The four paintings of chrysanthemums that Monet made in 1897 constitute the last significant series of still-lifes in the artist's oeuvre and are undeniably the most creative (fig. 2; Wildenstein, nos. 1495-1498). The scholar John House describes them as "some of the most lavish still-lifes produced by the Impressionist group and some of the most radical challenges to a long-standing still-life tradition" (in Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 43). In contrast to Monet's still-lifes from the 1870s and early 1880s, which depict vases of flowers or platters of fruit positioned on a table (fig. 3), the Chrysanthemum canvases are freed from all still-life conventions, covered entirely by a vibrant, virtuoso display of blossoms and foliage that anticipates the "all-over" composition of Monet's celebrated late water-lily paintings. Discussing the Chrysanthemum series, House has written:
"The flowers fill the canvas, with no explicit spatial context. The blooms are arranged in clusters of varied color and texture, placed against more shadowy foliage, which allows their forms to float across the whole picture surface. This format gave Monet the chance to arrange the whole picture as a color harmony in a way he never had before; the surface is filled with subtle harmonies and contrasts, and animated by the ebullient brushwork which suggests the patterns of the petals. Monet was to explore again the spatial implications of these Chrysanthemum pictures in the later Water Lilies canvases, which are filled by the lily-covered surface of the pond" (ibid., pp. 42-43).
Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have also noted the bold and innovative composition of paintings such as the Chrysanthemums: "He comes at [the flowers] head on, without a compositional attitude: they are dumped in front of him, bushy or svelte, vivid, teeming with their specific energy, without atmosphere, an explosion. It is particularly in Monet's still-lifes that we recognize what it was that Van Gogh learned from him: not simply the powerful and expressive palette but also a quality of impassioned drawing that is much more apparent in the flower paintings--forms painted at the range of stereoscopic vision, therefore more tactile--than in most of his landscapes" (in Monet, New York, 1983, pp. 214-215).
One possible inspiration for the distinctive composition of Chrysanthèmes is Hokusai's series of Large Flowers, which Monet was actively acquiring at the time. Monet had been an avid collector of Japanese prints since the 1880s and by the turn of the century, his house at Giverny was filled with them. In 1896, the year he began work on the Chrysanthemum series, he wrote to the dealer Maurice Joyant, "Thank you for having thought of me for the Hokusai flowers. You don't mention the poppies, and that is the important one, for I already have the iris, the chrysanthemums, the peonies and the convolvulus" (quoted in J. House, op. cit., p. 43). Chrysanthemums, which had originally been imported from China in the eighteenth century, were still associated with East Asia in Monet's day, often appearing in contemporary paintings in blue-and-white japoniste vases. In the present picture, the patterned surface and collapsed space are closely related to the Hokusai print of chrysanthemums in Monet's collection, which depicts a decorative cluster of blossoms pressed close to the picture plane (fig. 4).
Monet's paintings of chrysanthemums also recall a series of flower still-lifes that Gustave Caillebotte executed around 1893. The two painters were close friends and fellow gardeners, and Monet often sought Caillebotte's advice about horticulture. Monet also spoke of his admiration for Caillebotte's art: "In still-life, he has achieved pieces which are worthy of Manet's and Renoir's greatest successes" (quoted in ibid., p. 43). Shortly before his death in 1894, Caillebotte gave Monet a large still-life of chrysanthemums, in which the entire canvas is filled with flowers in a way that recalls the patterning of wallpaper rather than the figure-to-ground relationship in traditional easel painting (fig. 5). Noting the similarities between this work and Monet's Chrysanthemum series, the scholar John House has suggested that the latter may have been intended as a tribute to the artist's recently deceased friend (ibid., p. 43). Indeed, Caillebotte is likely to have been on Monet's mind in 1896-1897 due to the controversy surrounding his bequest to the French state of sixty-seven Impressionist paintings, including sixteen by Monet.
The chrysanthemums depicted in the present painting are certainly ones that Monet had grown in his celebrated garden at Giverny. Still-life served the artist in part as an occupation for days when the weather prevented him from painting outdoors. Upon his move to Giverny in April 1883, his first concern had been to get the garden in order "so as to harvest a few flowers to paint when the weather is bad," as he wrote to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel (quoted in ibid., p. 41); he once went so far as to proclaim, "I perhaps owe it to flowers for having become a painter" (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 178). Monet devoted enormous time and resources to the grounds at Giverny, employing as many as six gardeners, importing rare plants and seeds from around the world, and even soliciting advice from a Japanese botanist who traveled to France at Monet's request. As one critic remarked in 1898, "He reads more catalogues and horticultural price lists than articles on aesthetics" (quoted in ibid., p. 176). Following a visit to Giverny, Gustave Geffroy published a detailed description of Monet's gardens, which explicitly mentions the presence of chrysanthemums:
"As soon as you push the little entrance gate, on the main street of Giverny, you think, in almost all seasons, that you are entering a paradise. It is the colorful and fragrant kingdom of flowers. Each month is adorned with its flowers, from the lilacs and irises to the chrysanthemums and nasturtiums. The azaleas, the hydrangeas, the foxglove, the forget-me-nots, the violets, the sumptuous flowers and the modest ones mingle and follow one another on this ever-ready soil, wonderfully tended by experienced gardeners under the infallible eye of the master" (quoted in ibid., p. 206).
In June 1898, Monet included all four Chrysanthemum still-lifes in an exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris, which proved to be a resounding critical and commercial success. The periodical Le Gaulois issued a special supplement devoted to Monet, which included a dapper photograph of the artist and an anthology of critical praise for his work from the previous decade (fig. 1). The same supplement was reprinted in the conservative Moniteur des Arts, whose editor admitted that he had never been one of Monet's supporters, but that the show at Georges Petit had made him a convert. After the exhibition, Monet brought the present picture back to his studio, where it remained until Durand-Ruel purchased it in 1907.
(fig. 1) Le Gaulois Supplement, 16 June 1898, on the occasion of an exhibition at Galerie Georges Petit including the present painting. BARCODE 26000732
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Chrysanthemums, 1897. Sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2004, Lot 2. BARCODE 26000725
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Bouquet de glaïeuls, lis et marguerites, 1878. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2005, Lot 20. BARCODE 23703988_FP
(fig. 4) Hokusai, Chrysanthemums, from the series Large Flowers. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. BARCODE 26000718
(fig. 5) Gustave Caillebotte, Chrysanthemums, circa 1893. Musée Monet--Marmottan, Paris. BARCODE 26000701