‘Without beginning or end’ — Monet’s Le bassin aux nymphéas

If Claude Monet’s water-lily Grandes Décorations represent the pinnacle of his career, then Le bassin aux nymphéas — offered in New York in Novemberrepresents a fundamental stage in their evolution


Detail of Claude Monet's (1840-1926), Le bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-19. Oil on canvas. 39¾ x 79 in (100.7 x 200.8 cm). Estimate: $30,000,000-50,000,000. Offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art evening Sale on 11 November at Christie’s in New York

‘I do not have long to live, and I must dedicate all my time to painting,’ wrote Claude Monet in a 1918 letter to the Parisian art dealer, Georges Bernheim. ‘I don’t want to believe that I would ever be obliged to leave Giverny; I’d rather die here in the middle of what I have done.’

Monet would survive these words by a number of years, but they reflect his precarious state of mind in the summer when he was working on Le bassin aux nymphéas. He was approaching 80 — well beyond the life expectancy for men of his generation — and suffering increasingly with cataracts in both eyes. The First World War was also entering its final phase, the Germans recently having launched their Ludendorff Offensive on the Western Front: a last-ditch effort at victory before newly-arriving US troops could be fully deployed on the Allied side.

The Germans' advance was swift and effective, with Paris now within reach of their long-range guns. As, just about, was the village of Giverny, located slightly to the west of the French capital and a place Monet had called home since 1883.

Monet was an avid gardener, and much of his time at Giverny was spent in his sizeable garden. Peonies and red geraniums jostled for attention with pansies and yellow roses. His most famous horticultural feat, though, was creating a water garden, complete with a lily-covered pond, which, over the decades, he’d paint around 250 times.


Property from an Important Private Collection. Claude Monet (1840-1926), Le bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-19. Oil on canvas. 39¾ x 79 in (100.7 x 200.8 cm). Estimate: $30,000,000-50,000,000. Offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 11 November at Christie’s in New York

By the turn of the 20th century, the pond had become the almost-exclusive subject of Monet’s art, inspiring an outpouring of creativity that, for many, marks the summit of his career. A 1909 exhibition of 48 of his water-lily paintings, at Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, left art critics purring at how close to abstraction they looked. ‘His vision is increasingly limiting itself to the minimum of tangible realities, in order… to magnify the impression of the imponderable,’ wrote Jean Morgan in daily newspaper, Le Gaulois.

Monet wasn’t an artist to rest on his laurels or repeat past successes, however, and in 1918 he ordered a set of 20 large canvases in elongated, horizontal format (roughly a metre high by more than two metres wide). He duly began work on a new, compositionally connected group of paintings, in which lily pads are clustered towards the lateral edges and a burst of sunlight makes its way in a vertical band down the centre, before spilling out into a broad pool at the bottom.

He would complete 14 works of this type, Le bassin aux nymphéas  among them. In that particular painting, he unified the scene’s elements by adopting a diaphanous veil of colour all over, laid down with a light, transparent touch.

‘Monet saw the canvases as forerunners... of his late, water-lily Grandes Décorations’ — Paul Hayes Tucker, curator

For Paul Hayes Tucker, the curator of a number of exhibitions on the French master, including Monet in the 20th Century  at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Royal Academy of Arts, London, in the late 1990s, ‘this [suite of] canvases has a physical and emotional expansiveness’ that earlier water-lily paintings lacked.

Work on them proceeded rapidly, and in August 1918 Monet invited the dealer René Gimpel to Giverny for a private viewing. An enthused Gimpel remarked that ‘it was as though [he] were present at one of the first hours of the birth of the world’. He saw neither horizon nor shore, being thrown into the midst of a seemingly limitless scene ‘without beginning or end’.

Twelve of the 14 paintings are extant today, the most recent example to appear on the market — another Le bassin aux nymphéas — fetching £40.9 million ($80.4 million) at auction in 2008, which at the time represented a new world auction record for the artist.

According to Tucker, there’s a final reason the 14 works are important: the likelihood that ‘Monet saw the canvases as forerunners... of his late, water-lily Grandes Décorations’. Monet completed this ensemble of 22 mural-sized paintings shortly before his death in 1926 and donated them to the French state. Totalling more than 90 metres in length, they boast the same elongated, horizontal format as Le bassin aux nymphéas (albeit on a larger scale) and are displayed, as per the artist’s wishes, like a panoramic frieze, wrapped around a circular room. 

In May 1927, the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, newly remodelled to house the bequest, opened its doors — and the Grandes Décorations are still on view there today. On 11 November, Le bassin aux nymphéas  will be offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s in New York.

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