During the last two decades of his career, Monet devoted himself single-mindedly to painting the celebrated water-lily pond that he had designed and cultivated at his home in rural Giverny. In one extraordinary canvas after another, he captured the constantly shifting relationships among water, reflections, atmosphere, and light that transformed the pond’s surface with each passing moment. While these now-iconic paintings affirmed Monet’s long-held belief in the primacy of vision and experience, they did so in a pictorial language that was utterly novel and transformative even by the standards of the new century. The earlier paintings in the series—more delicate, ethereal, and restrained—met with immediate acclaim when Monet exhibited them in 1909. The Nymphéas canvases from 1914 onward, in contrast, were bigger, bolder, and much more personal—the very antithesis of the “call to order” that gripped the avant-garde during and after the First World War. They emerged as authoritative and visionary only two decades after Monet’s death, as American Abstract Expressionism triumphed on the international art scene.
The culmination of the water-lily series and the most ambitious undertaking of Monet’s career was the Grandes décorations, an ensemble of 22 mural-sized canvases that the artist completed just months before his death and donated to the French state. Although he had considered a decorative program of this sort as early as 1897, he did not actually embark on it until 1914, long after the lily pond at Giverny had become almost the exclusive subject of his art. The present Nymphéas—measuring more than five feet on a side—dates to his inaugural phase of work on this project, in which he tested out new pictorial ideas and visual effects for the Grandes décorations on a scale that he had never before attempted. At once exploratory and definitive, this brilliantly colored and vigorously brushed painting is one of some sixty magnificently varied canvases that Monet painted in a burst of untrammeled creativity between 1914 and 1917, as Europe plunged ever more deeply into the chaos of war.
The story of Monet’s water garden begins in 1883, when the artist and his family settled at Giverny, a tiny rural hamlet some forty miles northwest of Paris at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte. Monet found a large house to rent there on two acres of land; when the property came up for sale in 1890, he bought it at the asking price, “certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside,” as he wrote to Durand-Ruel (quoted in P. Tucker, Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 175). A dedicated gardener all his life, Monet’s first priority upon purchasing the estate was to replace the vegetable plots in front of the house with flower beds. Three years later, he acquired an adjacent piece of land beside the river Ru and successfully applied to the local government for permission divert the tributary and dig a pond.
Although Monet created the water garden in part to fulfill his passion for horticulture, he also intended it as a source of artistic inspiration. In his petition to the authorities, Monet specified that the pond would serve “for the pleasure of the eyes and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint” (quoted in Claude Monet: Late Work, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, p. 23). The artist did not begin work on his Nymphéas series immediately, however. “It took me some time to understand my water lilies,” he recalled. “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 Claude Monet, exh. cat., Österreichische Galerie, Vienna, 1996, p. 146).
Between 1904 and 1909, the artist worked with almost unbroken intensity, producing more than sixty paintings of the water garden. Eschewing traditional perspective, he lowered his gaze to the surface of the pond, yielding a dazzling and radically destabilized vision of shifting, disintegrating forms; the world beyond the plane of the water exists only as the most ephemeral reflections. “The water-flowers themselves are far from being the whole scene,” Monet explained. “Really, they are just the accompaniment. The essence of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance alters at every moment. So many factors, undetectable to the uninitiated eye, transform the coloring and distort the planes” (quoted in Monet in the Twentieth Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 11).
When these pictures were exhibited in May 1909, critics marveled at how novel and nearly abstract they appeared, even by comparison with Picasso and Braque’s latest Cubist experiments. “His vision increasingly is simplifying itself, limiting itself to the minimum of tangible realities in order to amplify, to magnify the impression of the imponderable,” the critic Jean Morgan exulted (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2010, p. 29).
Monet could not have hoped for a better response. Yet following the close of the exhibition, there followed a period of nearly five years in which the artist—exhausted from the intense work leading up to the show, and then suffering from a sequence of personal tragedies—barely picked up his brushes. His wife Alice and his elder son Jean both took ill and died during this time, and Monet learned that he had a cataract in one eye that threatened his vision. Less grave but still distressing, flooding of the Seine and Epte caused substantial damage to his cherished gardens. “I am going to pack up my colors for good,” he lamented to his stepdaughter Blanche in 1911 (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, vol. I, p. 396).
It was not until spring 1914 that Monet finally emerged from his despair. “I have thrown myself back into work,” he wrote to Durand-Ruel in June, “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.” When he began work anew, a very specific goal already fired his prodigious creativity. Seventeen years earlier, he had described to a journalist his vision of an enclosed space lined with mural-sized paintings of the lily pond that would transport the viewer into realms of aesthetic reverie. Now, at long last, he set out to make this encompassing ensemble—the Grandes décorations—a reality. In early July, as Europe teetered on the brink of the First World War, he invited Gustave Geffroy to come to Giverny to see the results of his recent labors, which he described as “the beginnings of a great work” (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, pp. 204-205).
Monet was 73 years old by this time, well beyond the life expectancy for men of his generation. The mere fact that he resumed work on the Nymphéas series with such vigor is extraordinary. Rather than simply retreading his previous success, moreover, he set himself a wholly new challenge. “It was not just his personal travails that drove him back to the studio, but a burning desire to do something that would move beyond his early Nymphéas,” Paul Tucker has proposed. “In the first decade of the century, their beauty and inventiveness might have been an apt summation of his life’s efforts and an appropriate affirmation of Impressionism’s relevance in the face of serious challenges from Fauvism and Cubism. But the second decade called for something more formidable, because everyone knew that a cataclysmic conflict was imminent in Europe” (op. cit., 2010, p. 30).
Indeed, it is no coincidence that Monet’s desire to resume work was ignited at exactly the same moment that France was steeling itself for combat. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurred on 28 June 1914; Austria declared war on Serbia a month later. German troops began their march into Luxembourg and Brussels on 2 August, and Monet’s stepson Jean-Pierre was mobilized to the front the next week. Monet felt the weight of the moment and responded in the way he could best—by painting. As German forces swept across the French border in early September and residents of Giverny began to flee, Monet refused to join them. “As for me, I shall stay here regardless, and if those barbarians wish to kill me, I shall die in front of my canvases, in front of my life’s work” (quoted in R. King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, New York, 2016, p. 69).
The sixty-some Nymphéas that Monet created over the next three years, between 1914 and 1917, look vastly different from his earlier paintings of the lily-pond. First and foremost is the sheer size of the new compositions—two to four times larger than the ones that he had exhibited at Durand-Ruel in 1909. These were the largest paintings that Monet had produced in nearly forty years, since the cycle of four decorative murals that he painted for the Hoschedé country estate at Montgeron in 1876. Photographs indicate that the artist had these great canvases carted to the edge of the lily pond, where he would paint on them in the shade of his white garden umbrella, using new brushes and an oversized palette that he had procured specifically for this project.
A radical change in handling accompanied this shift in scale. In contrast to the relatively restrained brushwork of the earlier Nymphéas, Monet painted the new canvases with loose, expressive strokes of pigment, intentionally sacrificing conventional finish to create an impression of unrestrained vigor and urgency. In the present painting, aggressive vertical striations represent the reflection of a weeping willow on the opposite bank of the pond, providing a bold counterpoint to the horizontal drift of the lily pads. The lily pads that cluster at the upper right seem to reach out in vain for their scattered mates along the left edge of the canvas, the dense skeins of reflected foliage effectively blocking the way. The diminishing scale of the lilies suggests recession into depth, while the cascading eddies of foliage insistently assert the flatness of the canvas.
The wartime compositions also tend to be much more daring in their color schemes and compositions. Here, the lily pads are rendered in brilliant shades of blue and violet, suggestive of a twilit sky, which contrast with the shadowy green depths of the reflected willows. At the bottom right, the willow fronds give way and the pond seems to breathe free, mirroring the deep blue tones of the sky above. The lily pads take flight above this reflection of the open air, lifting toward the top edge of the canvas, the blossoms themselves like bursts of white light. “Monet often made these paintings sites of contention, pitting order against balance, and forcing forms and reflections into spaces that might otherwise be lulling and seductive,” Tucker has written. “That those tensions inform many of these pictures makes perfect sense, as Monet was painfully aware that his new language was the urgent product of a new historical moment, one fraught with unprecedented anxiety” (op. cit., 2010, p. 33).
The sheer beauty of Monet’s aquatic paradise also served the artist as a balm during traumatic times. “I mix and use a great deal of color,” he told one of the Bernheim-Jeune brothers. “It occupies me enough so that I don’t have to think too much about this terrible, hideous war” (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 205). By January 1915, he was feeling confident enough in his new Nymphéas to invite Raymond Koechlin, the former head of the Société des Amis du Louvre and a formidable figure in Parisian art circles, to see them at Giverny. That summer, 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 at that time. By November 1917, he considered the panels sufficiently advanced that he permitted Durand-Ruel to come to Giverny and photograph them in progress.
The present canvas and the other large Nymphéas from 1914-1917, with their range of brilliantly executed, experimental effects, provided Monet with ongoing inspiration throughout the process of painting the 22 murals. He did not exhibit any of these compositions during his lifetime and he sold only one, preferring instead to keep them close at hand in his studio as he worked; they remained with Monet’s family, largely unknown, for roughly more than a quarter-century after his death in December 1926 and the installation of the Grandes décorations at the Orangerie the next year. It was only after the Second World War that contemporary audiences, schooled in Abstract Expressionism, came to recognize the greatly daring poetry of these huge, valedictory paintings.
“Monet taught me to understand what a revolution in painting can be,” proclaimed the surrealist painter André Masson, who spent the years of the Second World War in New York and was instrumental in championing Monet’s late achievement. “Only with Monet does painting take a turn. He dispels the very notion of form that has dominated us for millennia. He bestows absolute poetry on color” (quoted in Monet and Modernism, exh. cat., Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 2001, p. 242).
The most influential, highly publicized 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 in New York (Wildenstein, no. 1982). A few months later, the Parisian dealer Katia Granoff selected a cache of late works from Monet’s studio at Giverny, some thirty of which she exhibited at her gallery in 1956. On Barr’s recommendation, Peggy and David Rockefeller visited Granoff and purchased the present painting. “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 Rockefeller recalled. They added a second Nymphéas to their collection a few weeks later and a third in 1961 (Wildenstein, nos. 1806 and 1817). “All three hang in the stairwell at Hudson Pines, where we enjoy them every time we go up or down the stairs” (M. Potter et al., op. cit., 1984, p. 46).