over the years.

And so on a clear February afternoon in 1982, Oliver, a pilot whose prior experience included towing banners and dusting crops, took to the sky over Florida’s Daytona Speedway. Bombing along at 150 miles per hour, the thin, frigid air rushing over his face, buffeting his Travel Air biplane about, he reached forward and flipped the switch on his control panel.

If he screwed this up, only half a million people would know it.

For nearly a century, daring pilots like Oliver have taken to the sky to write towering messages in white. Skywriting, or "smoke riding," as it used to be called, was once the exciting new frontier of advertising, a way for companies to reach thousands of people through a single, eye-catching spectacle. As it grew in popularity, skywriting also became a way for people to broadcast personal messages to the world—their loves, their fears, their political rants, their marriage proposals.

In an age of sophisticated digital and television advertising, social media and email, skywriting is an antiquated form of messaging. And yet, on clear days over big cities, at festivals and air shows around the country, you can still spot a lone plane scrawling letters across the blue expanse. Skywriting still exerts a nostalgic pull on the national imagination. It’s artistry at 10,000 feet; a fleeting imprint upon the heavens.

The days of watching skywriters carve up the skies may be numbered, though. Strong economic and competitive headwinds have winnowed the pool of flyers down over the years. It’s incredibly difficult to learn the craft, too, and just as hard to make money and keep your skills sharp. Today, according to Oliver, there are less than 10 pilots who know how to skywrite the traditional way—"mostly old timers," he said, in an interview with mental_floss—and even fewer who still practice it.

This is an example of skytyping. Danny Sullivan via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For anyone who’s gone to an air show recently, who lives in a major city, or perhaps attended the Rose Bowl Parade earlier this year, skywriting may not seem like a dying art. But that’s because much of the mile-high writing people see these days is an automated form of skywriting known as skytyping, which was developed in the '60s by one of the country’s premier skywriters, Andy Stinis. Planes fly in formation along a fixed line, while a computer in the lead plane orchestrates puffs of smoke that each aircraft emits and together form a message. It’s a bit like a dot matrix printer two miles up.

Steve Oliver calls skytyping "paint by numbers," an affectionate poke ("we’re all friends in the industry," he adds) that nevertheless points to a skill gap between the modern, automated form and the longhand form he practices. Indeed, it’s that acrobatic, engine-buzzing, smoke-streaming form of skywriting that most people equate with the craft. And in the coming years, the decades-old art of skywriting could become extinct.

Skywriting dates back to World War I, when a group of pilots in Britain’s Royal Air Force discovered that running paraffin oil through their planes’ exhaust created a white smoke trail that would hang in the air. They used the smoke to signal ground forces when all other means of communication were unavailable, and to create (literally) smoke screens for troops and ships. After the war, a savvy RAF captain named Cyril Turner took what he knew about skywriting to the advertising world. In 1922, he struck a deal with a London newspaper, and on Derby Day took to the skies over Epsom Downs, where he wrote "Daily Mail" in large white letters. A few months later, Turner hopped across the Atlantic, where he wrote "Hello USA" over New York City. The next day, to promote his new business, Turner went up again and scrawled the number of the hotel where he was staying, "Vanderbilt 7200." According to The New York Times, the hotel received 47,000 calls in a span of two and a half hours.

Turner eventually became the lead pilot for the Skywriting Corporation of America, the country’s first and most prominent commercial skywriting outfit. Operating out of Long Island’s Curtiss Field, the company contracted with big-name clients like Ford, Chrysler, Lucky Strike Tobacco, and Sunoco. In cloudless skies across America, the one-time war pilots wrote slogans like "Drive Ford" and "LSMFT," for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

Having an advertising medium that literally stopped traffic kept the pilots busy year-round, which in addition to earning them lots of money also advanced the art of skywriting considerably. In this promotional video, shot in the early '30s, you can see smoke riders writing tight, precise messages that look almost handwritten.

The most enthusiastic supporter of skywriting was a young soda company based in North Carolina. Eager to gain an edge in the cutthroat soft drink industry, Pepsi bought its own open-cockpit biplane and hired Stinis, a barnstormer flyer whose parents had immigrated from Crete when he was a young boy, as its pilot. In 1932 the Pepsi Skywriter made its inaugural flight over New York City, writing "Drink Pepsi Cola" eight times over the course of the day. Pepsi eventually beefed up its skywriting fleet to 14 planes, headed by Stinis, which flew all over America and in countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico. The fleet gained a worldwide following, and was instantly recognizable from the planes’ red, white, and blue exteriors. In 1940 alone, Pepsi planes [PDF] wrote more than 2200 slogans in skies at home and abroad.

After television came along, skywriting faded as an advertising medium. But it endured as a fixture on the air show and festival circuit, and as a medium for all sorts of personal and political raptures. During the '60s, large peace symbols would often appear in the sky. In December 1969, Toronto residents looked up and saw one of the longest skywritten messages ever: "War is over if you want it—Happy Xmas from John and Yoko."

Recognizing a certain nostalgia for those buzzing biplanes, Pepsi brought back one of its Skywriters from Stinis in 1973, and for the next 30 years the plane served as the de facto mascot for the company. Pepsi’s wildly popular "Marry Me Sue" ad from 1979, which showed the plane writing out a marriage proposal from a country boy to his urbane girlfriend, made the plane a national icon.

In 1980 "Smilin' Jack" Strayer, the pilot of the Pepsi Skywriter who replaced Stinis and was a member of the company’s original squadron, took a young prodigy under his wing. Suzanne Asbury had made her first solo flight at age 15, and showed a real knack for skywriting. By 1981, Strayer had retired and Asbury had moved into the pilot’s seat—one of only two female professional skywriters ever, and the only one still practicing.

A year after that, while working at the Kentucky Derby, Asbury met a banner-towing pilot from the Bluegrass state named Steve Oliver. They bonded over their love of flying, and in the months that followed Asbury passed along to Oliver the sacred knowledge of skywriting. Nine months after they met, they got married. Soon after that, they started their own skywriting business: Oliver’s Flying Circus.

In the hours before his inaugural flight over Daytona, Steve reviewed his flight diagram with Suzanne—a crucial step for any skywriter—noting his turns, where he would begin and end each letter, how many seconds to count off from the top to the bottom of each letter, and so on. Everything had to be razor precise, down to individual seconds and degrees. They walked over to the hangar where the red-and-white Pepsi Skywriter, which now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., was parked. On the big, open floor, Suzanne had her husband walk off his route.

"I had committed everything to memory and was able to show her exactly how I was going to do it," Oliver said. "And she looked at me and said, 'okay, now go do it.'"

Despite being as nervous as one would imagine he’d be, everything went off without a hitch. Hundreds of thousands of NASCAR fans that day looked up to see "PEPSI" inked into the sky, as if by magic.

According to Oliver, the only way a pilot can learn to skywrite is from a current skywriter. The storehouse of knowledge that’s built up over the years and passed down from pilot to pilot represents the only training manual that exists in a phenomenally difficult craft. Having all the right equipment—including a single-engine, high-horsepower plane and an $800 drum of liquid smoke, properly installed—along with some piloting skill alone won’t cut it. Even expert crop dusters and acrobatic pilots with hundreds of flying hours would be hard-pressed to learn the necessary skills on their own, he says.

Some have certainly tried. A few years ago, a pilot—"some clown with a Cessna 150 and no skill set," according to Oliver—signed a contract with United Airlines to write "Fly United" over a major U.S. city. He botched the job, and the contract was canceled. On several other occasions, aviators have tried their hand at skywriting over festivals and air shows only to form a jumble of illegible or barely-readable letters.

"People will say to Suzanne or I, 'Boy, you guys really screwed that one up,' and we have to tell them, 'that wasn’t us!'" said Oliver.

Precision is the name of the game. Skywriters have to diagram every turn and roll and flip of the smoke switch beforehand. Then have to go out and execute their plan at 150 miles per hour, with sometimes violent wind shear and an air temperature around zero degrees. Letters and numbers that seem so simple to write on a piece of paper become an intricate ballet of maneuvers at 10,000 feet.

Because pilots write horizontal to the ground, they can’t track their progress visually. It’s all blue sky and walls of smoke, as Oliver tells it. So skywriters have to trust their planning and their instrument readings, and stay dead on the heading. Being even slightly off can make for a pretty silly looking "B" or "P" or "W" that can ruin a message. As if that weren’t enough, they also have to be able to efficiently transition from one letter to another, knowing when to open and close the flow of smoke. They also have to ensure that each letter is proportionate to the others, evenly spaced and running along a straight line.

"Most pilots are happy if they can land their plane on the runway," said Oliver. "But a skywriter is the type of pilot that’s only happy if the wheels hit that center line every time."

There’s the weather issue, too. Skywriters need blue skies for their work to stand out, and so they can’t work on cloudy days or during inclement weather. Clients typically agree to pay rain or shine, and if there’s time flexibility then skywriters like Oliver will wait as long as a few days to allow the skies to clear. Detailed forecasting helps, but sometimes Mother Nature rears her ugly head and the plane never gets off the ground.

And then there’s the most challenging part of the craft. Because skywriters are writing horizontal to the ground, they also have to write backwards (think about it for a second). It’s a step that not every skywriter has remembered to do—like one in 1924 who wrote "NY Jubilee" the wrong way over New York during the city’s 300th anniversary celebration.

All of which makes skywriting not very much like "writing" at all. Oliver calls it "the dance." Rather than forming individual letters, skywriting for him is a series of carefully choreographed, razor-precise moves. He draws a comparison to, oddly enough, the Radio City Rockettes.

"They have to learn very complicated dance routines quickly, which is the same thing we’re doing, but we just happen to be in a plane," said Oliver.

Skywriters rely on a storehouse of knowledge to make their living, and because in generations past they were often competing with each other to secure gigs, many were loathe to pass along that knowledge. The pilot they trained could become the skywriter that secured a lucrative contract over them. This reluctance to pass along the trade has lead to a narrowing of talent over the generations.

There are numerous other reasons why skywriting is a dying art. There aren’t many gigs, which makes it harder to earn a living. Fewer and fewer pilots know how to fly single-engine, high-horsepower planes. And those who do are reluctant to sign on for the constant grind that skywriting entails.

During their busiest years, Steve and Suzanne were on the road 33 weeks out of the year. One week they’d be in Florida, the next they’d have to be in Seattle, then Anchorage, Alaska after that, and maybe a tour through Canada to follow. Traveling by jetliner would make all that travel a breeze, but that wasn’t an option since the Olivers had to ferry their plane, which could only fly a few hundred miles between fill-ups, from place to place. Oftentimes one of them would fly the plane while the other drove. Sometimes their mechanic would do the flying while they drove along together, bedding down in a different town each night.

It was a tough way to make a living, but the two embraced life on the road. They bought an RV, got a dog named Charlie Brown, and went all in on the idea that home was wherever they were parked.

"We’re both gypsies at heart, and we’ve always loved to travel," said Oliver. "With the motor home, we’re at home every night. It’s just the lawn that changes."

In just over three decades, the Olivers have performed in every U.S. state, including Alaska and Hawaii. They’ve skywritten all over Canada and Mexico, ventured out to the Dominican Republic and the Cayman Islands, and traveled as far south as Ilopango, El Salvador for a job. They’ve received requests to perform in Europe and Asia, but have turned these down because of the time and expense involved in shipping their plane.

Getting their plane from one place to another isn’t cheap, and it’s a cost the Olivers have to pass along to the client. This makes skywriting too pricey for many individuals and businesses. Steve said he’ll get inquiries from high schoolers who want to ask their date to the prom, or couples celebrating their anniversary who quickly back out after receiving an estimate.

"We get calls from people who think they can get a skywritten message for $250, and of course that’s not the way it is," said Oliver.

Landing contracts has long been a challenge. And yet, lo and behold, in recent years there’s been an upswing in business. Recent clients are a diverse bunch, including Jaguar, T-Mobile, the University of Michigan, and Lady Gaga, who promoted her 2011 album in the skies over Coachella. Oliver credits the power of social media, whose users preserve skywritten messages and help them reach a wider audience. Really, there’s nothing more Instagram- and Facebook-worthy than a tiny plane carving giant letters into the sky.

Several years ago, Cool Moon Ice Cream in Oregon commissioned the Olivers to write their company name in the sky above Portland. The high-flying stunt caused quite a commotion, even stopping traffic in some parts of the city. Local news stations were on the scene, while the blogosphere lit up with pictures and comments.

"Caused quite a scene downtown on Broadway with everyone looking up," one commenter wrote.

"I’m seriously impressed," wrote another.

"How the hell can you figure out how to make a bunch of big letters in the sky?" yet another mused.

Along with being very few in number, most skywriters are in their 60s and 70s. Their days of precise, acrobatic flying are coming to a close.

"We always get asked the question, 'who’s going to do skywriting after you and Suzanne retire?'" said Oliver. "And we always said there would be a time when we would bring on a protégé."

That time is now. For the past few years, the Olivers have been training 30-year-old Nathan Hammond, the son of their longtime mechanic, to skywrite. Nate, as he’s known, grew up around planes and would often travel with the Olivers, watching as they carved giant letters across the sky. He’s proven quite adept, and nowadays he handles most of the work that Olivers Flying Circus receives. The plan is to eventually turn the business over to him.

"He loves it up there," said Oliver. "He’s just like us 30 years ago."

After more than four decades of flying, though, it’s difficult to fathom retirement. For the best pilots, home is anywhere about a thousand feet, where the atmosphere becomes limitless and the world below a tapestry of geometric shapes and colors. But when asked what he loved most about being a skywriter, Oliver refused to wax poetic.

"It was how we made our living," he said.

Steve Oliver performing stunts at an airshow.

And yet, the way he spun story after story conveyed an undeniable sense of pride and adventure.

Like the time an anonymous client in Los Angeles paid him to write "Love, Love, Love" over a location above the Hollywood Hills that wasn’t disclosed until just before Oliver took off. To this day, he still doesn’t know who the message was for, though he suspects it was a major music producer.

Or the time he wrote "BOOM!" over an air show in Addison, Texas, and the local police department flooded with calls. The message unnerved passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight that flew right over it while landing.

Or the time when a groom-to-be paid for an elaborately planned wedding-day message. While saying his vows at the altar, he told his bride, "My love for you is as big as …" An assistant on the ground then radioed "hit it!" and Steve, who’d been circling in the skies overhead, drew an enormous white heart.

"I wish we’d been better about keeping a diary," said Oliver. "Because we’ve had a book’s worth of experiences over the years."

15 Things You Should Know About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still lifes are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born 130 years ago today, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.


Though O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.


For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.


In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.


While nature was her main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night and The Shelton with Sunspots.


While in New Mexico O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.


The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.


"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.


When the pair met in 1916, he was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.


Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then.


The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.


Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.


In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.


O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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11 Fascinating Facts About Claude Monet
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Oscar-Claude Monet is beloved for his series of oil paintings depicting water lilies, serene gardens, and Japanese footbridges. The French painter manipulated light and shadow to portray landscapes in a groundbreaking way, upending the traditional art scene in the late 19th century. In honor of his birthday, here are 11 things you might not know about the father of French Impressionism.


Born in Paris in 1840, Monet began drawing as a young boy, sketching his teachers and neighbors. He attended a school of the arts and, as a young teenager, sold his charcoal caricatures of local figures. He also learned about oil painting and en plein air (outdoors) painting, which later became a hallmark of his style. Monet’s mother encouraged his artistic talent, but his father, who owned a grocery store, wanted him to focus on the grocery business. After his mother died in 1857, Monet left home to live with his aunt and, against his father’s wishes, study art.


In 1861, Monet was drafted into the army. Forced to join the First Regiment of African Light Cavalry, he left Paris for Algeria, a territory that was then controlled by France. Monet's father offered to pay for his son’s discharge if he would promise to give up painting, but Monet refused to abandon art. After serving one year of his seven-year military commitment, Monet got sick with typhoid fever. His aunt paid to get him released from the army, and she enrolled him in art school in Paris.


In his late 20s, Monet was frustrated with the Académie, France’s art establishment. He hated creating formulaic artwork, copying the art that hung in the Louvre, and painting scenes from ancient Greek and Roman myths. Although he tried to get his paintings into the Académie’s art exhibits, his art was almost always rejected. Depressed and struggling to support himself and his family financially, Monet jumped off a bridge in 1868. He survived his fall into the Seine and began spending time with other artists who also felt frustrated by the Académie’s restrictions.


Renoir's "Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil." Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

In 1873, Monet was spending his summer in a rented home in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris. His friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited Monet to spend time together and paint outdoors. The two men connected over their mutual dislike of the traditional style of the Académie. During his visit, Renoir painted Monet painting in his garden, creating a painting within a painting. The painting, straightforwardly called Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, depicts Monet standing outside as he paints flowers.


Monet created a community with other frustrated artists, a group that included Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne. The group, which called itself The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., organized an exhibition in 1874. The exhibition included groundbreaking artwork featuring bright, vivid colors and loose, seemingly spontaneous brushwork. After a critic compared one of Monet’s paintings—"Impression, Sunrise"—to an unfinished sketch (or "impression"), the term "Impressionists" caught on to describe the artists who displayed these radically different, new paintings.


Monet frequently painted his first wife, Camille Doncieux, who worked as a model and had been in a relationship with the artist since the mid 1860s (they married in 1870). The couple had two sons, but Camille died, perhaps of uterine cancer, in 1879. Alice Hoschedé, the wife of a businessman and art collector, had been living with the Monets after her husband went bankrupt, and Monet may have started an affair with her while Camille was still alive. After Camille's death, Hoschedé jealously destroyed all of her letters and photographs. Despite this, Hoschedé (along with her six children) lived with Monet and his two kids, and the couple married in 1892 after Hoschedé’s husband died. (Fun fact: One of Hoschedé’s daughters later married one of Monet’s sons, so the step-siblings became husband and wife.)


From 1883 until his death in 1926, Monet lived in Giverny, a village in northern France. Over the years, he hired gardeners to plant everything from poppies to apple trees in his garden, turning it into a beautiful, tranquil place for him to paint. Finally wealthy from sales of his paintings, Monet invested serious money into his garden. He put a Japanese footbridge across his pond, which he famously painted, and he imported water lilies from Egypt and South America. Although the local city council told him to remove the foreign plants so they wouldn’t poison the water, Monet didn’t listen. For the last 25 years of his life, he painted the water lilies in a series of paintings that showcased the plants in varying light and textures.


As Monet’s garden expanded, he hired six full-time employees to tend to it. One gardener’s job was to paddle a boat onto the pond each morning, washing and dusting each lily pad. Once the lilies were clean, Monet began painting them, trying to capture what he saw as the light reflected off the water.


Getty Images

Around 1908 when he was in his late 60s, Monet began having trouble with his vision. Diagnosed with cataracts in 1912, he later described his inability to see the full color spectrum: "Reds appeared muddy to me, pinks insipid, and the intermediate or lower tones escaped me." When he became legally blind in 1922, he continued painting by memorizing the locations of different colors of paint on his palette. Monet delayed getting risky cataract surgery until 1923, and critics mocked him for his blurry paintings, suggesting that his Impressionist style was due to his failing vision rather than his artistic brilliance. After two cataract surgeries, Monet wore tinted glasses to correct his distorted color perception and may have been able to see ultraviolet light.


In 2015, an art dealer in London discovered an unknown Monet pastel that had been hidden behind another Monet drawing that he had bought at a 2014 auction in Paris. The pastel depicts the lighthouse and jetty in Le Havre, the port in France where Monet lived as a child. Art scholars authenticated the pastel as an authentic Monet artwork and dated it to 1868, around the time he jumped into the Seine.


MIGUEL MEDINA // AFP // Getty Images

In 1926, Monet died of lung cancer. Starting in 1980, his former home in Giverny has been open to tourists to see his gardens, woodcut prints, and mementos. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Giverny to walk through the artist’s famous garden and refurbished home. Besides looking at a variety of flowers and trees, visitors can also see Monet’s bedroom, studio, and blue sitting-room.


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