CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
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CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
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Property from an Important Private Collection
CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)

Le bassin aux nymphéas

Details
CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
Le bassin aux nymphéas
stamped with signature 'Claude Monet' (Lugt 1819b; lower right); stamped again with signature ‘Claude Monet’ (Lugt 1819b; on the reverse)
oil on canvas
39 3⁄8 x 78 7⁄8 in. (100.1 x 200.6 cm.)
Painted circa 1917-1919
Provenance
Estate of the artist.
Michel Monet, Giverny (by descent from the above).
Katia Granoff, Paris.
Mme Maillot.
Collection Michel.
Master Arts Establishment, Vaduz.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, 22 March 1972.
Literature
D. Rouart, Claude Monet: Historical and Critical Study, Geneva, 1972, p. 175 (illustrated).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1985, vol. IV, p. 290, no. 1898 (illustrated, p. 291).
D. Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. IV, p. 903, no. 1898 (illustrated, pp. 902-903).
J.-D. Rey and D. Rouart, Monet Water Lilies: The Complete Series, Paris, 2008, p. 140 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Widely hailed as landmarks of late Impressionism, the paintings that Claude Monet made of his famed gardens at Giverny constitute some of the most innovative and influential works of his entire oeuvre. During the last twenty-five years of his life, Monet devoted himself almost single-mindedly to depicting the flowing planes of flowers, towering willow trees and the expansive lily-pond that he had fashioned within the grounds, producing an astonishingly complex and diverse group of canvases that capture the unique atmosphere of the artist’s own arcadia. Absorbing and expressionistic, with an extraordinary play of impasto and vibrant brushwork, Le bassin aux nymphéas is a key example from this famed series of works dedicated to the water lilies, executed on a large-scale canvas that stretches over two meters across. At once searingly modern and timeless, the painting focuses on the play of silvery light and the intricate dance of reflections across the lily-pond, conveying a vivid sense of the undulations of the surface of the water and the delicate bobbing flowers, as they shift and change in response to their surroundings.
Dating from 1917-1919, Le bassin aux nymphéas hails from an important period of renewal and experimentation in Monet’s painterly visions of the lily-pond, spurred on by his desire to create mural-scale images of the motif, rather than the smaller paysages d’eau that he had hitherto painted of his gardens. These grand, monumental depictions were filled with gestural, vigorous bolts of color that coalesce to form the watery landscape, the vibrancy and gestural quality of the brushwork revealing the impressive energy that lay behind the artist’s paintings, even at this late stage of his career. Though these revolutionary compositions initially met with mixed reactions from Monet’s contemporaries, they found favor among a younger generation of artists and collectors in later decades of the twentieth century, most notably among the painters of the bourgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement. Held in the same family collection for the past fifty years, Le bassin aux nymphéas is a captivating example from this great body of work, encapsulating Monet’s searing, prescient creative vision.
In search of a permanent base which he could finally call home after years of upheaval, Monet had moved his family to Giverny in the spring of 1883. Situated some forty miles from Paris, at the confluence of the Seine and the river Epte, Giverny at this time was a small farming community of just three hundred inhabitants, a countryside enclave which remained untouched by the encroaching modernization which had dramatically altered scores of villages and hamlets along the Seine in recent years. Here, Monet found the tranquil retreat he had been searching for, renting a sprawling, pink stucco house called La Pressoir (The Cider Press) from a wealthy local landowner who had recently retired to nearby Vernon. Sandwiched between the main village road and the regional thoroughfare connecting Vernon and Gasny, the house boasted a kitchen garden and orchard in front and a barn to the west that Monet soon converted into a studio. Originally attracted by the blossoming fruit trees surrounding the house, the artist set about improving the garden almost immediately after he moved in, planting new additions so that “there would be flowers to paint on rainy days” (Monet, quoted in Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 18).
When the property came up for sale in 1890, Monet purchased it at the asking price of 22,000 francs, “certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside,” as he wrote to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 175). Three years later, he acquired an adjacent plot of land and applied to the local government for permission “to install a prise d’eau in order to provide enough water to freshen the pond that I am going to dig for the purpose of cultivating aquatic plants” (quoted in D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1979, vol. III, p. 271, Letter 1191). By the fall of 1893, he had converted nearly a thousand square meters into an eastern-inspired water garden—hushed, mysterious, and contemplative—with a lily pond spanned by a wooden footbridge and encircled with an artful arrangement of flowers, bushes, and trees as its centerpiece. Describing the grounds in their finished form, one visitor reported, “You enter the aquatic garden over an arched bridge covered with wisteria in June—the fragrance is so heavy that it is like going through a pipe of vanilla. The clusters of white and mauve fall like fanciful grapes in the water, and the passing breeze harvests the aroma” (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Monet, New York, 1988, p. 213).
Although Monet created the lily pond in part to fulfill his passion for gardening, he also intended it as a source of artistic inspiration. In his petition to the Préfet de l'Eure for permission to build the pond, Monet specified that it would serve “for the pleasure of the eyes and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint” (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1979, p. 271, Letter 1191). Nonetheless, he was initially reluctant to paint the water garden, making only ten images of it before 1899, possibly because he was waiting for the plantings to mature. In 1899-1900, he painted eighteen views of the lily-pond, and from thereafter it was the predominant subject of his art. He later explained: “It took me some time to understand my water lilies. A landscape takes more than a day to get under your skin. 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 that moment” (quoted in S. Koja, Claude Monet, exh. cat., Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna, 1996, p. 146).
In 1901, Monet’s fascination with the water effects was clearly exerting a strong pull, as he decided to extend the pond, which he had already enlarged years earlier by controversially diverting water from the Ru, one of the tributaries of the River Epte which ran alongside the Giverny property. Over the years, he would continue to increase the size of the pond, giving him further scope to study its surface and the water lilies which punctuated it. “That Monet would have preferred the water garden over the flower garden is understandable,” Paul Hayes Tucker has written. “It offered him the ultimate in variety: an infinite array of color; constantly changing reflections; continual tensions between surface and depth, near and far, stability and the unknown, with everything bathed in an endlessly shifting but ever-present light” (P.H. Tucker, G.T.M. Shackelford and M.A. Stevens, Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 41).
The artist's stepson Jean-Pierre Hoschedé, in his memoir of Monet, recalled that people often believed that the water lilies that feature in his paintings floated upon the surface. While it is true that the upper parts of these plants float, including the flowers which opened and closed even during the course of the day during the summer, in fact the water lilies had roots set into the soil at the bottom of the pond. They had been carefully planted in order to conjure the idea of a scattered appearance. Likewise, the variety of colors that the various blooms showed was the result of Monet’s purchase and cultivation of various rare varieties of water lily, many of which he bought from a specialist in aquatic plants.
As the artist himself explained, this environment offered endless inspiration: “I have painted so many of these water lilies, always shifting my vantage point, changing the motif according to the seasons of the year and then according to the different effects of light the seasons create as they change. And, of course, the effect does change, constantly, not only from one season to another, but from one minute to the next as well, for the water flowers are far from being the whole spectacle; indeed, they are only its accompaniment. The basic element of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance changes at every instant because of the way bits of the sky are reflected in it, giving it life and movement. The passing cloud, the fresh breeze, the threat or arrival of a rainstorm, the sudden fierce gust of wind, the fading or suddenly refulgent light, all these things, unnoticed by the untutored eye, create changes in color and alter the surface of the water. It can be smooth, unruffled, and then, suddenly, there will be a ripple, a movement that breaks up into almost imperceptible wavelets or seems to crease the surface slowly, making it look like a wide piece of watered silk. The same for the colors, for the changes of light and shade, the reflections” (quoted in C. Stuckey, ed., Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 289).
In Le bassin aux nymphéas, Monet’s innate ability to organize his sensations of the transience of natural phenomena is readily apparent. Here, he focusses principally on the surface of the water, stripping out all superfluous details, allowing the quicksilver-like water to fill the canvas, only interrupted by small constellations of floating water lilies. The flowers themselves are rendered with layers of rich impasto to give them a sculptural presence, affirming their position on the top of the pond, while in the watery areas, layers of color are laid on top of one another to suggest the refractions of light and the changing hues in the pond’s depths. It is the surface of the pond itself that captivates the artist’s imagination, rippling with the reflections of the willow trees that line the water’s edge as well as the slivers of intense, deep, lush lapis-colored sky above. While Monet has tightly focused his view on a small sliver of the vast pond, creating a closely framed composition that seemingly allows for no foreground or background, he has nonetheless used the water as a portal of sorts, allowing a complex interplay of the near and the far, in which the world beyond the pond exists in mirror-image.
The present canvas is one of an important sequence of works that emerged between 1917-1919, each of which offer subtle meditations on the atmospheric, enveloping environment of the pond across large, horizontal format canvases that thrusts the viewer right into the heart of the water. Monet initially had the idea of painting large-scale pictures of the water lilies in the late 1890s, and made several efforts before abandoning them. Having visited the artist in 1898, Maurice Guillemot was able to discuss Monet’s work on, “models for a decoration for which he has already started the studies, large panels which he then showed me in his studio. Imagine a circular room whose walls, down to the skirting board, would be completely filled by a horizon of water dotted with these plants, walls of a transparency by turns green- and mauve-ish, the calm and silence of the still water reflecting spreading blooms; the shades of color are imprecise, deliciously subtle, of a dream-like delicacy” (quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, ed., Monet's Garden in Giverny: Inventing the Landscape, exh. cat., Musée des impressionnismes, Giverny, 2009, pp. 23-24).
Monet wrestled with the concept for several months, before abandoning the idea and quickly switching direction. It was not until 1914 that he rediscovered these early canvases while digging through the stacks that littered his workspace, and was struck anew by their visual power and potential. On 30 April 1914, he wrote to his friend Gustave Geffroy: “I feel I am undertaking something very important. You will see some old attempts at what I have in mind, which I came across in the basement. Clemenceau has just seen them and was bowled over” (quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1999, p. 402). This marked the beginning of a new artistic odyssey that would largely occupy Monet for the rest of his life, and which would result in such bracing, beautiful explorations of color and light as depicted in Le bassin aux nymphéas. On 30 April 1918, perhaps prompted by conversations with his most recent visitors and by the result of strides he had made on his project, Monet ordered a quantity of pre-stretched canvases measuring 1 meter high by 2 meters wide—the same elongated, horizontal format as the Grandes décorations, at roughly half the scale. As soon as they were delivered, he set up his easel at the pond’s edge and began work on a new and compositionally unified group of Nymphéas, with lily pads clustered towards the lateral edges of the canvas and a stream of sunlight in the center.
“I work all day on these canvases,” Monet told one of his visitors, René Gimpel, during a visit in 1918, around the same period that he was working on the present canvas. “One after another, I have them brought to me. A color will appear again which I’d seen and daubed on one of these canvases the day before. Quickly the picture is brought over to me, and I do my utmost to fix the vision definitively, but it generally disappears as fast as it arose, giving way to a different color already tried several days before on another study, which at once is set before me—and so it goes the whole day!” (quoted in C. Stuckey, op. cit., 1985, p. 307). Gimpel himself was overawed by the spectacle of the artist’s studio, which was “constructed like a humble village church. Inside there is only one huge room with a glass roof, and there we were confronted by a strange artistic spectacle: a dozen canvases placed one after another in a circle on the ground, all about six feet wide by four feet high: a panorama of water and water lilies, of light and sky. In this infinity, the water and the sky had neither beginning nor end. It was as though we were present at one of the first hours of the birth of the world. It was mysterious, poetic, deliciously unreal. The effect was strange: it was at once pleasurable and disturbing to be surrounded by water on all sides and yet untouched by it” (quoted in ibid., p. 307).
Monet’s ambitious plans for an immersive environment of his water lilies were finally realized in the unveiling of his Grandes décorations, the series of twenty-two large panels featuring his water lily theme that he donated to the French state to commemorate the end of the First World War. However, the majority of Monet’s late Nymphéas compositions remained unknown outside a select coterie of supporters and friends, passing directly to his descendants following his death. It was only after the Second World War that contemporary audiences, schooled in abstraction, came to recognize the daring poetry of these huge, valedictory paintings. Monet’s use of the serial format had already influenced many artists, as had the sheer scale of his murals at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, which became an important focus for a generation of French artists, for instance the Surrealist André Masson referred to it as the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.”
In the United States of America, Monet’s later works came to be reappraised in the light of the developments of the New York School in the post-war era. Suddenly, it was as though, looking at pictures such as Le bassin aux nymphéas, another Action Painter had been discovered. Michael Leja has written, “In the late 1950s, a wave of interest in Monet’s paintings surged in New York and swelled east across the Atlantic and west to Los Angeles. As museum exhibitions of his work appeared throughout the United States—the first in thirty years—and as the art press, newspapers, and mass-circulation magazines substantially increased their attention to his work, commentators routinely marveled at the speed and size of the surge they found themselves sustaining. With surprising unanimity they traced its origins to 1955 or so and understood it as a brilliant rediscovery in which artists, critics, collectors, and curators collaborated...” (“The Monet Revival and New York School Abstraction,” in exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, pp. 98 and 100).
While Monet’s interest in pictorial, figurative subject matter set him apart from the Abstract Expressionists and their focus on the picture plane, the sheer materiality of a painting such as Le bassin aux nymphéas revealed its status as a figurative cousin to their works. From the jagged vertical forms of Clyfford Still, to the horizontality and contemplative deep color palettes of Mark Rothko’s abstractions, to the energy of the paint application that recalls Jackson Pollock, parallels abound. These effects are all heightened by the sheer scale of Le bassin aux nymphéas and its fellow paintings, which was itself a hallmark of many of the greatest Abstract Expressionist works. While many of those artists had evolved their own styles and idioms without the influence of Monet, only a short time later artists such as Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell would all openly embrace his legacy in their paintings.

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