Depicting a brightly colored and exuberantly brushed bouquet of gladioli, lilies, and daisies in an ornate painted vase, the present picture is part of a group of at least fifteen floral still-lifes that Monet made between 1878 and 1880. Although the artist painted still-life only intermittently during his long career, his achievement in the genre has been widely recognized. The scholar John House has written, "Monet's explorations of this subject include some of the most lavish still-lifes produced by the Impressionist group, and some of the most radical challenges to a long-standing still-life tradition" (in Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 43). An avid gardener throughout his life, Monet was particularly drawn to floral compositions. Indeed, he once said, "I perhaps owe it to flowers for having become a painter" (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 178), and on another occasion declared, "What I need most of all are flowers, always, always" (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Monet, New York, 1983, p. 199). In Monet's garden at Vétheuil (fig. 1), where he lived from 1878 until 1881, the central path was lined by painted pots filled with tall stalks of red gladioli, like the ones in the present picture. Describing Monet's proclivity for flower painting, Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have commented:
"Flowers are the only things Monet paints really close to at a still-life range. He comes at them head on, without a compositional attitude: they are dumped in front of him, bushy or svelte, vivid, teeming with their specific energy, without atmosphere, an explosion. It is particularly in Monet's still-lifes that we recognize what it was that Van Gogh learned from him: not simply the powerful and expressive palette but also a quality of impassioned drawing that is much more apparent in the flower paintings--forms painted at the range of stereoscopic vision, therefore more tactile--than in most of his landscapes. In these sumptuous flower paintings, the drawing and color are carried along together with tremendous impetus. His love for flowers is unmistakable. The character, the quality of growth, the specific rhythm of each bouquet is given its due" (ibid., pp. 214-215).
The majority of Monet's still-lifes date to the first two decades of his career. His first three substantial paintings, executed in 1861-1862, were large and elaborately staged images of dead game (Wildenstein nos. 6-7, 10). In 1864, he painted his earliest flower piece, a lavish canvas indebted to Courbet's contemporary floral still-lifes, which he included in an exhibition in Rouen in October (W. 20). Three years later, he made a trio of table-top still-lifes featuring fruit and game, one of which was rapidly acquired by a patron of Manet and Bazille named Major Lejosne (W. 103; cf. 102, 104). Finally, Monet produced a single, elaborate composition of fruit and flowers around 1869 (W. 139) and two ambitious table-top subjects in 1872 (W. 244-245), with refined, delicate handling reminiscent of Chardin and Fantin-Latour.
Between 1872 and 1878, the period that he spent at Argenteuil, Monet is not known to have made any still-life paintings, concentrating instead on the landscape. He returned to the genre in earnest in 1878, the year that he moved to Vétheuil. Between 1878 and 1880, he produced at least twenty-three substantial still-lifes, by far the largest group of his entire career (figs. 2-3). Fifteen of these, including the present example, are floral compositions, while five depict fruit and three dead game. Monet also included a comparatively large number of still-lifes in exhibitions around this time (6 out of 35 in an Impressionist group show at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1882, for instance, and 11 out of 56 in a one-man show at Durand-Ruel the following year), indicating that he wanted to bring his achievement in still-life to the public's attention. After 1880, Monet's interest in still-life again waned. His only major efforts in the genre during the final forty years of his career were a set of thirty-six canvases commissioned by Durand-Ruel in 1882-1885 to decorate the doors of his drawing-room (W. 919-954) and a group of four large, virtuoso paintings of chrysanthemums dated 1896-1897 (W. 1495-1498).
Monet's interest in still-life painting in the late 1870s was probably spurred at least in part by commercial concerns. The years at Vétheuil were a period of great financial hardship for the artist. As he wrote to his friend and patron, Dr. Georges de Bellio, in December 1878, "It is sad to be in this position at my age, always obliged to ask [for money] and to solicit business. I am feeling the weight of my misfortune doubly at this time of year and '79 is going to begin just as this year ended, very sad above all for my family, to whom I cannot give even the most modest present" (quoted in P.H. Tucker, op. cit., p. 103). Monet's still-life paintings, particularly the floral compositions, were readily saleable and yielded higher prices during this period than his landscapes. Of the twenty-three still-lifes that Monet made between 1878 and 1880, all but three had found buyers by 1882. Some of these were sold to the dealers Paul Durand-Ruel and Georges Petit, while others went to private collectors, including de Bellio (W. 548), Dr. Paul Gachet (W. 492), and Gustave Caillebotte (W. 635). The present canvas is believed to be one of two flower pieces acquired in June 1878 by a Parisian collector named Theulier, who also purchased a pair of fruit and game still-lifes from Monet the following year (W. 544, 551). Several of the still-lifes from 1878-1880 sold for five hundred francs each, while at least two netted Monet as much as seven hundred (W. 630-631), more than the yearly rent on his house at Vétheuil. In a recent study of this period in Monet's career, Charles Stuckey has declared, "Financially speaking, landscape painter Monet was saved by his work in still-life" (Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, p. 56).
The still-lifes from 1878-1880 may be divided into two groups. The game pictures and some of the fruit pieces are fairly traditional, with restrained brushwork and artfully arranged compositions. Other works, including the present one, are more innovative. Abundant bouquets of flowers are arranged in bold patterns that give a pretext for virtuoso displays of colored brushwork, while fruit is scattered informally across table tops, creating a rich weave of color and texture that virtually fills the canvas. Describing this latter group of pictures, John House has written:
"In these paintings, Monet explored various ways of breaking down the traditional rigidity of the [still-life] genre. Courbet's fruit still-lifes of the early 1870s had rejected more conventional arrangements in order to emphasize the physical palpability of the fruit itself, and among Monet's colleagues, Sisley had on occasion experimented with more informally viewed arrangements on table tops. But it was Monet's still-lifes of around 1880 that more systematically undermined the conventions of the then-dominant Chardin tradition. With that tradition, the objects in still-lifes were presented in clear, orderly groupings, and firmly grounded on the surfaces on which they stood. Monet played down the physicality of the objects in favor of emphasizing their optical effect, which the informality of their grouping suggesting that this effect has been rapidly perceived, rather than carefully ordered. The pictures themselves, of course, are as elaborately contrived and organized as their predecessors; it was by his calculating rejection of the tradition that Monet sought to give them their sense of immediacy" (op. cit., p. 42).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Le jardin de l'artiste à Vétheuil, 1881. Sold, Christie's, New York, 13 November 1996, lot 13. Barcode 23669444
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Fleurs de topinambours, 1880. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.Barcode23669406
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Chrysanthémes, 1878. Sold, Christie's, New York, 9 November 1994, lot 10. Barcode23669413