‘More than any other Impressionist, Claude Monet was an obsessive, hands-on gardener, steeped in horticultural knowledge,’ explains art critic Alastair Sooke as he walks through the stunning gardens at Giverny, where the artist settled in 1883 and would spend the rest of his life. The gardens became a private paradise — the place Monet considered ‘his most beautiful work of art’.
On 26 November in Hong Kong, Christie’s will offer an exceptional sale of art and objects sourced directly from Monet’s own collection at Giverny. The Dear Monsieur Monet sale comprises work by the artist himself, including paintings he made of the Giverny gardens, alongside souvenirs that testify to his close links with the luminaries of 19th-century French art and politics, including watercolours given to him by Paul Signac and Auguste Rodin, and letters from Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. The online catalogue for the sale is available to view now.
‘The collection itself is being revealed to the public for the first time,’ explains Adrien Meyer, Christie’s Co-Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art. ‘These works were given by Claude Monet to his son, Michel, who in turn gifted them to a woman called Rolande Verneiges.’ The gardens at Giverny, and the house itself, were given by Michel to France’s Académie des Beaux Arts.
‘Dear Monsieur Monet,’ begins one watercolour-illustrated letter from Signac, written on 21 July 1920, ‘it was such a great joy to pass a lovely day in Giverny with you, and to see your great works.’ The ‘great works’ in question were the series of paintings that Monet referred to as his ‘monument to peace’ — the Nymphéas (Water Lilies) — eight of which, with the support of Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, were installed at the Orangerie in Paris’s Tuileries gardens shortly after Monet’s death in 1926.
‘Clemenceau had the privilege of being one of the rare few allowed to watch Monet work,’ explains Sylvie Patin, curator at the Musée d’Orsay. Among the other lucky visitors was the French actor, director and writer Sacha Guitry, who took many photographs of Monet. ‘Monet was very interested in photography,’ Patin adds. In one image offered in the Hong Kong sale, Guitry immortalises Monet ‘as he looks toward the sky, his hat suggestive of the painter’s love of outdoor life.’
As a young man growing up in Le Havre, Monet was ‘completely in thrall’ to his mentor Eugène Boudin, says Sooke. Comparison of early works by Monet to drawings by Boudin provide insights into his artistic development. The November sale in Hong Kong features an impressive selection of watercolours and works on paper by Boudin, which Monet kept at Giverny.
Monet was equally fascinated by Japanese art, and acquired works by the great Japanese masters of ukiyo-e — woodblock prints and paintings — such as Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro, for his collection at the house. ‘You immediately see why Monet was drawn to their work,’ says Meyer. ‘The angles, the way they crop, the extraordinary decorative quality.’
In 1893, inspired by the Japanese prints he loved, Monet embarked upon an ambitious project: the creation of a water garden with a wooden bridge spanning a water-lily pond. In the final years of his life, this pond became his principal subject. In 1909 Monet showed 48 paintings of his water garden in Paris, to great acclaim. These ‘big, poetic, lyrical paintings full of insubstantial effects of light and atmosphere still mesmerise all of us today,’ says Sooke.
Around 1914, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts. For many art historians, his impaired vision explains the increasingly abstract forms he produced in his late career, and the application of ever-thicker layers of paint on his canvases. ‘It’s testimony to Monet’s perserverance,’ says Meyer, ‘that, although challenged by his failing eyesight, he continued his work.’ In 1923 Monet had an operation to remove the cataracts. The pair of spectacles offered in the sale may well have been worn by Monet during his final years and struggles to convey how he saw the world through paint. He died three years after the operation, at the age of 86.