‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’
Painted between 1918 and 1919, Saule pleureur (Weeping Willow) is one of a small series of ten monumental and powerfully emotive paintings, each of which depict one of the majestic weeping willow trees that lined the artist’s famed water lily pond at his home in Giverny. Soaring ascendantly upwards to scale the entire height of the large canvas, the weeping willow is the sole protagonist of this scene, its tumbling foliage falling like a shimmering cascade of water from above. The sky and surroundings are eliminated, save for a small corner of the lily pond, visible at the lower right of the painting. Instead, colour, line and texture come to the fore as swirling, flickering brushstrokes charged with a feverish intensity dance and sway across the richly impastoed surface of the canvas. Layers and layers of paint of a multitude of tones – emerald greens, streaks of dazzling gold and orange, and flecks of deep blue and purple – electrify the composition, its surface pulsating and vibrating with vitality and emotion. Together with the monumental vistas of the water lily pond, known as the Grandes décorations, Saule pleureur dates from the late, great final flowering of Monet’s oeuvre, a period that saw an extraordinary outpouring of creativity that now stands at the apex of his long and revolutionary career. Considered some of the most emotive and expressive paintings that Monet ever created, the Weeping Willow series was regarded in such high esteem by the artist that he intended to donate one of these works to the State following France’s victory in the First World War; this donation never came to fruition. However, of the ten paintings in this groundbreaking series, five now reside in museum collections across the world, including the Musée Marmottan, Paris, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Remaining in the artist’s collection until his death and never exhibited during his lifetime, Saule pleureur is thus one of the final five to remain in private hands.
Monet began the Weeping Willow series in the spring of 1918. Since the middle of 1914, a year that had begun with immense personal tragedy in the artist’s life due to the death of his eldest son Jean, Monet had been working with a fearsome resolve on what came to be known as his Grandes décorations. Born from an earlier idea to create an immersive decorative scheme based on his water lily paintings of the previous years, this ambitious, all-consuming and groundbreaking project consisted of paintings on a scale never before seen in the artist’s career. On canvases five feet high and over six and a half feet wide, the artist had begun to paint close up visions of the shimmering, ephemeral reflections of his water lily pond. Densely worked over long periods of time, these canvases were executed in a new studio built especially for this purpose in the summer of 1915. Painting from dawn until dusk, Monet was completely absorbed with this pioneering project over the following years. By the opening months of 1918, a critic, François Thiébault-Sisson, visited Monet at Giverny and recalled that the artist had finished eight out of twelve of these enormous canvases, and that the final four would be completed imminently. Soon after this, however, the artist, for reasons unknown, decided to change direction and embarked upon a distinct project. He turned his gaze outwards once more, looking to the magical flower-filled gardens he had created and the vast water garden beyond, and began painting on smaller canvases – most likely en plein air at daybreak or at dusk – scenes of the wisteria-covered Japanese bridge, the lily pond and its banks, as well as one of the weeping willows that lined it.
The most dramatic and striking paintings of this separate group of works are undoubtedly this series of ten Weeping Willows, of which Saule pleureur is one. Painted on an impressively large vertical scale, this bold series provided a refreshing contrast to the horizontal expanses of canvas that Monet had been working on up until this point. All ten of these notable paintings depict one of the two weeping willow trees that stood at the northern end of the lily pond. While the larger tree had appeared in a pair of earlier paintings (Wildenstein, nos. 1848-9), the smaller tree next to it served as the protagonist of this series, its statuesque presence and softly cascading foliage providing the inspiration for these works.
The weeping willow trees that lined the pond in the water garden had often featured in Monet’s paintings at Giverny. One, which stood on the southwest of the pond, next to the Japanese bridge, often appears in the earlier portrayals of this feature. Likewise, the trunk and tumbling leaves falling into the pond appear in myriad water lily compositions as reflections in the water, as well as in one of the triptychs of the Grandes décorations. Never before however had it taken such a prominent position in Monet’s painting. In Saule pleureur, the willow tree appears as if slowly emerging or descending into velvety darkness, its foliage streaked with golden chasms and flickers of light as the sun casts its first, or indeed final, light over the water garden. Some works in the series – the Kimbell Art Museum and Musée Marmottan’s Saule pleureurs (Wildenstein, nos. 1875-7), for example – show a more panoramic vista of the willow, its sea of overhanging branches creating a curtain of colour on each side of the serpentine trunk. The Columbus Museum’s work (Wildenstein, no. 1869) has the same tightly cropped composition as the present work, yet the tendrils of foliage appear in streaks of lime green and yellow. In contrast to the endless, enveloping tranquillity of his concurrent water lilies, these paintings are arresting both in their sheer physicality and in their emotional impact. Eschewing the soft pastel tones that he used to render the ephemerality and iridescence of water, in Saule pleureur Monet has turned to darker, more intense tones applied with bold handling to create dramatic contrasts of light and a gestural almost tormented surface. Taking the newfound freedom of expression that he had discovered in the creation of the monumental Grandes décorations, Monet has distilled this increasingly abstract mode of painting onto a smaller scale, increasing the visual impact of this unbridled, expressionistic style.
More than simply a motif for formal experimentation into colour and form, however, the weeping willow was imbued with a deep and powerful resonance for the artist. At the time that he began this series of paintings, the First World War had reached its final, climactic year. Since the outbreak of war, Monet had been engaged in the conflict on both a personal and public level. His younger son Michel and stepson Jean-Pierre Hoschedé had both been sent to the Front in the early years of the conflict, and though he was too old to fight, he felt an intense need to contribute to the war effort. Like Matisse, who had tried to enlist but had been turned away due to his age, Monet found refuge in his work. ‘It is the best way not to think too much about the sadness of the present,’ he wrote to his friend, the critic and writer Gustave Geffroy, at the beginning of December 1914. Although, he added, ‘I should be a bit ashamed to think about little investigations into forms and colours while so many people suffer and die for us’ (Monet, quoted in C. Stuckey, exh. cat., Claude Monet 1840-1926, Chicago, 1995, p. 246). For Monet, painting became fuelled by patriotic fervour, his Grandes décorations and concurrent work serving both as a personal refuge and a public testament of the resilience of French national culture and heritage. While his compatriots fought on the Front line, Monet waged his own battle within his secluded studio in rural France, seeking to create paintings that affirmed nature’s immutable beauty and man’s enduring spirit in the face of such horrifying violence.
The Weeping Willow series has been described as Monet’s most direct and poignant response to the war. Indeed, in March 1918, at the time he began this series, the Germans had mounted their most aggressive defensive on the Allied forces, bombarding Paris and breaking through British defences in the Somme valley. As the news from the Front grew ever worse, and the Germans captured Amiens, just 37 kilometres from Giverny itself, Monet was said at one point to have contemplated feeing his beloved home. ‘What an agonising life we all are living,’ he wrote to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in June, ‘I continue…to work, although at times, I long to give it all up. Sometimes, I have to ask myself what I would do if a new surprise attack by the enemy occurred’ (Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven & London, 1995, p. 211). Just a week after he wrote these words, he changed his mind: he would stay in Giverny, together with his canvases, no matter what.
As he had throughout the war, his reaction to his angst was to paint. He honed in on the motif of the willow and depicted it with deep, intense colours and agitated, feverish brushwork. In Saule pleureur, the quivering leaves and sinuous branches of the willow writhe with emotion and dynamism. This series, like many of Monet’s paintings from the first half of 1918, is pervaded by a deeply elegiac mood, the previously peaceful motifs of the water garden now painted in mournful harmonies of deep blue and purple, or burning frenzied tones of orange and yellow, applied with thick, frenetic brushstrokes. As Paul Hayes Tucker has eloquently described, ‘With surfaces trowled by his heavily loaded brush and colours bordering on the brazen, these are some of the most highly charged canvases Monet ever produced… They are also some of the most dialectical. Nothing seems quite rational in them and yet everything appears palpable and keenly sensed. Light battles with dark, description grapples with expression, space combats surface. The scenes brim with emotion but of similarly contrasting kinds. There are cries of pain and shouts of ecstasy, shivers of fear and clamours of celebration. Doubt pervades all the pictures but determination seems to prevail’ (ibid., pp. 209-210).
Rising powerfully from the ground, single, steadfast and resolute, the weeping willow could within this context be regarded as a powerful image of hope and defiance in the midst of the seemingly interminable sorrow. Depicted in full leaf, its commanding presence serves as a picture of resilience despite the destruction of the world around it. Trees had long had a powerful personal symbolism for the artist: thirty years earlier, Monet had similarly made a powerful attachment to an oak tree in the Creuse valley. Depicting it in a painting that has since been lost or destroyed – Le vieil arbre à Fresselines (Wildenstein, no. 1229) – he wrote to his wife Alice that upon looking at this work she would see all ‘the rages and difficulties’ that the artist had experienced (ibid., p. 210). At once enduring and vulnerable, elegant yet robust, tormented yet triumphant, sorrowful yet resolute, the weeping willow served as the perfect metaphor both for the artist’s deeply felt emotions at this time as well as for France as a whole.
This series, begun in the face of increasing doom at the fate of France, ended with triumphant victory. By the autumn of 1918, the tide had turned for the Allies, and the long awaited victory came soon after. A testament to the importance that the Weeping Willow series held for Monet is the fact that he agreed to leave one of these paintings to the French State. As soon as the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, Monet wrote to his old and very dear friend, who was at the time Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau that he intended to donate two of his large panneaux décoratifs to the State, which he intended to ‘sign as of the day of the Victory’. A few days later, on 18 November, Clemenceau visited Giverny and, deeply moved by the searing emotive power of the Weeping Willow paintings, requested that one of this series be added to Monet’s donation. He proudly wrote to one of the Bernheim-Jeune brothers to tell them of his decision, explaining that this donation was his way of ‘taking part in the victory’ (Letter 2290, in D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Lausanne, 1985, p. 401). Ultimately this donation did not materialise in this form; instead it grew into something much larger. From the Armistice onwards, the pair agreed that the donation would consist not just of two decorative panels, but all twelve that Monet had been working on since the beginning of the war. A series of twenty-two large scale paintings were finally installed in Paris’s Musée de l’Orangerie years later, in 1927.
With its richly impastoed, highly textured surface and gestural, unmixed strokes of a symphonic array of emerald tones, Saule pleureur is one of Monet’s late, great works, the style and handling of which had a decisive impact and influence on successive generations of artists. A single field of luminous, vibrating and emotive colour, with these large, immersive paintings, Monet instigated what has become recognised as the genesis of ‘pure painting’. Representation and illusionism are overwhelmed by an insistence on the physical qualities of the paint and its application. The resultant painting transcends the subject it depicts; no longer solely a portrayal of a willow tree, the painting becomes a dramatic, highly charged and evocative, expressionistic near-abstract painting. This stylistic development did not go unmissed by critics in Monet’s own time; upon seeing the artist’s Nymphéas series of 1909, Louis Gillet remarked, ‘the pure abstraction of art can go no further’ (L. Gillet, quoted in R. King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Waterlilies, London, 2016, p. 44).
It would take almost half a century, however, for the full impact of Monet’s radical inventions at Giverny to become fully recognised. In the 1950s, the New York School of painters and critics alike found fresh and vital inspiration in Monet’s late work, finding in these often large canvases the same preoccupations with surface, colour and handling as they were exploring in their own work. The enveloping colour fields of Rothko, ‘all-over’ drip paintings of Pollock, and the gestural, impastoed canvases of Joan Mitchell could all be regarded as descendants of the revolutionary immersive, all-encompassing pictorial space created by the great leader of Impressionism in a beloved garden in a far-of corner of rural France. One of the leading critics of post-war American art, Thomas Hess, wrote in 1956, ‘In the past decade paintings by such artists as Pollock, Rothko, Still, Reinhardt, Tobey, and writings by such artists as André Masson and Barnett Newman have made us see in Monet’s huge late pictures and in the smaller, wilder sketches he made for them a purity of image and concept of pictorial space that we now can recognise as greatly daring poetry’ (T. Hess, quoted in M. Leja, ‘The Monet Revival and the New York School of Abstraction’, in P. Tucker et al., exh. cat., Monet in the 20th Century, London & Boston, 1998-1999, pp. 100-101).