‘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.
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
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.