Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York, reflects on the artist’s deeply personal response to the First World War — offered on 27 June in London
Executed between 1918 and 1919 — in the midst of of a period now considered the great final flowering of Monet’s career — Saule pleureur (Weeping Willow) is one of a series of 10 paintings depicting a majestic tree which lined Monet’s lily pond in Giverny. Five of the pieces in this groundbreaking series are now in museums, including the Musée Marmottan in Paris and the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. Held in the artist’s collection until his death and never exhibited during his lifetime, Saule pleureur is one of only five of the series remaining in private hands.
In contrast with Monet’s water lily paintings, which have a primarily horizontal feel, the emphasis in the Weeping Willow series is on the vertical. As Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York, explains, there’s ‘a sense of both ascent and descent’, as well as a singular ‘internal circulation of energy’. According to the specialist, Saule pleureur is a celebration of the artist’s ‘capacity to create a symphony of colour over an impressively large, vertical scale’.
‘When you see the painting for the first time,’ Jordan explains, ‘you encounter an almost encrusted cliff face of a painting. It reminds me of late Rembrandt, another artist in complete control of his tools and language.’ Like the greatest of paintings, the expert says, Saule pleureur rewards repeated viewing: ‘It offers up its magic quickly, but also over time.’
From 1914 Monet had been working on an ambitious project that came to be known as his Grandes décorations. On canvases five feet high and more than six-and-a-half feet wide, the artist reproduced the ephemeral reflections in his lily pond. By early 1918, eight canvases had been completed; four more were nearly finished.
Soon, however, the artist changed course and began a separate group of works: a series of Weeping Willow paintings, including Saule pleureur. In these canvases, says Jordan, ‘Monet continued his life-long meditation on the effects of light and atmosphere’. But the weeping willow carried connotations of sorrow, and this series has been seen as a lamentation on the state of the world.
As he began the Weeping Willows, the First World War had reached its final, climactic year. Monet’s younger son Michel and stepson Jean-Pierre Hoschedé had been sent to the front early in the conflict, and although the artist was too old to fight himself, he felt a deep need to contribute to the war effort. Like Matisse, who had tried to enlist but had been rejected due to his age, Monet took refuge in his work.
‘It is the best way not to think too much about the sadness of the present,’ Monet wrote in December 1914. Although, he added, ‘I should be a bit ashamed to think about little investigations into forms and colours while so many people suffer and die for us.’ Monet waged his own battle in his studio, seeking to create art that affirmed both nature’s immutable beauty and human endurance in the face of violence.
‘What an agonising life we all are living,’ Monet wrote to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in June 1918. ‘I continue... to work, although at times, I long to give it all up’
In March 1918, the Germans bombarded Paris and broke through British defences in the Somme. News from the front grew worse, and soon the Germans captured Amiens, just 37 kilometres from Giverny. Monet briefly contemplated fleeing: ‘What an agonising life we all are living,’ he wrote to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in June. ‘I continue... to work, although at times, I long to give it all up.’
Just one week later, he changed his mind: he would stay in Giverny, with his canvases. Now Monet honed in on the motif of the weeping willow and depicted it with intense colours and feverish brushwork. In his paintings, the tree became a symbol of hope and defiance.
The long-awaited Allied victory came in the autumn of 1918. As soon as the Armistice was signed, on 11 November 1918, Monet wrote to the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau — an old friend — that he intended to donate two of his large panneaux décoratifs to the nation. On 18 November, Clemenceau visited Giverny and, deeply moved by the Weeping Willow paintings, asked that one work from this series be added to the donation.
In the end, the artist gifted not just two decorative panels, but all 12 that he had been working on since the start of the war. As Monet would later write, he considered this his way of ‘taking part in the victory’. In 1927, a series of 22 large-scale paintings were installed in Paris’s Musée de l’Orangerie.