Le bassin aux nymphéas is one of the great rarities of Impressionist and Modern art: a painting of Monet's beloved water lilies, forming part of his final painting campaign, that was signed, dated and sold by the artist soon after its execution.
Monet had begun a new series of large-scale Nymphéas in 1914, and these would lead ultimately to his Grandes décorations, the celebrated frieze now in the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. The large scale and bold, almost abstracted expressionistic brushwork that characterised those works is equally evident in Le bassin aux nymphéas; these qualities would later come to have a lasting influence on a range of artists including Pierre Bonnard, the Abstract Expressionists and even the ideas behind Informel. Dated 1919, when Monet signed the picture and sold it with three sister-works to Bernheim-Jeune in November that year, Le bassin aux nymphéas is one of the tiny handful of pictures from this period that he relinquished, as he tended to view his paintings of water lilies as a large, cumulative work in progress and guarded them all jealously, seldom allowing them to leave his studio. This, then, is not a study, like so many other works from this period, but instead a highly finished work. The rarity of Le bassin aux nymphéas is reflected by the fact that of its three fellow paintings, one is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, while another was sold from the estate of Ralph Friedman at Christie's in New York in 1992 for the then impressive price of $12,100,000; and the fourth was sadly cut into two (becoming W1893/1 and W1893/2).
The provenance of Le bassin aux nymphéas itself speaks of its exceptional importance as, before becoming the centrepiece of the formidable collection assembled by J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller, it was owned by Mr and Mrs Norton Simon. The founder of the Norton Simon Foundation that would come to give the celebrated Pasadena museum his name, Norton Simon was an immensely successful and philanthropic businessman whose private collection included a string of paintings by artists including Degas, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Monet's late Nymphéas took a motif that he had long adored and lent them a new scale and a new vigour. Le bassin aux nymphéas has an expressionistic flair that was less evident in his pre-1914 paintings which had evolved over the intervening half decade. The word 'décoratif' which was used in association with these works was less because of an inherent decorative quality, but instead because of the sheer modernity of these engaging and absorbing visions: it was a result of the subjective means of rendering the scene, which viewers felt was less linked than most art with the real world. Pictures such as Le bassin aux nymphéas were almost abstract, rather than realist, and therefore were considered décoratifs.
Monet had long been passionate about his water lilies. Decades earlier, he had successfully battled with local bureaucracy in order to gain permission to reroute the river Epte, damming a section and thereby creating a large pond and a water garden. He filled this with water lilies, selecting special hybrids in order to increase the range of colours of their flowers; the water lilies have roots embedded in the muddy bottom of the pond, hence the recurrence of the same or similar constellation-like arrangements through the period of the Grandes décorations. Monet's gardens at Giverny evolved over the many years that he had lived there; he had deliberately set about creating an area filled with motifs for his Impressionist pictures, filling flowerbeds with myriad coloured plants and creating panoramas, views and water effects. This led to his self-deprecating statement that, 'Gardening and painting apart, I'm no good at anything' (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1996, p. 368).
Monet's water gardens marked the pinnacle of his horticultural success and became his most celebrated subject. The play of light and textures condensed many of the interests that informed the Impressionist aesthetic. In Le bassin aux nymphéas, these are clear to see: the water acts as a vehicle for Monet's exploration of the varied textures of the water lilies and the water, as well as the light effects and reflections in the pond surface. Thus, snaking through the centre of the painting, the viewer sees the blue sky while to either side the trees, including what appears to be a weeping willow, are reflected. While Monet has tightly focussed his view on a patch of the pond, creating a closely framed composition that seemingly allows for no foreground or background, he has nonetheless used the water as a form of portal, allowing a complex interplay of the near and the far.
Monet's water lilies had long been an important motif in his paintings at Giverny, and he had already painted and exhibited several series showing them, albeit on a much smaller scale, referring to them sometimes as his 'water landscapes.' However, the paintings towards which he began working in 1914 marked a break from those earlier works. Following a brief lull in his output, Monet had been rummaging in his basement when he saw some old, abandoned pictures which held still the kernel of a great idea. Since his commissions in the 1870s for Ernest Hoschedé, the friend and patron whose wife he had later married, Monet had long contemplated a full 'decorative' frieze, and it was towards this end that the reinvigorated artist now worked. This was clearly already the case by April 1914, as a letter to Gustave Geffroy reveals:
'As for myself, I'm in fine fettle and fired with a desire to paint... I am even planning to embark on some big paintings, for which I found some old attempts in a basement. Clémenceau saw them and was amazed. Anyway, you'll see something of this soon, I hope' (C. Monet, 1914, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Monet by himself: Paintings, drawings, pastels, letters, London, 1989, p. 247).
It was as a part of this new concept that Le bassin aux nymphéas came into existence, the fruits of a project that had already occupied the artist for half a decade and which would dominate his output for years to come, culminating in the Grandes décorations at the Orangerie. Two metres wide and a metre tall, Le bassin aux nymphéas is one of a group of large paintings showing the same view that Monet appears to have executed during a single period. Approximately the same view would later be shown on a greater scale in the Orangerie paintings, while the relationship between the present work and the monumental panel in the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh is striking.
In painting his larger panels for the Grandes décorations, Monet worked in his newly-built studio, specially designed and constructed in 1915 despite the ravages and privations of the First World War, a mark of his passion for the project. While Monet could work on the largest canvases indoors in the studio all year long, come rain or shine, the 'smaller,' more manageable pictures like Le bassin aux nymphéas would often be propped up with an arrangement of ropes and weights so that he could paint them before the pond itself. An insight into this process was provided by René Gimpel, who wrote of a visit he made to Monet's studio in 1918, mentioning a group of pictures that Daniel Wildenstein stated almost certainly included Le bassin aux nymphéas:
'... we were confronted by a strange artistic spectacle: a dozen canvases placed one after another in a circle on the ground, all about six feet wide by four feet high: a panorama of water and water lilies, of light and sky. In this infinity, the water and the sky had neither beginning nor end. It was as though we were present at one of the first hours of the birth of the world. It was mysterious, poetic, deliciously unreal... 'I work all day on these canvases,' Monet told us. 'One after another, I have them brought to me. A colour will appear again which I'd seen and daubed on one of these canvases the day before. Quickly the picture is brought over to me, and I do my utmost to fix the vision definitively, but it generally disappears as fast as it arose, giving way to a different colour already tried several days before on another study, which at once is set before me-- and so it goes the whole day!'' (R. Gimpel, quoted in C. Stuckey (ed.), Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 307).
Monet's plan to surround the viewer with views of the pond and trees, which was finally embodied in the Orangerie pictures, had originally been conceived in peace time with a domestic scope. 'For a moment the temptation came to me to use this water-lily theme for the decoration of a drawing room,' he explained. 'Carried along the walls, enveloping all the partitions with its unity, it would have produced the illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore; nerves exhausted by work would have relaxed there, following the restful example of those stagnant waters, and to anyone who would have lived in it that room would have offered a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium' (C. Monet, quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Monet, New York, 1983, p. 224). This sense of refuge and Monet's sense of mission became all the more integral to the project with the outbreak of the First World War. Monet was extremely self-conscious about the contrast between the turmoil of the Front, where many of his own family and acquaintance served, and the paintings with which he was engaged. To Monet, though, this cemented his sense of duty. He was upholding some of the beauty and some of the spirit of France, and each time an enemy push threatened, he refused to leave Giverny, insisting that he would rather die among his beloved pictures.
It was soon the entire Grande décoration project that would come to be associated with the War, or rather, with the Armistice. For, on 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice was signed, Monet wrote to his friend, the original enthusiast for the Grandes décorations, the Prime Minister of France at the time, and hence the 'Father of the Peace,' Georges Clemenceau. In his letter, Monet explained that he was:
'... on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary. It's little enough, but it's the only way I have of taking part in the victory' (Monet, 1918, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), ibid.).
This project gradually evolved into the large-scale offering that resulted in the Orangerie friezes which are to this day monuments to France. They are the culmination of Monet's career, his crowning glory, vigorous and expressive execution, escaping the rigours even of Impressionism in order to create something that is absorbing and subjective. Le bassin aux nymphéas is an important facet of that great project.