This painting has been requested for the forthcoming Monet: The Late Years exhibition to be held at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, June - September 2019.
An introduction by Richard Thomson:
Monet shows us something simple. But this is a painting rich in subtleties of composition, colour and association. First we notice the solid form of the willow’s trunk, set deep in the bank beside the water. Its firm placement there echoes that of Monet as he painted and of us, the spectators, as we look. The tree is rooted, as is the grass in which it stands and are the water lily pads that float on the surface of the pond, so parallels are drawn between the elements of earth and water. From above, from the air, dangle slender branches and leaves. The shape of the canvas, taller than it is wide, contributes to that sense of both growth and descent.
The trunk of the weeping willow makes a strong columnar vertical which dominates the composition. Monet’s brushstrokes shape and shade the climbing textures of the growing wood. They contrast with the undulating marks that define the tumbling foliage suspended above the water’s surface. These descending, rippling verticals are echoed in their reflections, extending the green which cascades down the right-hand side of canvas. But above is solid, material, while below is reflection.
Monet gives us triple types of natural forms, all things we have seen, that we can recognise. There is the massive and strong, the delicately drooping, and the immaterial reflected. We are only shown a fragment of the garden; we have to take the rest on trust. The painting assumes that our knowledge of nature is equivalent to the painter’s. Together we know that the falling foliation comes from that trunk, and that what is reflected in the still surface of the Giverny pond as we look down is what in actuality is above.
His palette offers expected natural colours, such as the green of grass and leaves and the brown of bark. The resonant blue is not the colour of the pond itself, but of the summer sky reflected in it. So once again we are shown different kinds of actuality: the material and the naturally implicit. Monet animated his painted surface with different dialogues between the colours. Not only did he set the warm accents of the flowers—the flaming blooms in the foreground and the mauve-pink lilies on the pond—against the cool greens and blues of grass and water, but he also made the insistent primary colour blue compete with secondaries: the green vegetation, the orange flowers and the violet shadows.
At the same time the brush-marks quite deliberately correspond to the textures of the natural elements Monet represented. There are short, jabbing marks for the grass, longer denser touches for the bark, the flowing rhythm of the leafage, arcing gestures for the circular lily pads. Yet another vivid aspect of this powerful painting is the white canvas that comes through, which one finds particularly at the margins: where the bank meets the water, where the weeping leaves drop down towards the pond. These small patches give an active, almost present, sense of the act of painting in progress, of Monet’s eye and hand rapidly collaborating in his picture-making, as he explored the below and above, the solid and reflected, in his Giverny garden. For this important painting was a crucial template for Le matin aux saules, one of the great panels of Monet’s decorative masterwork, the Nymphéas in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas powerfully demonstrates Monet’s ability to craft strong forms and suggest space as well as his gift for orchestrating colour. That its composition was adopted to anchor the edge of one of his great scroll-like decorations serves to prove the decisive significance of this striking work.
‘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.’ -Claude Monet
‘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 colouring and distort the planes of water’ -Claude Monet
‘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’ -Claude Monet
‘The spirit of Monet [hovers] over all of Mitchell’s work’ -Cindy Nemser
Among the many canvases that Claude Monet painted between 1914 and 1926 in conjunction with his Grandes décorations, the series of twenty-two large panels featuring his water lily theme that he donated to the French state to commemorate the end of the First World War, the present Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas can claim a rare and significant distinction. The artist chose to reprise this composition—the thick trunk of a weeping willow at the edge of the pond, its pendulous, leafy branches descending to the surface of the water—in the three-part sequence of Décorations he titled Le matin aux saules (Wildenstein, vol. IV, Second Room, nos. 2a-c).
This vertical motif, 79 inches (2 metres) tall in both the canvas and the subsequent décoration (no. 2a), appears at the far left edge of the mural triptych, which extends across the north wall in the second room of the water lilies installation in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Initially built as a winter greenhouse to shelter the Jardin des Tuileries orange trees, the Orangerie had been expressly redesigned to receive Monet’s magnum opus. The display of the Grandes décorations was inaugurated in 1927, the year following the artist’s death. In renovations undertaken during 2000-2006, a second floor later built over the two rooms was removed, allowing the increasingly popular water lily paintings, Les Nymphéas, to be viewed once again in diffused natural daylight entering from above, as Monet intended.
Although destined in the mural to reveal the willow in the half-light of early dawn, the present Saule pleureur—comprised entirely of foliage, water, and an invisible, but nonetheless palpable envelope of air—is incandescent in its colours, a world of greenery illumined from within by contrasts of complementary tones gathered from every chromatic band of the spectrum. The wooden bark of the willow trunk has become a pulsing cascade of blue, green, and violet, accented with stitches of pink and rose. Monet painted this canvas au premier coup; the effect is fresher, more spontaneous and experimental than in the subsequent décoration, which, by contrast, from numerous reworkings over time, displays a thick, crust-like buildup of manifold layers of paint.
The first exhibition devoted exclusively to Monet’s water lily paintings took place at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in May 1909. The artist subtitled this selection of 48 canvases, painted between 1903 and 1908, Séries de paysages d’eau—‘Water Landscapes’. The show astonished the public and critics alike. ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now; the dormant and fertile waters completely cover the field of the canvas,’ Roger Marx declared in amazement. ‘Through the incense of soft vapours, under a light veil of silvery mist, “the indecisive meets the precise.” Certainty becomes conjecture, and the enigma of mystery opens the mind to the world of illusion and the infinity of dreams’ (R. Marx, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, June 1909; C.F. Stuckey, ed., Monet a Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 265).
The achievement of the nymphéas paintings, culminating in the Grandes décorations, proceeded from a feat of imaginative planning and construction that was itself an unprecedented, visionary work of sublime artifice, anticipating the earthworks of the 1960s as an art form. As if in a quest for a paradise lost, to locate a new Eden amid the bustle of the cosmopolitan, industrialised modern era, Monet conceived and created—dedicating to this endeavour his considerable resources as a famous and successful painter—the very water lily pond and its surroundings that he eventually decided would become the sole, but all-encompassing subject of his late art. Monet designed the pond in 1893 as the centrepiece in a tract of newly purchased acreage adjoining his home and property in Giverny. The acquisition of additional parcels of land in 1902 enabled him to triple the size of his water garden, the contours of which he further refined in 1910. ‘In this simplicity,’ as Gustave Geffroy—Monet’s close friend and first biographer—discerned, ‘is found everything the eye can see and surmise, an infinity of shapes and shades, the complex life of things’ (G. Geffroy, Claude Monet sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1924 /1980, p. 402).
The feelings of exaltation and serenity that Monet experienced in his gardens provided much solace during the personally difficult years, while he was in his early 70s, leading up to the beginning of the First World War. His beloved wife Alice died in 1911; his elder son Jean, ill since 1912, passed away in early 1914. Monet learned in mid-1912 that cataracts were developing in both his eyes; various treatments and the artist’s own means of compensating for this condition enabled him to defer the surgery he deeply dreaded until early 1923.
Before resuming painting during the spring of 1914, Monet had been considering a campaign of revisiting sites where he had once worked, to arrive a final, definitive synthesis of motif and technique. He rejected this idea, however, to take up instead an entirely new project: he would paint large works as mural decorations on the water lily theme, an idea he first mentioned to a visiting journalist in 1896. The artist later recalled the ‘blessed day’ in which he made the momentous decision to undertake the Grandes décorations. ‘It occurred to me, in doing my sketches,’ Monet explained, ‘that a series of coherent impressions, taken down at those times when my sight was likeliest to be clear, would not be without interest. I waited for the idea to take shape, for the ordering and composition of the themes to slowly inscribe themselves on my mind, and for the day when I felt readiest to take my chances, with some hope of success. So, I made up my mind to act, and I did’ (Monet, quoted in C.F. Stuckey, Claude Monet, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 245).
By the beginning of summer 1914 Monet was hard at work on large nymphéas canvases and had likely begun some of the actual mural panels as well (2 metres high, either 4.25 or 6 metres wide). He routinely awoke two or three hours before dawn to catch the mysterious early morning half-light, which he depicted in the three panels of Le matin aux saules and in the present canvas. In the centre of the triptych the placid surface of the pond reflects the initial golden rays of sunlight striking the clouds high above. This scene contrasts with the three panels of Le matin clair aux saules directly across the room in the Orangerie installation (Wildenstein, vol. IV, nos. 4a-c), in which a later morning radiance suffuses the pond, as a slight breeze gently, almost imperceptibly, stirs the willow leaves and the surface of the water.
The present Saule pleureur is one of two preparatory essays, based on quickly drawn notebook sketches, showing the willow trunk rising from a round spit of grassy bank that extends a few feet into the pond (the other canvas is Wildenstein, no. 1848). This motif is easily identified as the large, enveloping Babylon willow on the north bank of the pond, visible on the right side of photographs which show the Japanese bridge in the distance. In another related study Monet shifted his field of vision slightly to the right, eliminating the willow trunk to concentrate instead on the dangling foliage (no. 1850; both paintings are in the Michel Monet bequest to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, on view in the Musée Marmottan).
‘I am hard at work and, whatever the weather, I paint,’ Monet wrote to the gallerist Félix Fénéon in June 1914. ‘I have undertaken a great project that I love’ (Monet, quoted in R. King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, New York, 2016, p. 50). Events of the day, however, soon intruded on the artist’s blissful exploration of his water-world Nirvana—on 28 June a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, setting in motion a chain of events that resulted in declarations of war on 3-4 September, as Britain, France, Russia, and later Italy faced off against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Within days Monet’s stepson Jean-Pierre Hoschedé was called up for military duty; the artist’s own surviving son Michel, having recently recovered from surgery, was provisionally exempt. German armies invaded France on 24 September, and advanced to within 25 miles of Paris, as a quarter of the capital’s population fled south and west. Monet refused to leave Giverny—‘I shall stay here regardless, and if those barbarians wish to kill me, I shall die among my canvases, in front of my life’s work’ (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 69). Troop reinforcements transported by rail through Giverny helped stem the tide of the German offensive in battles on the Marne River in early September. ‘I am back at work; it is still the best way not to think too much about current woes’—Monet wrote Geffroy on 1 December— ‘even though I should be a bit ashamed to think about little investigations into forms and colours while so many people suffer and die for us’ (Monet, quoted in C.F. Stuckey, op. cit., 1995, p. 246).
Photographs taken of the Grandes décorations in progress during late 1915-early 1916 show panels that incorporate the willow tree motif, including the section of Le matin aux saules which Monet derived from the present canvas. The willow held deep personal significance for the artist; he appears to have identified with its thickset form, as if he were painting himself into the nymphéas compositions. Monet evoked in the willow’s traditional elegiac symbolism memories of Alice and Jean, while honouring the wartime losses of an entire nation. He was especially concerned during this period for Michel, who in 1915 enlisted at age 37 for front line service; he would survive the worst carnage of the entire war while deployed to Verdun during the early months of 1916. The willow is moreover a symbol of hope for and faith in the future: ‘I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams’ (Isaiah 44:3-4).
The willow motif of tree trunk and dangling branches provides emotive, vertical accents and a rhythmic, cyclical structure to the nymphéas panels in the second room of the Orangerie display, imparting to them an earthly, immediate presence, as well as a comforting, sympathetically ‘human’ frame of reference. Monet appears to have invoked these qualities to contrast with and complement the murals in the entry room, which in their indefinite, cosmic openness suggest dimensions of distance and abstraction that are simultaneously disorienting and sublime.
In November 1916 Monet’s longtime friend Georges Clemenceau first viewed the murals then underway in Monet’s studios. The artist referred to the huge canvases, mounted on chassis that could be wheeled about the studio, as his grandes machines. A year later Clemenceau became Prime Minister of France, the nation’s wartime ‘Tiger’. The day after the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, Monet offered Clemenceau, as a gift to the French nation, a Weeping Willow painting (from among a separate series, Wildenstein, nos. 1868-1877) and a Grande décoration, both nearly completed, to celebrate the end of the war. Moved by this gesture, Clemenceau with Geffroy visited Giverny the following week, and proposed instead the donation of twelve decorative panels, including some which featured the willows. The agreement, when drawn up and signed in April 1922, ultimately provided for twenty canvases to be placed in the two Orangerie rooms, to which Monet added two more panels.
After viewing the opening of Les Nymphéas at the Musée de l’Orangerie in 1927, the playwright Paul Claudel suggested the transcendent, metaphysical sense in which the paintings would be viewed in years to come, as indeed we are inclined to interpret them today—Monet ‘made himself the painter of things we cannot see’ (P. Claudel, quoted in M. Call, Claude Monet, Free Thinker, New York, 2015, p. 132).