Although the garden was a favored subject for many of the Impressionists, including Manet, Renoir, and Caillebotte, no artist rivaled Monet in his dedication to the theme. Robert Herbert has written, "Of all the Impressionists it was Monet who was chiefly responsible for elevating the garden to the ranks of the most admired and influential paintings of the early modern era" (in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 259), and Monet himself once told a journalist, "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). The artist especially liked to paint his own gardens, first at Argenteuil, then at Vetheuil, and finally at Giverny, where the garden became his pre-eminent subject. During the last two decades of his life, Monet devoted himself almost single-mindedly to depicting the water garden that he had fashioned at Giverny, producing an astonishingly complex series of around two hundred canvases that constitute some of the most innovative and influential works of his entire oeuvre. Paul Tucker has written about these paintings, "They stand as eloquent witness to an aging artist's irrepressible urge to express his feelings in front of nature and also attest to his persistent desire to reinvent the look of landscape art and to leave a legacy of significance" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Boston, 1998, p. 14). The present canvas dates to Monet's most creative and productive period of work on the water-lily paintings and was featured in the inaugural exhibition of the series at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1909.
Monet and his family moved to Giverny in April 1883. Situated at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte about forty miles northwest of Paris, Giverny at the time was a quiet, picturesque farming community of just 279 residents. Upon his arrival there, Monet rented a large, pink stucco house on two acres of land. When the property came up for sale in 1890, Monet purchased it at the asking price of 22,000 francs, "certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside," as he wrote to Durand-Ruel (Letter 1079). He immediately set to work tearing up the existing kitchen garden and planting lush flower beds on the gentle slope in front of the house. Monet had been an enthusiastic gardener all his life, and at Giverny he finally enjoyed the means to fulfill this passion completely. He employed as many as six gardeners, consulted with friends like Caillebotte and Octave Mirbeau who shared his love of gardening, subscribed to horticultural magazines and encyclopedias, imported rare plants and seeds from around the world, and even received the advice of a Japanese gardener who traveled to Giverny in 1891 at Monet's request. To a visitor to Giverny, Monet proclaimed, "Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens. I do not deny that I am proud of [them]" (quoted in ibid., p. 179). In 1910, when the Epte flooded the gardens and threatened their ruin, Monet's grief was so profound that his wife Alice confided to her daughter, "[He] does not speak, but moans[his] despair, like the Epte, will not abate" (quoted in ibid., p. 199).
Early in 1893, three years after commencing work on the flower garden, Monet acquired an adjacent plot of land between the railroad tracks and the river Ru. Immediately thereafter, he applied to the local government for permission "to install a prise d'eau to provide enough water to refresh the pond that I am going to dig for the purpose of cultivating aquatic plants" (Letter 1191). By autumn, he had converted nearly one thousand square meters into a lavish lily pond, spanned by a wooden footbridge and ringed by an artful arrangement of flowers, trees, and bushes (figs. 1-2). Silent, mysterious, and contemplative, the water garden formed an apt contrast to the more traditional flower garden near the house, with its bold profusion of brilliantly colored blossoms. The flower garden was unmistakably western in character, with dozens of beds laid out at right angles to either side of a wide graveled walk. The water garden, in contrast, took its inspiration from the east, a feature that Monet accentuated by planting bamboo, ginkgo trees, and Japanese fruit trees around the pond. Describing the water garden in its finished form, one visitor reported, "You enter the aquatic garden over an arched bridge covered with wisteria in June--the fragrance is so heavy that it is like going through a pipe of vanilla. The clusters of white and mauve fall like fanciful grapes in the water, and the passing breeze harvests the aroma" (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Monet, New York, 1988, p. 213).
Although Monet created the lily pond in part to fulfill his passion for gardening, he also intended it as a source of artistic inspiration. In his petition to the Préfet de l'Eure for permission to build the pond, Monet specified that it would serve "for the pleasure of the eyes and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint" (Letter 1191). Nonetheless, Monet was initially reluctant to paint the water garden. He made only ten images of it before 1899, possibly because he was waiting for the plantings to mature. In 1899-1900, he painted eighteen views of the lily pond, and from thereafter it was the predominant subject of his art. He later recalled, "It took me some time to understand my water lilies. 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" (quoted in S. Koja, Claude Monet, exh. cat., Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna, 1996, p. 146). Monet worked particularly feverishly on the series from 1905 until 1908, preparing for the exhibition at Durand-Ruel's gallery. During this interval, he completed more than sixty views of the aquatic garden, or about one every three weeks, all of which concentrate exclusively on the surface of the pond, without the compositional aid of banks, bridges, or background foliage. Dated 1908, the present picture was painted near the end of this enormously fertile period.
The paintings of the lily pond from 1905-1908 can be divided into three groups. Within each, Monet devised variation after variation, altering the arrangement of the blossoms, increasing or reducing the amount of reflected material, and exploring a wide array of lighting effects. The paintings in the first group, executed in 1905-1907, are characterized by large, horizontally striated islands of lilies, juxtaposed with undulating reflections of trees and sky (Wildenstein, nos. 1694-1702; fig. 3). Other compositions from 1907 are bolder and more experimental (Wildenstein, nos. 1703-1717; fig. 4). The majority of these employ a vertical format, sliced down the middle by a narrow band of light. On either side are dense eddies of reflected foliage and floating clusters of lilies, rendered with vigorous brushstrokes and a dark, moody palette. In the final group of canvases, painted in 1908, Monet retained the central stream of light, but replaced the strong contrasts of the preceding sequence with delicate tonalities and an ethereal effect. In some of these works, including the present canvas, the light is intercepted by a lily pad in flower almost halfway up the painting (Wildenstein, nos. 1721-1729; fig. 5); in other examples, this lily pad has been omitted (Wildenstein, nos. 1730-1735; fig. 6). Tucker has written about this group of paintings, "They are generally rendered with extremely delicate palettes--soft purples and yellows, light greens and pale blues--that do not change significantly across the canvas. They are also filled with equally even light, which is often so enormously restrained that it seems as if it were filtered through a theater scrim. The pearliness that results from this handling could not be further from the rough contrasts of the 1907 views, just as their almost chalky surfaces could not be less like the denser layers of pigment that distinguish their earlier counterparts" (in op. cit., p. 195). Elsewhere, Tucker has continued:
"Monet maintained his focus, more or less, on the same basic motif of his 1907 pictures--the stream of light weaving through the tangle of foliage on its way to a broader space in the lower section of the canvas. But beyond that, these new pictures could not be more different. Gone is the strident color, the aggressive brushwork, the curious vertical shapes, the tensions between reflections and surface forms, the strong contrasts of light and dark, and the sense of surprise and unease. Much of this change is due to the way that Monet manipulated the shapes in the scenes. The reflected foliage, for example, has been rounded out significantly, its errant boughs brought into the fold, its internal rhythms calmed. With fewer visual incidents overall, the surfaces of the pictures assert their primacy with remarkable authority. The result is greatly enhanced by the muted palette Monet employs. In many of the paintings the colors are so close in value that they create an emphatic, flattening effect, pulling the image over the canvas so tightly that it is almost a struggle to read the space. In the end, these pictures attest to the pressure that Monet has applied to the elements at his disposal. Space and form have been so compromised that they play only a minor role in the scenes. Light is so continuous that it loses its hold on forms and ceases to be physical. Local color has all but been eliminated. Most important perhaps, bravura has been capped. What is left is the residue of all these matters. They coalesce on the surfaces of the pictures to suggest a kind of essential presence, like some enchanting fragrance or the sensed rhythms of silence" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Boston, 1998, p. 49).
When the Nymphéas show finally opened at Durand-Ruel's gallery in May 1909, it was an unqualified success. Including the present painting, forty-eight views of the lily pond were featured, more than Monet had ever exhibited from a single series. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. The Paris correspondent for The Burlington Magazine, for instance, proclaimed, "One has never seen anything like it. These studies of water lilies and still water in every possible effect of light and at every hour of the day are beautiful to a degree which one can hardly express without seeming to exaggerate There is no other living artist who could have given us these marvelous effects of light and shadow, this glorious feast of color" (quoted in P.H. Tucker, op. cit., p. 196). Another critic went so far as to declare that the series ranked alongside Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Beethoven's last string quartets. By the end of the year, nineteen of the forty-eight paintings had been sold either to Durand-Ruel or to his rivals, the Bernheim-Jeune brothers, netting Monet an extraordinary total of 272,000 francs.
(fig. 1) Monet's lily pond at Giverny. BARCODE 25012682
(fig. 2) Monet beside his lily pond, circa 1904. BARCODE 25012545
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1905. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. BARCODE 25012668
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1907. Sold, Christie's, New York, 2 May 2006, Lot 11. BARCODE 24166195
(fig. 5) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1908. Sold, Christie's, New York, 1 November 2005, Lot 22. BARCODE 25012699
(fig. 6) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1908. National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff. BARCODE 25012675