The water lily pond was the defining motif of the last two-and-a-half decades of Monet's life. How this beautiful and visually dynamic subject came to be the focus of Monet's artistic output can be traced back to 1883, when the artist moved to Giverny, where he rented a house with a large garden. Thanks to his ever-increasing financial success, he was able to buy the property outright in the early 1890s and eventually purchased a large adjacent plot of land. It was here in 1893 that he began to construct his famous water gardens and lily pond, fed by water from a nearby river. During 1901-02, Monet enlarged the pond, replanted the edges with bamboo, rhododendron, Japanese apple and cherry trees. Towards the end of his life, he told a visitor to his studio "It took me some time to understand my water lilies. I planted them purely for pleasure; I grew them with no thought of painting them. A landscape takes more than a day to get under your skin. And then, all at once, I had the revelation - how wonderful my pond was - and reached for my palette. I've hardly had any other subject since that moment" (as cited in Stephan Koja, Claude Monet, Österreichische Galerie-Belvedere, Vienna, 1996, p. 146).
After the turn of the century, the gardens around Monet's Giverny home became the central theme of his work. He produced series of paintings on the themes of the Japanese footbridge and the water lilies. Monet paid exacting attention to the details of the garden, including maintaining the pond and plants in a perfect state for painting. Elizabeth Murray writes "The water gardener would row out in the pond in a small green flat-bottomed boat to clean the entire surface. Any moss, algae, or water grasses which grew from the bottom had to be pulled out. Monet insisted on clarity. Next the gardener would inspect the water lilies themselves. Any yellow leaves or spent blossoms were removed. If the plants had become dusty from vehicles passing by on the Chemin du Roy, the dirt road nearby, the gardener would take a bucket of water and rinse off the leaves and flowers, ensuring that the true colors and beauty would shine forth" (E. Murray, 'Monet as a Garden Artist,' Monet, Late Paintings of Giverny from the Musée Marmottan, New Orleans, 1995, p. 53).
In 1914, Monet began work on his Grandes Décorations, a sequence of monumental paintings of the gardens that would take his depictions of the water lily pond in a dramatic new direction. Paul Tucker writes that these new paintings "were characterized by an unprecedented breadth in terms of their size, touch and vision. Nearly all of these pictures... were twice as big as his earlier Water Lilies. They were also more daring in their color schemes and compositions. And they were much looser in handling... At once exploratory and definitive, hesitant and assured, these paintings thus constitute a unique group of canvases in Monet's oeuvre. They were a sustained and evidently private enterprise in which Monet tested out his ideas for his decorative program on a scale he had never attempted for these watery motifs" (Paul Tucker, Claude Monet, Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 203 & 204).
After constructing a large garden that could surround him while he worked, Monet conceived of a group of paintings that would similarly surround the viewer. Monet wrote: "The temptation came to me to use this water-lily theme for the decoration of a drawing room: carried along the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity, it would produce the illusion of an endless whole, of a watery surface with no horizon and no shore; nerves exhausted by work would relax there, following the restful example of those still waters, ... a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium" (cited in Roger Marx, 'Les Nymphéas de Monet', Le Cri de Paris, May 23, 1909).
Le Bassin aux Nymphéas was painted as Monet worked on the Grandes Décorations, the two rooms of large scale paintings of the water lily pond. In this monumental scale, Monet has moved further away from a realistic depiction of the lily pond as the viewer is brought closer to the surface of the pond, seemingly hovering above the shifting colors of the pond's reflections. Monet's palette is more vibrant than in his earlier water lily series, and the handling is decidedly more loose and fluid, with flowers indicated by bold strokes of paint. The right edge of the composition that is more loosely painted indicates that Monet may have intended to join the canvas with another, as he did with the Grandes Décorations. A related painting of the same motif in the Honolulu Academy of Arts shows a similar handling of paint. In the present work, the viewer is brought even closer to the surface, making the purple and green reflections even more striking in their indication of trees and sky that Monet does not elsewhere depict.
This heightened sense of the pond's surface also emphasizes the surface of the painting as Monet's dazzling strokes of paint move back and forth, like the reflections of the lily pond, between the ripples in the water. What is so remarkable about this picture in particular is its disorienting manipulation of space. Monet presents what lies above and beneath the surface of the water, referencing the depths of the pond with darker greens and purples and the reflections of the surrounding trees with lighter blues and greens. Seeing these multiple perspectives of the garden in a single image, without any differentiation among land, sky and water, was revolutionary for its time. Monet's radically advanced composition essentially paved the way for abstract painting in the decades to come and provided a reference point for many of the Abstract Expressionists in the second half of the twentieth century.
The large scale of the present work suggests that although it may have been conceived outside, it was almost certainly painted in the large studio that Monet had built expressly for the purpose of accommodating the Grandes Décorations. Monet's conception at this point was not to depict the actual pond but to surround the viewer with the "water surface with no horizon and no shore," an effect the present work achieves with its striking scale and presence.
Charles Moffett and James Wood write: "While the garden that he had made served as a first sketch, a springboard for the imagination, everything was subject to a revision in the studio. As his world contracted his canvases grew larger, culminating in the great mural-sized waterscapes in which nature is recorded in a scale of nearly one to one. Simultaneously the point of view was elevated, leaving the observer suspended above the ambiguities of translucence and reflections, deprived of a horizon line from which to plot his location. After 1916, when the barnlike third studio was completed, Monet devoted himself to the large, decorative Water Lilies cycle (Les Nymphéas, Etude d'eau) that was finally installed in the Orangerie in 1927. That Monet was nearly totally absorbed by a 'decorative' cycle did not in any way diminish the importance of the project. Perhaps more than anything else, 'decorative' suggests that he was synthesizing and abstracting form and color from nature to create a particular effect for a specific architectural setting. The image on the retina was now only a starting point, for in these vast close-ups Monet takes us through the looking glass of the pond's surface and into the shallow but infinite space of twentieth century painting" (Monet's Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 13).
Oil on canvas
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Reader's Digest Collection, 1963, illustrated in color in the catalogue
38 3/8 by 78 1/8 in. 97.5 by 198.4 cm
Reader's Digest Family Treasury of Great Painters and Great Paintings, Pleasantville, 1965
Charles S. Moffett, Monet's Water Lilies, New York, 1978, illustrated pl. 13
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, vol. 4, Lausanne & Paris, 1985, no. 1892, illustrated p. 289
Charles F. Stuckey, Monet Water Lilies, New York, 1988, illustrated pl. 32
Daniel Wildenstein, Monet, Catalogue raisonné, vol. 4, Cologne, 1996, no. 1892, illustrated p. 899
Pierre Georgel, Claude Monet, Waterlilies, Milan, 1999, illustrated in color p . 74 (as dating from possibly 1918-22)
Jean-Dominique Ray & Denis Rouart, Monet & Water Lilies: The Complete Series, Paris, 2008, illustrated p. 140
Michel Monet, Giverny
Private Collection, New York
Hirschl & Adler, New York
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above in 1956)
The Reader's Digest Collection, Pleasantville, New York (acquired from the above in 1956 and sold: Sotheby's, New York, November 16, 1998, lot 10)
Acquired at the above sale