‘When the Rockefellers’ Nymphéas en fleur (Water Lilies in Bloom) was on view in Hong Kong in November 2017, I lost count of the number of people who stopped to admire it, speechless,’ recalls Rebecca Wei, President of Christie’s Asia. ‘Because of its size, it first strikes your eye from afar, but the closer you get to the canvas, the more you feel like you’re inside it. The rest of the world vanishes. That’s the moment I really enjoy.’
Also key to its appeal is the fact that every lily in this 1914-17 painting by Claude Monet (1840–1926) is shown in full blossom. ‘For Asians, that’s an auspicious sign,’ Wei explains. ‘The Chinese have a saying that flowers in bloom bring good fortune. And the Chinese word for lily also suggests a peaceful or harmonious union. So in one painting you have good fortune, harmony, peace and water, meaning it has particularly positive associations for Asian viewers — it’s very good feng shui.’
In 1883, Monet and his family settled at Giverny, northwest of Paris. Three years later he acquired an adjacent piece of land and applied for permission to dig a pond, which he hoped would be a source of artistic inspiration. In his petition to the local authorities, Monet specified that the pond would serve ‘for the pleasure of the eyes and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint’.
The artist did not immediately begin work on the Nymphéas. ‘A landscape takes more than a day to get under your skin,’ he explained. ‘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.’ Between 1904 and 1909, Monet worked with almost unbroken intensity, producing more than 60 paintings of the water garden.
Exhibited in May 1909, these paintings were immediately acclaimed, with critics marvelling at how abstract they appeared. Monet could not have hoped for a better response. Yet for the next five years, the artist barely picked up his brushes. His wife and elder son Jean both died during this time, and the artist learned that he had a cataract in one eye that threatened his vision. Less grave but still distressing, flooding caused substantial damage to his cherished gardens. ‘I am going to pack up my colours for good,’ he lamented in 1911.
It was not until spring 1914 that Monet finally emerged from his despair. ‘I have thrown myself back into work,’ he wrote to his art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. One goal now fired his creativity: what he called the Grandes décorations, 22 mural-sized canvases completed just months before his death and given to the French state. The present Nymphéas dates to his initial phase of work on this project — the most ambitious undertaking of Monet’s career — in which he tested out new visual ideas on a scale he had never before attempted.
It was only after the Second World War that the public came to fully appreciate the daring poetry of these valedictory paintings
It was no coincidence that Monet’s desire to paint was ignited at the moment that France was steeling itself for combat. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914, and Austria declared war on Serbia one month later. German troops began their march into Luxembourg and Brussels on 2 August, and Monet’s stepson Jean-Pierre was mobilised the following week. Monet responded in the way he knew best — by making art.
The more than 60 Nymphéas Monet created over the next three years look vastly different from his earlier paintings of the lily pond. Two to four times larger than those exhibited in 1909, these were the largest canvases Monet had produced in nearly 40 years. In contrast to the relatively restrained brushwork of the earlier Nymphéas, Monet now painted with loose, expressive strokes, sacrificing conventional finish to create a sense of urgency. The wartime compositions also tend to be much more daring in their colours and compositions.
Monet did not exhibit either the present canvas or any of the other 1914-17 Nymphéas in his lifetime. They remained with Monet’s family, largely unknown, for roughly a quarter-century following his death in 1926 and the installation of the Grandes décorations at the Orangerie in Paris in 1927. It was only after the Second World War that the public came to fully appreciate the daring poetry of these valedictory paintings.
The stunning Monet in the stairwell of the Hudson Pines home of Peggy and David Rockefeller
The most influential purchase of a late Nymphéas came in 1955, when Alfred H. Barr, Jr. acquired one directly from Michel Monet for The Museum of Modern Art. Months later, Parisian dealer Katia Granoff selected a cache of late works from the studio at Giverny, some 30 of which she exhibited at her gallery in 1956. On Barr’s recommendation, David and Peggy Rockefeller visited Granoff and purchased Nymphéas en fleur.
‘One, which was almost certainly painted in the late afternoon and in which the water is a dark purple and the lilies stand out a glowing white, we bought immediately,’ David recalled. They acquired a second Nymphéas a few weeks later, and a third in 1961. All three hung in the stairwell at Hudson Pines, and, as his son, David Rockefeller, Jr, recalls, it made descending the stairs feel like one was diving into Monet’s pond at Giverny.
Video: David Rockefeller, Jr. shares his personal memories of living with Claude Monet’s Nymphéas en fleur
‘The Rockefeller family did so much for the world,’ says Wei, who stresses how these works by Monet were very much part of family life for the Rockefellers. ‘Even with this sale, they’re giving back. I think this is something that Asian clients really respect, and that will draw strong bids from the region.
‘What’s more, David and Peggy had long and very full lives,’ she adds. ‘In Asia, there’s a view that when you acquire something from collectors whose lives were so well-lived, you’re somehow sharing in their good fortune. I hope the water lilies bring our Asian bidders good luck, and that perhaps one will be able to bring Nymphéas en fleur back to Asia for good!’