Hidden Treasures: Monet’s Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas

The water lily paintings are celebrated as Claude Monet's greatest masterpieces. Painted on his estate in Giverny during the First World War and then given to the nation, they came to be seen as a beacon of hope in the darkness

In 1914, Claude Monet (1840-1926) wrote to his art dealer: ‘I am hard at work and, whatever the weather, I paint. I have undertaken a great project that I love.’ He was referring to a set of water lily paintings, some of which would become his greatest masterpieces. What is remarkable is that just months before, the artist had been unable to work, heartbroken over the death of his wife and son. ‘I am annihilated,’ wrote the artist.

According to Ross King, author of Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, it was at this moment that the French politician and later Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), stepped in. Firm friends since their youth in the 1860s, both were, in their own ways, radicals. Clemenceau was ‘The Tiger’ — a firebrand politician and serial dueller — who had suffered prison and exile for his beliefs.


Georges Clemenceau (left) and Claude Monet in the garden at Giverny. Photo: Private Collection / Roger-Viollet, Paris / Bridgeman Images

Monet was the invincible painter who had overthrown the artistic establishment, with his Impression, Sunrise (1872) heralding a new kind of painting; ‘a revolution without gunshot’ is how the The Tiger described Monet’s contribution to art.

Clemenceau came to Giverny with one objective in mind — to encourage his friend to start painting again. To this end, he persuaded the artist to revisit several paintings of flowers he had abandoned some years previously.

Monet, according to his friend Georges Clemenceau, was a man 'madly striving for the realisation of the impossible' 

Monet’s response — surprising considering his melancholic condition — was to go one step further and embark on a groundbreaking set of pictures that astounded the politician. It seemed, Clemenceau wrote, that Monet was a man ‘madly striving for the realisation of the impossible’.

What the politician was referring to was Monet’s desire to do something that had not been done before: besides attempting to encapsulate light and colour, he also set out to paint the subaqueous darkness. Until that time, artists had concentrated on the effects of light on water, but Monet was going in deeper — the results became known as the Grandes Décorations.


Monet in his studio in 1920, working on the Grandes décorations. Photo: Private Collection / Roger-Viollet, Paris / Bridgeman Images

It is tempting to speculate that Monet’s radical explorations beneath the surface was a metaphor for his grief. Yet as the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon argues, the Grandes Décorations  are anything but myopic. ‘Monet is calling our attention to a much larger sense of the cosmos,’ he says. ‘He’s interested in the eternal rhythms of life.’

On the 27 February Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas  (1916-1919), one of Monet’s studies for his magnum opus, will be offered for sale in the Hidden Treasures evening sale at Christie’s in London. This ‘fantastic, vivid piece of painting’, as Graham-Dixon describes it, depicts the trunk of a Babylon willow overlooking the north bank of the water garden at Giverny.

Painted in the half-light of early dawn, the colours have a rich intensity. In many ways, it is fresher and livelier than his later, densely worked canvases, perhaps because he painted it au premier coup  (meaning ‘first time’ or ‘straight off’).

Monet remained hard at work on his water lilies throughout the war, and even as the German army advanced on Paris he would not leave his floral nirvana, writing, ‘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.’

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After the war, Clemenceau secured the Grandes Décorations  for the nation. On seeing them in their entirety at the Musée de l’Orangerie in 1927, the playwright Paul Claudel summarised their transcendental, metaphysical qualities by saying, ‘Monet made himself the painter of the things we cannot see.’

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