Audio: Claude Monet, L'Ile aux Orties
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
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Claude Monet (1840-1926)

L'Ile aux Orties

Claude Monet (1840-1926)
L'Ile aux Orties
signed and dated 'Claude Monet 97' (lower left)
oil on canvas
28 7/8 x 36½ in. (73.4 x 92.5 cm.)
Painted in 1897
Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris (acquired from the artist, 26 January 1900).
Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York (acquired from the above, 31 January 1900).
Dr. Moses Allen Starr, New York (acquired from the above, 23 December 1900).
Daniel B. Grossman, New York.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, by 1979.
A. Fontainas, "Art moderne" in Mercure de France, May 1899, p. 531.
L. Venturi, Les archives de l'Impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, vol. I, pp. 373-374.
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: biographie et catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1979, vol. III, pp. 216 and 301, no. 1490 (illustrated, p. 217).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: biographie et catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1985, vol. IV, p. 341, letter no. 1497.
D. Wildenstein, Monet: catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1996, vol. III, p. 626, no. 1490 (illustrated).
K. Sagner-Düchting, Monet and Modernism, exh. cat., Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 2001, pp. 52-53, note 1.
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Exposition Claude Monet, June 1898, p. 7, possibly no. 55, 56 or 57.
(possibly) New York, Durand-Ruel Galleries, Exhibition of Paintings by Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, April 1900, no. 12.

Lot Essay

Painted just after dawn, the landscape still awash in cool morning mist, the present painting depicts a small island in the Seine at the mouth of the Epte, less than a mile from Monet's home at Giverny. The artist had acquired the islet, known as the Ile aux Orties (Isle of Nettles), in 1886, three years after settling in Giverny with Alice Hoschedé and their combined brood of eight children. Part of a cluster of islands in the Seine between Giverny and Port-Villez, most of them now dredged away, the Ile aux Orties quickly became a favorite sanctuary for Alice and the children, as well as providing a protected spot for Monet to moor his bateau atelier and trio of smaller craft. Between 1885 and 1894, the artist painted some two dozen panoramic views of the Seine near the Ile aux Orties (fig. 1). In 1886, looking up from his boat to see Suzanne Hoschedé standing on the isle's grassy embankment, silhouetted against the summer sky, he was inspired to paint his first large-scale figure paintings in more than a decade and the very last of his career (Wildenstein, nos. 1076-1077; both Musée d'Orsay, Paris).

In 1897, Monet drew close to the Ile aux Orties and concentrated on it more intensively, painting four views of the island rising majestically from the Seine, its copious vegetation reflected in the tranquil waters beneath. The present canvas is one of these paintings; other examples are housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina (Wildenstein, nos. 1489-1492; fig. 2). In this quartet of closely related views, Monet imbues the island with a monumental grandeur that recalls his paintings of snowy Mont Kolsaas just two years earlier (fig. 3). At the same time, he opts for a delicate, unified palette that softens and dematerializes the forms, lending the vaporous, early morning scene a sense of reverie and introspection. In the present version, the sky and water are rendered in the very palest blue, with faint touches of rose near the horizon suggesting the breaking of day. The darker green-blue tints of the island's foliage are overlaid with strokes of creamy white, as the soft light of early morning reflects gently off the dew. Karin Sagner-Düchting has written:

"The visible horizon, the transition from the water to the vegetation and the sky, dissolves in the texture of colors evenly covering the whole surface of the picture. Delicate and luminous pink, yellow and blue tints alternating with dark and cool blue and green, suggests morning freshness and the softly shining light that blends everything together. Beyond time, quiet and calm, these paintings have a poetic way of evoking atmosphere, whereby the concrete figurative element is relegated completely to the background. As though by undergoing metamorphosis, the figure is divested of familiar and identifiable features. In a symbolist sense it is merely suggested, not clearly defined" (op. cit., p. 52).

The four paintings of the Ile aux Orties form an ambitious coda to a series that occupied Monet for several months in 1896 and 1897, the so-called Matinées sur la Seine. The core of this series consists of twenty-one canvases, painted from the bateau atelier at a spot between the Giverny bank and the Ile aux Orties, looking upstream (Wildenstein, nos. 1435-1437, 1472-1488; fig. 4). The bank appears on the left of the composition and the island on the right, their arching branches spreading cloud-like into the sky and framing the quiet corridor of water beneath, with its hazy play of reflections. In the Ile aux Orties sequence, by contrast, Monet has turned his angle of vision roughly ninety degrees clockwise to face the island head-on. The Seine now forms a broad, flat band that extends the full width of the canvas, rather than a meandering pathway that leads the eye into the composition. The solid ground of the riverbank is no longer visible, and the island appears to float on the surface of the water, a horizontal line becoming a mirror axis of symmetrical plant forms. Sagner-Düchting has written, "Shifting the perspective this way makes the foreground lose its reference to landscape and space. This effect is emphasized by the subtle distinctions in the (overall) hue that suggests cool morning mist, supplants local color, and creates an almost complete flattening of the picture space" (ibid., p. 52).

The Matinées sur la Seine represent one of two major serial undertakings that absorbed Monet almost completely in 1896-1897. The other is a group of some fifty views of the towering cliffs at Pourville, Dieppe, and Varengeville (fig. 5). After an acclaimed exhibition at Durand-Ruel in May 1895, which featured twenty views of Rouen Cathedral and seven of Mont Kolsaas, Monet had painted very little for the remainder of the year. Invigorated by the time away from his canvas and paints, he traveled solo to Normandy in February 1896 and worked intensively until April; he returned during the same months the following year to complete his extensive Falaises series. The Matinées sur la Seine were begun during the summer of 1896, following Monet's first campaign on the Channel coast. In September and October, however, the region of Giverny saw forty-one consecutive days of rain, forcing the artist to finish that series in 1897 as well. Unlike the views of the Seine that Monet had painted in 1893 and 1894, which served principally as a respite from his arduous work on the views of Rouen Cathedral, the Matinées are a cohesive and fully developed series in their own right, charting the progression of the early morning light on an intimate corner of one of France's major rivers. The Matinées and the Falaises were exhibited side-by-side at the Galerie Georges Petit in June 1898, eliciting perhaps the most enthusiastic praise of Monet's career to date.

The journalist Maurice Guillemot, who saw the Matinées in progress in the summer of 1897, left a detailed account of Monet's working methods. "August, three-thirty in the morning: his body padded with a white woolen cardigan, his feet in heavy leather boots with thick waterproof soles, his head covered with a picturesque brown felt hat... He opens the gate, goes down the stairs, follows the path down the middle of his garden, where the flowers are waking up and stretching towards the rising sun, crosses the road, passes through the level-crossing gate over the railway tracks of Gisors, goes around the pond covered with waterlilies, steps over the brook babbling between the willows, enters the meadows draped in morning mist, and reaches the river." Taking a small skiff to his bateau lavoir, where he stored his paintings in progress, he anchored in the middle of the Seine just before daybreak. "He has started fourteen paintings at the same time, like a series of studies, of one and the same motif, each given a different appearance depending on the different atmospheric conditions, such as sunshine, clouds, or the time of day. It is a place where the Epte joins the Seine among small islands shaded by large trees. Under the foliage the arms of the river form solitary and peaceful lakes and the water reflects the leaves. Claude Monet has been at work there since last summer; his winters are taken up by another series, the Falaises à Pourville" (quoted in ibid., p. 52).

Neither the Seine nor the Normandy coast, of course, was a new subject for Monet. Rather, both represent constant touchstones for the artist throughout his long career. The severe cliffs and sprawling, rocky beaches of Normandy were in Monet's blood from his childhood at Le Havre and Saint-Adresse, and he returned there to paint each year between 1880 and 1886. As for the Seine, he lived near its banks his entire adult life and depicted it more frequently than any other single motif. In 1896-1897, however, Monet adopted a radically different approach to painting these two favorite subjects. Compared with earlier treatments of the same sites, the new paintings are much more uniform and harmonious in surface. Soft, pastel hues are set down with dry, overlapping brushstrokes, producing a tapestry-like surface that emphasizes the translucent qualities of the paint as well as the flatness of the canvas. Forms are pared down to a series of simple arabesques, and contours are softer and less defined. "Gone are the scintillating effects of the earlier work, the contrasts of color, and the discrete touches of paint. Everything has become more homogenous, giving the scene a sedate, muffled quality," Paul Tucker has explained. "The later paintings [are] much more restrained, much grander" (Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990, p. 236).

In other ways, the two contemporaneous series--the Matinées sur la Seine and the Falaises--form a marked contrast. Whereas the Normandy paintings are open and expansive, windswept and volatile, the early-morning views of the Seine and the Ile aux Orties are contained and self-reflective, hushed and delicate. In the coastal scenes, moreover, the elements of the composition are arranged asymmetrically, the land rising and falling in unpredictable and precarious ways. The paintings of the Seine, by contrast, are balanced and stable, the canvas divided in half horizontally so that water and sky are virtually equal, a pairing that emphasizes the mirror quality of the scene as a whole. The Falaises, Tucker has suggested, are indebted to the 17th-century Dutch tradition of landscape painting, while the Matinées and the Ile aux Orties sequence represent an homage to Claude Lorrain and his 19th-century counterpart Corot, whom Monet would later call "the greatest landscape painter" of all time (quoted in ibid., p. 247). "The ties to tradition, particularly to Corot, are evident in the vaporous quality of many of the pictures in the series, in the reverie that the soft, ill-defined forms generate, and in the bucolic world that the group as a whole suggests," Tucker has explained (ibid., p. 246).

The pairing of the two series proved an enormous success when they were shown--to almost unanimous acclaim--at the Galerie Georges Petit in June 1898. The exhibition featured fifteen views of the Seine at dawn and twenty-four paintings of the Normandy cliffs; the present canvas was included, along with two of the other three examples from the Ile aux Orties sequence. Shortly after the show opened, the liberal newspaper Le Gaulois published a special issue exclusively devoted to Monet and his work, which featured a new photograph of the dashingly dressed artist and an anthology of critical praise from the previous decade. The very next week, the conservative Moniteur des Arts came out with a similar supplement, in which the editor admitted that he had never been one of Monet's supporters but that the Petit show had won him over whole-heartedly.

The success of the paintings did not end there. All four views of the Ile aux Orties entered important New York collections shortly after they were painted. One was acquired by the celebrated Impressionist collector Henry Osborne Havemeyer, another by the prominent railroad lawyer Charles Harrison Tweed, and a third by Frederic Bonner, editor-in-chief of the New York Ledger. The present version was purchased in 1900 by Dr. Moses Allen Starr, one of the leading American neurologists at the turn of the 20th century. The painting hung in his neo-classical mansion at 5 West 54th Street, next door to the home of Philip Lehman, the head of Lehman Brothers, and directly across the street from the brownstone of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, the site of which is now the Sculpture Garden of The Museum of Modern Art.

Monet at Giverny, 1895. BARCODE: 28860273

(fig. 1) Claude Monet, La Seine près de Giverny, 1885. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. BARCODE: 28860242

(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Près de Vernon, Ile aux Orties, 1897. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE: 28860235

(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Mont Kolsaas, temps brumeux, 1895. Sold, Christie's, New York, 8 November 2000, lot 35. BARCODE: NB574_1

(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Bras de Seine, près de Giverny, soleil levant, 1897. Musée Marmottan, Paris. BARCODE: 28860259

(fig. 5) Claude Monet, Val-Saint-Nicolas, près de Dieppe, matin, 1896-1897. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. BARCODE: 28860266

(fig. 6) Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Souvenir de Mortefontaine, 1864. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE: 28858287

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