On 2 February 1884, Claude Monet wrote from Bordighera to his friend the art critic and collector Théodore Duret, 'Well, I'm working hard and will bring back palm trees and olive trees (how admirable are the olive trees)' (Monet, quoted in J. Pissarro, Monet and the Mediterranean, exh. cat., New York, 1997, p. 35). During his stay in Northern Italy during the first quarter of 1884, Monet painted five scenes of olive trees including Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno. Monet's passion for the motif is clear in the way that he has depicted the gnarled forms of the olive trees in this painting: they take on an almost abstract quality as they progress across the canvas, the dark silhouettes in the foreground creating a dazzling interplay of light and dark as the sun filters through the foliage. Monet has captured this dappled view in such a way as to convey perfectly the chiaroscuro, the contrast between the bright light of the Mediterranean and the cool shade.
At the end of the previous year, Monet had embarked upon a brief sortie to the South of France and North of Italy with his friend and fellow painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. For Monet, this was a blessed release after his intense labours on the panels for the interior of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel's apartment at 35, rue de Rome in Paris. It was Monet's first visit to the South since his military service, and he was enraptured by the light there, which he captured in two views during that first journey. Renoir and Monet returned to France at the end of 1883, staying with Paul Cézanne at L'Estaque. Then, back in Giverny, where Monet had only recently moved having come to the end of his lease at Poissy in April 1883, he made plans to return to Italy alone: the first visit had served as a scouting mission, Monet seeing vista upon vista that he wished to capture in his pictures. This time, Monet did not want the distraction of a companion, and indeed strove to keep the details of his intention to return secret from Renoir. Instead, he hoped to work there for a few weeks; in fact, he would arrive in January and only leave in April, a mark of his fascination for the area.
Monet's letter to Duret implies that Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno was painted towards the beginning of this trip. Monet was fascinated by the pink quality of the light in Italy, which peeks through in such luminous glimmers in Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno. 'I'm having more success in capturing that wonderful pink light, as I see it every morning and evening,' he wrote to Alice Hoschedé. 'It's glorious, just perfect and more beautiful by the day' (Monet, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Monet by himself: Paintings, drawings, pastels, letters, London, 1989, p. 110).
Later, discussing his paintings from this trip with Alice, he mused, 'Of course, quite a few people will yell that there is no likeness to nature, that this is crazy. Too bad! They say that sort of thing when I paint our country too. I had to come here to catch the striking aspect of this place. Everything I do is flaming-punch or pigeon-throat' (Monet, quoted in Pissarro, op. cit., 1997, p. 38). This is certainly the case in the shimmering contrasts that resonate through Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno.
Monet's absence from Alice resulted in frequent correspondence, allowing an intriguing and personal insight into Monet's feelings and artistic intentions during his time in Italy. He oscillated, as ever, between joy and despair, regarding both his work and his relationship with her. Both were all too often consumed with jealousy during this separation, exacerbated by Monet's own decision to prolong his stay. However, his paintings, like his letters, were intended as a form of bond between the pair, as he explained: 'With every subject that I do, every subject that I choose, I tell myself I must render it accurately so that you can see where I have been and what it looks like' (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit, 1996, p. 195).
Joachim Pissarro has pointed out that Monet's letter to Duret, in which he discussed the magical landscape of his surroundings, predated his access to the famous gardens of Francesco Moreno, a wealthy local landowner, alluded to in the title. These were filled with rare flowers and palm trees and, because of theft and breakages, had recently been closed to the public. Certainly, in letters written over the following couple of days, Monet was keenly trying to seek an introduction to the Moreno gardens, which were one of the great wonders of Bordighera. However, Pissarro has pointed out that the garden had an inner sanctum, which contained the rare plants and palm trees, as well as a larger surrounding area that included the olive trees which were an additional source of wealth for Moreno. Monet may thus have had access to that section beforehand.
When Monet finally returned to Giverny in April 1884, having taken a detour to paint some of the scenery around Cap Martin, he wrote to Durand-Ruel, saying, 'every single one of my paintings is in need of some kind of revision and the finishing touches must be done with care... I need to look over it all in peace and quiet in the right conditions. For three months I've been at work and have spared no efforts and as I'm never satisfied when working from nature, it's only since I've been here these last few days that I've seen what can be done... My aim is to give you only the things with which I am completely satisfied' (Monet, quoted in Kendall (ed.), op. cit., 1989, p. 112). This provides an intriguing insight into Monet's working methods, revealing that while he began his pictures en plein air, he subsequently reappraised them from a new, cool perspective, heightening their verisimilitude and in short perfecting them. Thus, few weeks after explaining that he was about to embark on these final touches, Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno was included in a list of pictures that Monet had brought to Durand-Ruel.
Within five years, Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno was owned by the pioneering New York collector Erwin Davis, whose generosity would come to have an impact on Impressionism's reception in the United States: for it was in 1889 that he donated two great paintings by Monet's friend Edouard Manet to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; that museum now holds a range of paintings by Manet, Millet, Monet and Pissarro that were formerly in his collection. Since then, it has been owned by other prominent American collectors as well as featuring in several important early exhibitions of Impressionism in the United States.
This American connection is perhaps all the more appropriate considering the almost abstract manner in which the forms of the olive trees play across the canvas in Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno. This was a period of renewed innovation for Monet, and while some of his views from the period appear to have been influenced in part by the advances of Cézanne, this picture features an immersive quality that anticipates his own later Nymphéas, which in turn were precursors for a range of artists from Pierre Bonnard to the Abstract Expressionists. It appears, then, to be no coincidence that it was on his return from his trip to Italy that Monet began to construct the now legendary gardens at his new home in Giverny, allowing him to tailor the landscape to his own pictorial needs and providing the views for those celebrated paintings of water-lilies that, in their focus on the motif to the exclusion of the sky, are anticipated in the near-abstraction of Bois d'oliviers au jardin Moreno.