“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” (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 864).
Over the next decade, from 1914 until 1925, Monet–arguably France’s most acclaimed living artist at the time, venerated as a founding father of the modern movement–painted twenty views of the splendid irises that Truffaut had admired, each canvas a meter high. Together with Monet’s iconic late Nymphéas, the Irises form part of the extraordinary outpouring of creativity that marked the artist’s final years. Deliberately eschewing the “call to order” that gripped the avant-garde in the wake of the First World War, Monet reveled in freedom and experimentation, in nuanced color harmonies and expressive brushwork, celebrating the shifting, incalculable world of nature rather than the disciplined one of rational, re-built France. Although it would not be for another quarter-century, as Abstract Expressionism triumphed on the international art scene, that Monet’s late work would emerge as authoritative and visionary, this bravura corpus affirms that the senior statesman of Impressionism had not lost his revolutionary instinct–nor his art its vital, transformative character–even as he entered his ninth decade.
“These paintings assert that Monet’s physical remove to Giverny did not mean a relaxation of his intellectual and aesthetic powers,” Paul Tucker has explained. “On the contrary, the time he spent observing his flowers, trees, and pond engendered a profound refocusing of those strengths, 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 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, and worst of all perhaps, the horrors of the First World War. 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).
The earliest of Monet’s Iris paintings, dated 1914-1917, were part of a sustained, exploratory enterprise in which the artist tested out ideas for his Grandes décorations–an ensemble of twenty-two mural-sized canvases on the theme of the water garden, which represents the culminating achievement of his long career–on a scale that he had never before attempted (Wildenstein, nos. 1823-1833). Others, painted when the Grandes décorations were closer to completion, are independent compositions in which Monet delved further into the expansive, decorative language and the meditative, life-affirming theme of his great mural cycle (Wildenstein, nos. 1834-1842).
Iris jaunes au nuage rose, dated 1924-1925, is among the most freely worked and daringly simplified canvases from this latter group. A half-dozen bright yellow irises, their stems tall and supple, are silhouetted against a plane of violet-blue, vigorously scumbled with pale pink and white. Monet seems to have selected an uncommonly low and close vantage point, showing the irises soaring up, larger than life, toward the cumulus-filled sky; or perhaps he is looking down on the blossoms from high above, in which case the blue ground represents the reflection of the clouds and sky in the gently rippling surface of the pond. Traditional perspective has been eliminated, space compressed into a single plane. The swirling strokes of color, however, create a subtle illusion of depth, while the extraordinary height of the irises underscores the vital energy of the burgeoning plants. “In the novel language of the twentieth century,” Tucker has written, “Monet expressed his quintessentially nineteenth-century sensibility–one that was grounded in the primacy of vision and experience and that reveled in the ambiguous, the personal, and the sublime” (ibid., p. 85).
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The story of Monet’s water garden–now the stuff of modern-art legend–begins in April 1883 when the artist and his family settled at Giverny, a tiny rural hamlet some forty miles northwest of Paris at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte. Monet found a large house to rent on two acres of land; when the property came up for sale in 1890, he hastened to buy it at the asking price, “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). A passionate gardener all his life, Monet’s first priority upon purchasing the estate was to replace the vegetable plots in front of the house with lush flower beds. Three years later, he acquired an adjacent piece of land beside the river Ru and 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 a thousand square meters into a lily pond, spanned by a wooden footbridge and ringed by an artful arrangement of flowers, bushes, and trees.
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 Department Prefect, 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). It was not until 1904, however, following the enormously successful exhibition of his paintings from London and a campaign of major renovations to the pond, that the water garden became almost his exclusive motif. “A landscape takes more than a day to get under your skin,” he later recalled. “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).
Monet worked particularly feverishly on the series from 1905 until 1908, preparing for the Nymphéas exhibition that opened at Durand-Ruel in May 1909. Critical response to the show was overwhelmingly positive, affirming the sixty-eight-year-old artist’s enduring place at the forefront of the avant-garde. “Monet has reached the final degree of abstraction and imagination that his art of the landscapist allows,” the critic Henry Eon proclaimed in the journal Le Siècle (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2010, p. 29).
Following the close of the exhibition, however, 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. His wife Alice was diagnosed with leukemia early in 1910 and died the following year; his eldest son Jean began to suffer health problems shortly thereafter and succumbed to syphilis in 1914. During the same period, Monet learned that he had cataracts, and flooding of the Seine and the Epte caused substantial damage to his gardens. “I am going to pack up my brushes and colors for good,” he lamented in August 1911 (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, vol. I, p. 396).
In the spring of 1914, however, something changed. “I’m feeling marvelous, and I’m obsessed with the desire to paint,” the artist wrote to Gustave Geffroy on April 30th (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 202). By late May, he had resumed painting in the water garden, and a month later, he reported to Durand-Ruel, “I have thrown myself back into work...so much so that I am getting up at four a.m. and am grinding away all day long” (quoted in ibid., p. 204). A few weeks later, he begged Geffroy to come to Giverny to see the results of his recent labors, and by January 1915, he was feeling confident enough to invite Raymond Koechlin, a formidable figure in Parisian art circles, to visit him at Giverny. During the summer of 1915, he began construction on a huge studio to accommodate the Grandes decorations, which by then were well underway, along with the earliest Irises.
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Irises were one of Monet’s very favorite flowers, with their wide range of hues (the plant takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow) and their showy, ruffled petals. Before he began to cultivate the blossoms on the banks of the lily-pond, he planted great masses of Iris germanica and Dutch irises along the pathway leading up to his house; he collected different species of the plant and encouraged his head gardener Félix Breuil to publish an article about irises in the specialized journal Jardinage. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Monet considered featuring irises in his Grandes décorations. A photograph of the murals in progress includes several iris stems, as does a related, six-meter wide panel in the Kunsthaus Zürich (Wildenstein, no. 1980). Ultimately, though, Monet chose to pursue his study of irises independently, liberating him to explore these glorious flowers in different color harmonies, from a range of vantage points, and in a variety of formats.
With the exception of the Grandes décorations themselves, which were installed to great fanfare in the Orangerie in 1927, the paintings from the final twelve years of Monet’s life remained almost entirely unknown until after the Second World War. The artist exhibited or sold only a few, evidently considering them an intensive and ongoing exploratory initiative, and most remained in his studio at his death. As Abstract Expressionism reached its heyday, however, artists, curators, and collectors alike came to appreciate and admire the broad, expressive brushwork and powerfully abstract sensibility of Monet’s late work. “In the past decade,” the critic Thomas Hess wrote in 1956, “paintings by such artists as Pollock, Rothko, Still, Reinhardt, and Tobey have made us see in Monet’s huge late pictures a purity of image and concept of pictorial space that we now can recognize as greatly daring poetry” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, pp. 100-101).
Iris jaunes au nuage rose occupies a prominent place in this dramatic revival and reinterpretation of Monet’s culminating achievement. The renowned publisher and art world luminary Tériade acquired the painting from Monet’s son Michel in the immediate post-war period. He loaned it to a major Monet retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1952, one of the first exhibitions to showcase the artist’s late work. During the same year, he reproduced the painting in his journal Verve alongside an article by André Masson, in which the surrealist painter declared Monet’s late work to be his supreme accomplishment and lauded the Grandes décorations as the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism” (quoted in ibid., p. 100). Masson’s article, entitled “Monet le fondateur,” was critically important in instigating the Monet revival (it “started the bandwagon rolling,” Time magazine would later declare)–and how fitting that Tériade should have chosen to illustrate the text with the present Iris jaunes, the triumphant blossoms unfurling and climbing to nearly mythic stature, utterly unfettered by convention.
ARTIST PHOTO #1:
Monet at Giverny, circa 1924.
ARTIST PHOTO #2:
Monet painting in the water garden at Giverny, 1915. Photo: Sacha Guitry.
Claude Monet, Iris jaunes, 1914-1917. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
Claude Monet, Le chemin au milieu des iris, 1914-1917. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Claude Monet, Le parterre aux agapanthes, 1914-1917. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Claude Monet, Iris jaunes, 1914-1925. Musée Marmottan, Paris.
Monet with the Grandes décorations in progress, circa 1920.