Few artists are as inextricably linked with a given setting as Claude Monet is with his gardens at Giverny. After his purchase in 1890 of the house, and in 1893 of the plot of land across the road, Monet began making elaborate plans for his water garden, engaging Japanese specialists for their advice. He thereafter began in earnest to paint the waterlilies (nymphéas) of this private pond with an energy that would have exhausted a man of half his age.
The water garden in a sense bypassed Monet's long searches of earlier years for suitable subjects to paint. Designed and constantly supervised by the artist himself, and tended by several gardeners, it offered him a motif which was at the same time natural and at his own command -- nature redesigned by a temperament. But once again Monet stressed that his real subject when he painted was the light and weather.
(J. House, Monet: Nature Into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 31)
As were his previous comprehensive studies of the varying conditions of light on rounded haystacks, poplars against the evening sky, the façade of Rouen Cathedral, the London bridges, and the Houses of Parliament, Monet's Nymphéas series was an in-depth exploration of the transitory effects of light and atmosphere. It was to be his last major undertaking. The series examines reflections on the surface of water on which waterlilies gracefully float, interspersed with the rippling reflections of the sky and trees along the banks of the water. Monet's Nymphéas are, in fact, the very quintessence of Impressionism, exhibiting as they do the vivid recreation of evanescence through rich coloration and deft brushwork. The present work is a study of the impermanent qualities of light, water, sky, and the mercurial aspects of perception itself. The series was received with great praise and fanfare upon its inaugural exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1909.
The scale and orientation of the present work are noteworthy, since many of the Nymphéas are much larger and, more often than not, horizontal in format. The power of this work is due not to an attempt at grandeur, but to the artist's extraordinary ability to describe and suggest through subtle means. The cool chalky hues of blue and gray dance across the surface of the water. The canvas is smooth as cream and coalesces in such a way that a sense of depth is simultaneously suggested and denied; the unmoored pink and white zig-zagging nymphéas drift upwards like colored clouds. The precision with which the flowers are described blurs as they recede, and, in doing so, lends a fragility to the painting's muted color harmony. This limited palette and cunning composition demonstrate the artist's long-standing appreciation for Japanese art, which had exerted a powerful influence upon the Impressionists since the 1860s.
It is no coincidence that Monet's most profound paintings should be of water, a theme which had fascinated him throughout his life. Water as a shapeless, colorless, constantly moving element was the perfect medium for Monet's exploration of light, for its surface is composed of countless, ceaselessly moving planes into which colored light sinks or in which it is reflected. Monet was always fascinated by the real and the unreal and their reflections.... Monet himself is reported to have said: "The essence of the motif is the mirror of water whose appearance changes at every moment because of the areas of sky reflected in it.... The passing cloud, the freshening breeze, the seed which is poised and which then falls, the wind which blows and then suddenly drops, the light which dims and then brightens again, all these things...transform the color and disturb the planes of water." It is no wonder that Monet spent longer on this series than on any earlier one and frequently despaired of representing the complexities and subtleties of what he saw. He had never worked with such concentration on a single motif. (exh. cat., Claude Monet, Painter of Light, Auckland, 1985, pp. 27, 29-30)
By concentrating on the surface of the water, Monet could develop a multitude of possibilities. He then articulated the delicate surface by the placement of the lily pads, merging thin veils of color with calligraphic gestures suggesting the lily pads floating across the glistening pond. An incredible variety of mood and tone recording the shifting moments of the day was achieved by Monet in this final exploration.
The water flowers are far from being the whole scene; really, they are just the accompaniment. The essence of the motif is the mirror of water whose appearance alters at every moment, thanks to the patches of sky which are reflected in it, and which give it its light and movement. (F. Thiébault-Sisson, Revue de l'Art, Paris, 1909, pp. 44-45)
There is neither beginning nor end in this world of reflections, only the myriad of colors used to describe the flora, the changing light, and the motionless water. Precise as Monet's recordings of natural phenomena are, Nymphéas is an image rich with allusions to an otherworldly, mystical realm.
The pond at Giverny, circa 1905
Monet at Giverny, summer, 1926
Lot 21 (detail)
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Signed bottom right 'Claude Monet'--oil on canvas
Signed bottom right 'Claude Monet'--oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Claude Monet, Jan.-Feb., 1921, no. 42
Paris, Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Claude Monet, oeuvres de 1891 à 1919, April, 1936, no. 28 (illustrated)
39 3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3 cm.)
A. Alexandre, Claude Monet, Paris, 1921, no. 47 (illustrated in color, p. 118)
A. Alexandre, La Collection Canonne, Paris, 1930, pp. 45-46
L. Venturi, Les archives de l'impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, vol. I, p. 457
D. Rouart, J.D. Rey and R. Maillard, Monet Nymphéas ou les miroirs du temps, Paris, 1972, p. 165 (illustrated)
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1979, vol. IV (1899-1926, peintures), p. 230, no. 1735 (illustrated, p. 231)
Galerie Durand-Ruel and Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (acquired from the artist in Dec., 1920)
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris
Henri Canonne, Paris (acquired from the above in July, 1923)
Private collection, Switzerland