‘The edges of the pond are thickly covered with irises of every kind. In the spring, there are Iris sibirica and Virginian irises with their long petals and velvety texture; later on the Japanese irises and the Kaempferi irises grow here in quantity’ -Claude Monet
‘My father is the late Monet’ -Barnett Newman
The edges of the pond are thickly covered with irises of every kind,’ the famed horticulturalist Georges Truffaut wrote in 1913, describing the magnificent water garden that Monet had fashioned on his property at Giverny, by then the exclusive subject of his art. ‘In the spring, there are Iris sibirica and Virginian irises with their long petals and velvety texture; later on the Japanese irises and the Kaempferi irises grow here in quantity’ (G. Truffaut, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. IV, 1899-1926, Cologne & Lausanne, 1996, p. 864).
Over the next decade, from 1914 until 1925, Monet painted twenty views of the splendid irises that Truffaut had so admired, each canvas a metre or more high. Together with his iconic late Nymphéas, the Irises form part of the untrammelled outpouring of creativity that marked the artist’s valedictory years. As younger generations of the French avant-garde increasingly heeded the wartime and post-war ‘call to order’, with its emphasis on rationality and restraint, Monet staked out an antithetical and unabashedly personal path, steeped in a yearning for beauty and a desire for abandon. This brazen, visionary body of work affirms that the senior statesman of Impressionism, by then venerated as a founding father of the modern movement, had not lost his revolutionary instinct—nor his art its vital, transformative character—even as he entered his ninth and final decade.
The earliest of Monet’s Iris paintings (Wildenstein, nos. 1823-1833), painted in 1914-1917, were part of a sustained, exploratory enterprise in which the artist tested out ideas for his Grandes décorations, his ensemble of twenty-two mural-sized canvases on the theme of the water garden. A photograph of the murals in progress shows that Monet initially considered including irises in the imagery; ultimately, though, he opted to pursue his study of these gloriously showy blossoms independently, liberating him to explore a variety of different formats, vantage points, and colour harmonies. The later Iris canvases (nos. 1834-1842), painted when the Grandes décorations were closer to completion,are autonomous compositions in which Monet delved further into the expansive, decorative language and life-affirming theme of the mural cycle, which represents the culminating achievement of his long career.
The present painting is among the most freely worked, radically simplified, and assertively modern from this latter group. A half-dozen bright yellow irises, their stems tall and supple, stand out against a plane of intense azure blue, which gives way at the corners to moody mauve. One stalk of iris remains in bud, an emblem of organic potency and new life; the other five have achieved full flower. Monet seems to have selected an uncommonly low and close vantage point, showing the irises soaring up, larger than life, toward the sky; or perhaps he is looking down on the blossoms from high above, in which case the blue ground represents the reflection of the sky in the mirror-like surface of the lily-pond. Traditional perspective has been eliminated, space compressed into a single plane. The extraordinary, mythic height of the irises underscores the vital energy of the burgeoning plants, which is echoed in Monet’s vigorous application of paint, here utterly unfettered by convention.
By the time that Monet painted this canvas, he and his family had made their home at rural Giverny, near the confluence of the Seine and the Epte, for more than four decades. In 1883, the artist found a large house to rent there on two acres of land; when the property came up for sale in 1890, he bought it at the asking price, ‘certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside,’ as he wrote to Durand-Ruel (Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, Monet: Life and Art, New York, 1995, p. 175). A dedicated gardener all his life, Monet’s first priority upon purchasing the estate was to replace the vegetable plots in front of the house with flower beds. Three years later, he acquired an adjacent piece of land beside the river Ru and successfully applied to the local government for permission divert the tributary and dig a lily-pond—‘for the pleasure of the eyes,’ he explained, ‘and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint’ (Monet, quoted in Claude Monet: Late Work, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, p. 23).
Irises were one of Monet’s favourite flowers, and he did not stint on them once settled at Giverny. He collected different species of the plant, revelling in their wide range of hues (the name ‘iris’ comes from the Greek word for rainbow) and eye-catching, ruffled petals; he planted great banks of the blossoms along the pathway leading up to his house (see Wildenstein, nos. 1621-1627), and he encouraged his head gardener Félix Breuil to publish about his specimens in horticultural journals. Irises appear in his very earliest paintings of the water garden from 1895-1896 (nos. 1392, 1419- 1419a) and, even more prominently, in his first extended series on the theme, the eighteen Japanese Bridge canvases of 1899-1900 (nos. 1509-1520, 1628-1633).
From 1904 until 1908, following the enormously successful exhibition of his paintings from London and a campaign of renovations to the water garden, Monet worked with unbroken intensity on a new series. Eschewing traditional perspective, he lowered his gaze to the surface of the lily-pond and captured the play of light and reflections that transformed the motif with each passing moment; the world beyond the plane of the water now exists only in mirror image, as a radically destabilised vision of shifting, disintegrating forms. When Monet exhibited these delicate, ethereal pictures at Durand-Ruel in May 1909, critics marvelled at how novel and nearly abstract they appeared. ‘His vision increasingly is simplifying itself,’ the critic Jean Morgan wrote, ‘limiting itself to the minimum of tangible realities in order to amplify, to magnify the impression of the imponderable’ (J. Morgan, quoted in ibid., p. 29).
Monet could not have hoped for a better response. Yet following the close of the exhibition, there followed a period of five years in which the artist— exhausted from the feverish work leading up to the show, and then suffering from a sequence of personal tragedies—barely picked up his brushes. His wife Alice Hoschedé and his elder son Jean both took ill and died during this time. Less grave but still distressing, flooding of the Seine and the Epte caused substantial damage to his cherished gardens. It was not until spring 1914, as Europe steeled for cataclysmic conflict, that a creative urgency—a burning desire to respond to the formidable historical moment—suddenly superseded Monet’s despair. ‘I have thrown myself back into work,’ he wrote to Durand-Ruel, ‘so much so that I am getting up at four a.m. and grinding away all day long’ (Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 204).
When Monet resumed work in the water garden in 1914, he treated the long-familiar motif with a brand-new formal language. In contrast to the relatively restrained brushwork of the previous decade’s Nymphéas, he now laid down pigment in loose, expressive strokes, intentionally sacrificing conventional finish to create an impression of unrestrained vigour and urgency. He invented more daring compositions and colour schemes, transforming the tranquil pond into a site of contention and drama, and he began to work on a vastly grander scale, on canvases two to four times larger than the ones that he had exhibited at Durand-Ruel in 1909. Finally, rather than continuing to focus exclusively on the surface of the pond, Monet now broadened his vision once again to encompass the weeping willows and flowering plants—lilies, agapanthus, and especially irises—that grew in profusion along the banks.
Monet painted the present Iris in 1924-1925, in the midst of his final, intensive campaign of work on the Grandes décorations. Indeed, his friend Georges Clemenceau, the noted statesman and twice the Prime Minister of the Third Republic, who had sponsored the mural commission, complained that Monet was devoting too much time to independent easel painting, as an excuse to put off the deadline that had been set for the completion of the twenty-two decorative panels. With their tall, resilient stalks unfurling triumphantly, the irises here are a proxy for Monet’s own irrepressible creative force, following a successful series of operations in 1923 to remove cataracts that threatened his vision. ‘I am working as never before,’ he exulted in the summer of 1925, ‘am satisfied with what I do, and if the new glasses are even better, my only request would be to live to be one hundred’ (Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, et al., Monet in the Twentieth Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 83).
Monet in fact died the next year at the age of eighty-six, still long past the life expectancy for men of his generation. With the exception of the Grandes décorations, which were installed in the Orangerie and opened to public view in May 1927, almost all the work from his final twelve years—an intensive and ongoing exploratory initiative, well ahead of its time—remained in the studio at his death. It was only after the Second World War that contemporary audiences, schooled in Abstract Expressionism, came to recognise the greatly daring poetry of these late canvases. ‘Monet taught me to understand what a revolution in painting can be,’ proclaimed the surrealist painter André Masson, who spent the war years in New York and was instrumental in championing Monet’s late achievement. ‘Only with Monet does painting take a turn. He dispels the very notion of form that has dominated us for millennia. He bestows absolute poetry on colour’ (Masson, quoted in Monet and Modernism, exh. cat., Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 2001, p. 242).