During the last two decades of his life, Monet devoted himself almost single-mindedly to depicting the water garden that he had fashioned at his home in Giverny, producing a complex series of around two hundred and fifty canvases that constitute some of the most innovative and influential works of his entire oeuvre. Roughly two hundred of these represent water-lilies floating on the surface of the water, while the remainder depict other aspects of the garden: the Japanese bridge that spanned the northern end of the pond, the weeping willow and wisteria arbour on its eastern edge, and the irises, agapanthus, and daylilies that grew in huge clumps on the sloping banks. The culmination of this series and the most ambitious undertaking of the artist’s career was the Grandes décorations, an ensemble of twenty-two mural-sized canvases totalling more than ninety metres in length, which Monet completed just months before his death and donated to the French state (Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris). Although Monet had considered a grandiose decorative project of this sort as early as 1897, he did not begin work on it until 1914, long after the water garden at Giverny had become almost the exclusive subject of his art. The present canvas, one of twenty views that Monet painted of irises on the banks of the lily pond, dates to his first concerted campaign of work on the Grandes décorations in 1914-1917. It boasts the same monumental scale and free, daring handling as the final murals and may well have been conceived as part of the decorative ensemble, which underwent repeated revisions during the decade that Monet worked on it. Paul Tucker has written, ‘[In 1914] Monet began some of the most ambitious canvases of his career, a series of views of his water lily pond that were characterized by an unprecedented breadth in terms of their size, touch, and vision...At once exploratory and definitive...these paintings constitute a unique group of canvases in Monet’s oeuvre. They were a sustained and evidently private enterprise in which Monet tested out his ideas for his decorative program on a scale he had never attempted’ (P.H. Tucker, Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 203-204).
Monet and his family had moved to Giverny, the eventual site of the famed water garden, in April 1883. Situated at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte about forty miles northwest of Paris, Giverny at the time was a quiet, picturesque farming community of fewer than 300 residents. Upon his arrival there, Monet rented a large, pink stucco house on two acres of land. 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 Durand-Ruel (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 175). He immediately set to work tearing up the existing kitchen garden and planting lush flower beds on the gentle slope in front of the house. Early in 1893, Monet acquired an adjacent plot of land between the railroad tracks and a tributary of the Epte river and applied to the local government for permission ‘to install a prise d’eau to provide enough water to refresh the pond that I am going to dig for the purpose of cultivating aquatic plants’ (quoted in ibid., p. 176). By autumn, he had converted nearly one thousand square metres into a water-lily pond of eastern inspiration, silent and contemplative, spanned by a wooden footbridge and ringed by an artful arrangement of flowers, trees, and bushes.
Although Monet created the lily pond in part to fulfil 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’ (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 176). Nonetheless, Monet was initially reluctant to paint the water garden. He made 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 thereafter it was the predominant subject of his art. He later recalled, ‘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’ (Monet, quoted in S. Koja, Claude Monet, exh. cat., Österreichische Galerie, Vienna, 1996, p. 146). Monet worked particularly feverishly on the series from 1905 until 1908, preparing for an exhibition of forty-eight paintings that opened at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in May 1909. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive, and by the end of the year, nineteen of the paintings had been sold, netting Monet an extraordinary total of 272,000 francs.
Following the close of the exhibition in June 1909, there followed a period of nearly five years in which Monet – exhausted from the intense months of work leading up to the show, and then suffering from a sequence of personal tragedies – barely took up his brushes. Early in 1910, shortly after the artist’s sixty-ninth birthday, his wife Alice Hoschedé was diagnosed with leukemia; she died the following year. His eldest son Jean began to suffer health problems shortly thereafter and succumbed to syphilis in 1914. During the same period, Monet learned that he had a cataract in his right eye, and flooding of the Seine and the Epte caused substantial damage to his beloved gardens. In August 1911, the artist proclaimed to Blanche Hoschedé, ‘I am completely fed up with painting and I am going to pack up my brushes and colours for good’ (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet, Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. I, p. 396). By the following year, nonetheless, his mood had brightened, and he mustered enough energy to complete the paintings from his trip to Venice more than three years earlier, which were exhibited at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in May and June of 1912. Over the course of the next two years, however, he produced only five more paintings: two views of his house at Giverny and three of the rose-covered pergolas in the water garden (Wildenstein nos. 1777-1781).
By late April 1914, something had changed. On the 30th of the month, he wrote to Gustave Geffroy, ‘I’m feeling marvelous, and I’m obsessed with the desire to paint’ (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 202). By mid- to late May, he had returned to his beloved water garden and begun to paint with renewed energy and conviction. In late June, he reported to Durand-Ruel, ‘I have thrown myself back into work, and when I do that, I do it seriously, so much so that I am getting up at four a.m. and am grinding away all day long’ (Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., p. 204). A few weeks later, he begged Geffroy to come to Giverny to see the results of his recent labours, which he described as ‘the beginnings of a great work’ (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 205), and by January 1915, he was feeling confident enough to invite Raymond Koechlin, the former head of the Société des Amis du Louvre and a formidable figure in Parisian art circles, to visit Giverny and see his latest work. During the summer of 1915, he began construction on a huge studio specifically designed to accommodate the Grandes décorations. He occupied the building in late October and began work on the actual murals, two metres high by 4.25 metres long, at that time. By November 1917, he had completed some seventy-five independent studies of the pond, and he considered the murals themselves sufficiently advanced that he permitted Durand-Ruel and his son to come to Giverny to photograph the panels in progress.
In total, Monet is known to have made twenty paintings of the irises that grew on the banks of his lily pond. On the basis of style, Daniel Wildenstein has dated eleven of these, including the present example, to the period under discussion (Wildenstein nos. 1823-1833) and the remaining nine examples, which are generally smaller and more loosely worked, to 1924-1925, the very last years of Monet’s life (Wildenstein nos. 1834-1842). Of the twelve paintings of irises from 1914-1917, all but three are exactly two metres high, the same height as the Grandes décorations panels. The present example is one of two narrow, vertical panels measuring 200 x 100 cm., which may have been conceived as pendants (cf. Wildenstein no. 1826; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo), while the other canvases are square or more nearly so (200 x 200, 180 or 150 cm.; see Wildenstein nos. 1828-1833, of which four are in prominent museum collections). There is also a significantly smaller canvas (138 x 54 cm.) that has the same narrow, vertical format as the present panel and the Tokyo example (Wildenstein no. 1825). The 2-metre iris paintings, including the present one, were certainly intended as studies for the Grandes décorations on a similarly monumental scale. Although the final installation in the Orangerie does not include any iris imagery, a photograph of the murals in progress around 1920 clearly shows that Monet at one point considered including a painting of irises. Indeed, Charles Stuckey has suggested that the present painting may have been intended as an extension to the right-hand side of a six-metre-wide Nymphéas diptych now in the Kunsthaus Zurich (Wildenstein nos. 1964-1965) and that both pictures might originally have been destined for the first room in the Orangerie (op. cit., pp. 117 and 124).
Irises were one of Monet’s favourite flowers. In addition to the irises the lined the lily-pond, he also planted great banks of irises along the pathway behind his house, which are the subject of several canvases that he painted in 1900 (Wildenstein nos. 1621-1627). Monet collected different species of the plant, and after the famous horticulturalist Georges Truffaut visited Giverny in 1913, he invited Monet’s head gardener Félix Breuil to publish an article about irises in his specialized journal Jardinage. Truffaut himself left the following account of the irises that grew on the banks of the lily-pond: ‘The edges of the pond are thickly covered with irises of every kind. In the spring, there are Iris sibirica and Virgininian irises with their long petals and velvety texture; later on the Japanese irises and the Kaempferi irises grow here in quantity’ (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., vol. IV, 1996, p. 864). One striking characteristic of Monet’s paintings of the irises in the water garden is his experimentation with unusual and unexpected vantage points. In three canvases from the 1914-1917 sequence, for example, Monet set up his easel on the Japanese bridge in the garden and painted the view looking down on the clumps of irises and the winding path at the lily-pond’s edge (Wildenstein nos. 1828-1830). In 1924-1925, he instead selected an uncommonly low and close viewpoint, making the irises seem gigantic (Wildenstein nos. 1834-1842). This extraordinary height, furthermore, underscores the vitality of the plants, giving them a nearly mythic stature. The viewpoint is close in the present painting too, although less emphatically so; the densely packed flowers are seen swaying and rustling in a gentle breeze as they unfurl and climb with vital energy. The canvas was probably painted from a spot on the bank, where Monet could look down onto the clusters of irises. The pale blue ground, therefore, must represent the reflection of the cloud-flecked spring sky in the waters of the celebrated pond, which contrasts with the rich indigos and greens of the tall, supple iris stems.
With the exception of the Grandes décorations themselves, the majority of the paintings that Monet made of his water-lily pond during the last twelve years of his life remained essentially unknown until after World War II. The artist had exhibited or sold only a few examples, and most of them remained in his studio at his death, unsigned and undated. Shortly thereafter, however, Monet’s late work underwent a dramatic revival and reinterpretation. In 1949, several of the paintings were included in an exhibition of Impressionist art at the Basel Kunsthalle. The following year, Walter Chrysler, Jr, one of the preeminent collectors of modern French art in the United States, purchased a late Nymphéas (Wildenstein no. 1983; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh). The most influential and highly publicized purchase came five years later, when Alfred Barr, Jr – struck by the link between Monet’s broad brushwork and abstract sensibility in his last decade and that of the Abstract Expressionists – acquired a late water-lily canvas directly from Michel Monet for The Museum of Modern Art in New York (Wildenstein no. 1982; destroyed in a fire). Critics concurred with Barr’s assessment of the contemporary relevance of late Monet. In 1956, for example, Thomas Hess wrote, ‘In the past decade paintings by such artists as Pollock, Rothko, Still, Reinhardt, and Tobey...have made us see in Monet’s huge late pictures...a purity of image and concept of pictorial space that we now can recognize as greatly daring poetry’ (T. Hess, quoted in Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, pp. 100-101).
A veritable explosion of interest in Monet’s late work among collectors and museums also followed Barr’s purchase. In 1956, the dealer Katia Granoff acquired nearly seventy of the late works from Monet’s son Michel, which were exhibited that summer at her gallery in Paris. Joseph Baillio has written, ‘[Granoff’s] name will forever be linked with that of the quintessential Impressionist, whom she recognized as having gone far beyond his contemporaries and peers as one of the founders of modern painting’ (Claude Monet: A Tribute to Daniel Wildenstein and Katia Granoff, exh. cat., New York, 2007, pp. 39-40). Granoff also sent fourteen of the late paintings, including the present example, to Knoedler in New York, where they were exhibited in October 1956. The American market was particularly receptive to these works, and by the end of the year, all but one had found a buyer. The present painting was purchased by John and Frances Loeb, prominent collectors and cultural philanthropists. The Loebs recalled that Carman Messmore, chairman of Knoedler, had first offered them Van Gogh’s Irises of 1889 (De La Faille no. F608; Hulsker no. 1691), but that they found it less interesting than the Monet (see J.L. Loeb, F.L. Loeb & K. Libo, All in a Lifetime, A Personal Memoir, New York, 1996 p. 217). David Rockefeller, who also purchased two Monet paintings from the Granoff cache, has written about the present canvas, ‘John and [Frances Loeb] had... one that was rather different. It was of irises. They were considering whether to keep it or not. We said to them if they decided not to, we would be glad to buy it from them. I suspect that helped them decide to keep it’ (D. Rockefeller, quoted in ibid., p. 222).