Monet was sixty-six years old when he painted this Nymphéas in 1907. He was arguably France's most acclaimed artist. Together with Renoir and Degas, he was the last surviving member of the legendary Impressionist group, whose work--once disparaged and denounced for the challenge it posed to Salon norms--the French public had by then come to understand and venerate; the following generation of painters acknowledged their status as founding fathers of the modern movement. All of the Impressionists were represented by this time in the Musée du Luxembourg, France's national museum for living artists; Renoir had been awarded the Légion d'Honneur, the highest honor in the nation, and Monet is said to have been offered the accolade but to have refused it. More than three decades after the First Impressionist Exhibition, Impressionism had long since lost its power to shock. The undisputed leader of the avant-garde was now Matisse, then aged thirty-eight, who scandalized the public and bewildered the critics with Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra at the Salon des Indépendants in March 1907. And close on Matisse's heels, of course, was Picasso, a young man of only twenty-five, who completed his ground-breaking, proto-cubist manifesto, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, just a few months later.
Monet--ensconced at Giverny and hard at work on his Nymphéas series, the culminating achievement of his long career--was well-aware of these developments in modern art. He traveled to Paris for the Salon d'Automne in 1906, where his step-daughter Blanche Hoschedé exhibited several paintings, and he would surely have seen Derain's incendiary Pont de Charing Cross, which represented both an homage to Monet's own views of London and an unabashed assault on the Impressionists' ensconced position at the forefront of French tradition. Monet proffered no verbal opinion about either the Fauves or Picasso (the latter of whom had strong reservations about Impressionism's lack of heft, although he subsequently came around to love late Renoir). However, it was just two months after the 1906 Salon d'Automne that Monet proposed to Durand-Ruel an exhibition of his new water-lily paintings--an exhibition that would serve to re-establish Monet's standing among the avant-garde and would demonstrate conclusively that his art had not, after all, lost its revolutionary, transformative character. For while the Nymphéas canvases retain a quintessentially Impressionist emphasis on capturing fleeting effects, they are otherwise far removed from the Impressionism of the nineteenth century--much more abstract in their strong surface orientation and elimination of traditional perspective, and much more profound in their inward-looking, meditative subject matter. Paul Tucker has written:
"Elusive and mysterious, though fully measurable and humane, these paintings assert that Monet's physical remove to Giverny did not mean a relaxation of his intellectual and aesthetic powers. On the contrary, the time he spent observing his flowers, trees, and pond engendered a profound refocusing of those strengths as a personal imperative, largely in response to the pressures of the very contemporaneity he appeared to have abandoned. For while they may seem to be about nothing other than the beauty he found in his own backyard, these three hundred pictures were actually created in the midst of conflict and turmoil--the death of family members, his own threatened blindness, the perceived erosion of aesthetic principles in French art, the abandonment of nature... They encapsulate an entire era as seen and felt by an individual who by 1900 had become one of the world's most celebrated painters" (Monet in the Twentieth Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 14).
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 was at that time 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 (quoted in P. Tucker, Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 175). 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 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. "Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens," Monet proclaimed. "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 beginning work on the flower garden, Monet acquired an adjacent plot of land between the railroad tracks and the river Ru. He immediately 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" (quoted in ibid., p. 176). By autumn, he had converted nearly one thousand square meters into a lavish lily pond. Although Monet created the 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, Monet specified that the water garden would serve "for the pleasure of the eyes and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint" (quoted in Claude Monet: Late Work, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, p. 23). And this it did, quickly surpassing the flower garden in Monet's hierarchy of subjects. Tucker has written, "That Monet would have preferred the water garden over the flower garden is understandable. It offered him the ultimate in variety: an infinite array of color; constantly changing reflections; continual tensions between surface and depth, near and far, stability and the unknown, with everything bathed in an endlessly shifting but ever-present light. Filled with feeling yet distinctly physical, it remained mysterious and deeply contemplative, much like the cosmos as a whole" (op. cit., 1998, p. 41).
Monet did not begin work on his water-lily series immediately, however. 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 Claude Monet, exh. cat., Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna, 1996, p. 146). Between 1893 and 1899, he made only ten images of the lily pond, possibly because he was waiting for the plantings to mature. He may also have wanted to cement his national stature by concentrating on subjects that were more distinctly French (Rouen Cathedral, the Norman coast, the Seine) before embracing his own horticultural fantasia. After the searing and divisive events of the Dreyfus Affair, however, Monet (a stalwart Dreyfusard) turned away from the glories of France and sought sustenance, both aesthetic and moral, in the personal landscape of his gardens. Tucker has explained, "By tending to his own garden so meticulously and so diligently and by producing paintings of such startling beauty, Monet was finally affirming one of the most important principles of eighteenth-century thinkers, most specifically Voltaire--namely, that nature was the source of all goodness and wisdom and that each person should cultivate his own garden. More pertinent lessons could not have been recovered for anyone who cared about post-Dreyfus France as she stumbled, shakily, into the twentieth century" (op. cit., 1998, p. 26).
In 1899-1900, Monet painted a sequence of eighteen views of the water garden, his first extended treatment of the theme. Unlike his later paintings of the pond, however, these focus on the Japanese bridge that spans the water, lending the composition a stable geometric structure and traditional linear perspective (Wildenstein, nos. 1509-1520; fig. 1). It was not until 1904, following the enormously successful exhibition of his paintings from London, that Monet shifted his gaze downward to the surface of the pond, and this would remain almost his exclusive motif for the duration of his career. At first, he still opted to anchor the viewer in space by including a narrow strip of the far bank at the very upper margin of the canvas (fig. 2). Soon, however, he eliminated even this last spatial indicator, yielding a dazzling and radically destabilized vision of shifting surfaces and disintegrating forms. The world beyond the plane of the water now exists only as the most ephemeral reflections. "The lifting of the horizon, already so perceptible in earlier paintings, is now absolute," Michel Butor has written. "The sky and distance no longer appear except upside down, and the water's surface tilts toward the vertical, inducing a dream of flight or of diving" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2010, p. 13).
Having established the basic compositional scheme for his water-lily series, Monet began to work feverishly, completing more than sixty views of the pond between 1905 and 1908 in preparation for the exhibition at Durand-Ruel. The present painting dates to the middle of this remarkably fertile and intensely creative period. Within the limitations that he had set for himself, Monet devised a dazzling array of variations, altering the arrangement of the blossoms, increasing or reducing the amount of reflected material, and exploring a wide range of lighting effects. "What is clear about all these paintings is Monet's utter resistance to duplication or to predictable results," Tucker has written (op. cit., 1998, p. 45). The artist himself explained to François Thiébault-Sisson, "I have painted these water lilies a great deal, modifying my viewpoint each time. The effect varies constantly, not only from one season to the next, but from one minute to the next, since the water-flowers themselves are far from being the whole scene; really, they are just the accompaniment. The essence of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance alters at every moment, thanks to the patches of sky that are reflected in it, and give it its light and movement. So many factors, undetectable to the uninitiated eye, transform the coloring and distort the planes of water" (quoted in ibid., p. 11).
The present painting is part of a subset of fourteen canvases that are distinguished by their strong color contrasts, aggressive brushwork, and novel vertical format (Wildenstein nos. 1703-1716; figs. 3-4). Depicting a stream of light weaving its way through floating clusters of lilies and dense eddies of reflected foliage, this group of paintings is among the boldest and most experimental of the entire water lily series. Tucker has written, "These are without doubt some of the most compelling paintings Monet had yet produced. The dark reflections of the foliage are surprisingly active in their gestures and depths. They also occupy most of the canvas, as if the unseen world and its uncharitable rhythms have become more important than what is tangible and confirmable. These are painters' pictures, in which everything is contested--lights and darks, shapes and forms, surface and sky. They energized Monet's ensemble of Water Lilies and re-established his boldness as an artist" (ibid., pp. 47-48).
These vertical panels represent a marked departure from the views of the lily pond that Monet had produced in 1905 and 1906 (fig. 5). The earlier paintings possess a lulling calm, with large, horizontally striated islands of lilies and passages of multi-hued, refracted light scattered evenly across the picture plane. In the 1907 canvases, by contrast, light slices into the scene at the top of the canvas and then descends dramatically like a waterfall, negotiating its way between the darker areas of reflected foliage and the shifting lily pads that float on the surface of the pond. Near the middle of the painting, there is a critical juncture where the light passes under the last extended mass of lilies before pouring out into a wide, reassuring pool, no longer constrained. "The greatest concentration of paint occurs precisely where the light slips under the horizontal cluster of water lilies that marks the border of the composition's two fields, as if Monet were suggesting a contestation between the immaterial and the material, between the evanescence of light and its physical presence, and between the light and the lilies" (P. Tucker, exh. cat., op. cit., 2010, p. 27). Although Monet retained the central stream of light in his water-lily compositions from 1908 (fig. 6), he replaced the strong color contrasts with delicate tonalities and an ethereal effect, and in the process mitigated the opposition of reflection and surface form--the sense of tension and surprise--that gives the 1907 paintings their particular energy and bravura.
Monet himself was particularly pleased with the 1907 compositions. In April of that year, before beginning the sequence of vertical canvases, he had postponed the proposed exhibition at Durand-Ruel's gallery, explaining that he did not yet have enough successful pictures to show. He had a new compositional idea, however, and was "full of fire and confidence," as he told the frustrated dealer (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 47). For the next five months, he seems to have been wholly absorbed in his work, writing only six letters the entire time. By September, he had completed the new set of fourteen canvases, and he invited Durand-Ruel to Giverny to see them. Although the dealer feared that these most recent works, which were moodier and more meditative than Monet's earlier views of the lily pond, would be less popular with contemporary collectors, the artist nonetheless chose to include twelve of the fourteen versions in the inaugural exhibition, a testament to his high estimation of them.
When the Nymphéas show finally opened at Durand-Ruel's gallery in May 1909, it was an unqualified success. 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, with one of the most important and oft-repeated points being how novel and nearly abstract the new pictures appeared. "His vision increasingly is simplifying itself, limiting itself to the minimum of tangible realities in order to amplify, to magnify the impression of the imponderable," Jean Morgan proclaimed in the periodical Le Gaulois (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2010, p. 29). Writing in the Parisian newspaper Le Siècle, Henry Eon was even more specific: "Monet has reached the final degree of abstraction and imagination that his art of the landscapist allows" (quoted in ibid., p. 29). Monet could not have hoped for a better response. Even with Picasso and Braque's cubist experiments about to reach their most hermetic and Matisse's period of decorative abstraction in full force, the Nymphéas show proved that Monet could still run at the head of the pack, re-affirming his place at the very forefront of the avant-garde.
Following the close of the exhibition in June 1909, there followed a period of nearly five years in which Monet--exhausted from the intense months of work leading up to the show, and then suffering from a sequence of personal tragedies--barely took up his brushes. It was not until the spring of 1914 that he returned to his beloved water garden in earnest. In late June, he reported to Durand-Ruel, "I have thrown myself back into work, and when I do that, I do it seriously, so much so that I am getting up at four a.m. and am grinding away all day long (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 204). Although Monet completed well over a hundred paintings of the lily pond over the course of the next twelve years, he opted neither to exhibit nor to sell them, and the majority remained in his studio at the time of his death in December 1926. The culmination of the series and the most ambitious undertaking of the artist's entire career was the Grandes Décorations, an ensemble of twenty-two mural-sized canvases totaling more than ninety meters in length, which Monet completed just months before his death and donated to the French state. The Musée de l'Orangerie, newly remodeled to house this magnificent bequest, opened in May 1927--eighteen years almost to the day since the results of Monet's remarkable achievement in his water garden had last been seen publicly at the Galerie Durand-Ruel.
Monet by his water-lily pond, 1905. BARCODE: 28860990
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Le pont japonais, 1899. Princeton University Art Museum. BARCODE: 28861003
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1904. Denver Art Museum. BARCODE: 28861041
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, temps gris, 1907. Sold, Christie's, New York, 2 May 2006, lot 11. BARCODE: 24769631
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1907. Göteburg Museum of Art. BARCODE: 28861034
(fig. 5) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1905. Sold, Christie's, New York, 7 November 2012, lot 41. BARCODE: 40200927
(fig. 6) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1908. National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff. BARCODE: 28861058