The Nymphéas pictures, created at the lilypond below Monet's house at Giverny (fig. 1), were the last serial undertaking of his life, and they represent some of his most free and profound explorations of nature and art.
Monet moved to Giverny in 1883 when it was a small town of a mere 279 inhabitants. Initially he rented a house there, but when the opportunity arose in 1890, he bought the property for 22,000 francs, "certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside," as he wrote to his friend and dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Upon purchasing the house, he immediately began tearing up its grounds in order to replace the kitchen garden with a flower garden. All his life, Claude Monet had been a passionate gardener, but never before had he enjoyed the means to fulfill this passion completely. In 1893, when the property adjacent to and below his land went up for sale, Monet immediately purchased it and applied to the local government "to install a prise d'eau in order to provide enough water to refresh the pond that I am going to dig on the land that I own, for the purpose of cultivating aquatic plants." Although his plans involved diverting the Seine--and despite initial resistance from the other residents of Giverny--construction went quickly, and by the fall Monet had converted nearly 1,000 square meters into a lily-pond ringed by a variety of flowers, trees and bushes. He continued to improve and add to the garden throughout the rest of his life, especially in expansions in 1901 and 1910. Monet thought of his water garden as eastern in character, especially in comparison with the more traditional, western flower garden by the house. He accented this feature by building a foot-bridge in Japanese style, and by planting bamboo, ginkgo trees, and Japanese fruit trees around the pond.
The serene beauty of the water garden had a magical quality; to enter this garden was to enter another world. As one visitor reported:
You enter the aquatic garden over an arched bridge covered with wisteria in June--the fragrance is so heavy that it is like going through a pipe of vanilla. The clusters of white and mauve... fall like fanciful grapes in the water, and the passing breeze harvests the aroma. (Quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Monet, New York, 1988, p. 213)
And another visitor said:
Though the effect from the outside is dazzling enough, the sensation on entering is even more intense, even more surprising... There is no rest for the flowers of the garden at Giverny. Everywhere you turn, at your feet, over your head, at chest height, are pools, festoons, hedges of flowers, their harmonies at once spontaneous and designed and renewed at every season. (A. Alexandre, quoted in C. Stuckey, Monet, A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 220)
The great French botanist Georges Truffaut visited Giverny on many occasions, and in 1924 he wrote a detailed account of the garden:
Every known variety of water lily was planted in the pond. Beginning in June this reflecting mirror, shaded by willows, framed by tall aspen, covered with flowers of every color, becomes the very magic of the Giverny gardens... There are abundant irises of all varieties along the edges of the pond. In the spring there are Iris siberica and virginica with their long, velvety petals; later Japanese iris (Iris kaempferi) abound and impart an oriental touch, which is further enhanced by such plants as Japanese tree peonies. (Quoted in ibid., p. 314)
Monet created this garden in part to be a subject for painting. As John Rewald has noted:
The colors of the floating lilies, the sprouts of the bamboo, the undulations of the willow branches were his to determine, so that they could present him with the pictorial elements he desired. Indeed, the waterlily pond was built especially to provide Monet with an endless series of subjects which, with all but obsessional single-mindedness, he devoted the rest of his life. (J. Rewald, The Gardens at Giverny, New York, 1983, pp. 9-10)
Monet saw water-lilies as the ideal subject for the achievement of his aesthetic ambitions. In 1926 he said that throughout his career his fundamental goal was "to render my impressions in front of the most fugitive effects" (quoted in J. House, Monet, Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 221); and he explained to the critic François Thiébault-Sisson:
I have painted so many of these water lilies, always shifting my vantage point, changing the motif according to the seasons of the year and then according to the different effects of light the seasons create as they change. And, of course, the effect does change, constantly, not only from one season to another, but from one minute to the next as well... To make anything at all out of all this constant change you have to have five or six canvases on which to work at the same time, and you have to move from one to the other, turning back hastily to the first as soon as the interrupted effect reappears. (Quoted in C. Stuckey, op. cit., p. 290)
The present painting is one of three closely related views of the pond that Monet painted in 1917 and 1918 (figs. 2 and 3). When he painted these three works, he was seventy-eight years old and had been painting for over sixty years. Like Titian and Goya--two other great painters who enjoyed long and productive lives--Monet at the end of his life painted works of ravishing beauty whose technical and descriptive freedom constitutes a late style distinct from that of his earlier years. The distinguishing characteristics of Monet's late work are long, sinuous brushstrokes--often of unmodulated color--which are applied in so loose a fashion that outlines are blurred and form is dissolved in light and color. These characteristics are evident in the present picture, for example, in the long green strokes which form the canopy of overhanging foliage. The sublime painterliness of Monet's late style is one of the greatest achievements in twentieth-century art, anticipating and superceding much of Abstract Expressionist painting.
The present work has never been lined and the layers of paint retain their original density and relief, even in the highpoints of the impasto. Throughout his career, Monet created the impression of instantaneous effects by elaborately working his canvases, building up many layers of paint which often crest in thick passages of impasto. While impasto had been a common painting technique since the sixteenth-century, no artist before Monet had ever used it in such a rich fashion; and Monet's freedom of application increased as he grew older, with the impasto rising to an unprecedented height late in his life. Lining flattens impasto, and the higher the relief of the impasto the more deformative is the effect of the procedure. The extraordinary freshness of the present picture, in which the impasto is perfectly preserved, is thus all the more remarkable.
(fig. 1) Monet at Giverny, summer, 1926
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Coin de l'étang à Giverny, 1917
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Coin du bassin aux nymphéas, 1918
Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva
(fig. 4) Monet's water-pond at Giverny