Monet (fig. 1) moved to Giverny in 1883, when it was a small town of a mere 279 inhabitants. He initially rented his 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 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 behind 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 coverted 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.
Monet's close friend, the French government minister Georges Clemenceau, wrote one of the most rapturous accounts of the garden:
From the house to the road rainbow sheafs of every fairylike hue fall from the celestial dome in a display of flaming cascades, calling by the painter's eye at times to send down their great showers of luminous waters. Monet loved flowers, for themselves, for the lightness and daintiness of their forms, for the drama of love which they radiate with such insolence, for the profuse flames of tender or violent color which display themselves so aggressively among the giant rose bushes where eyes, weary of life's prose, poeticize themselves... This is enough to make one's sojourn that of a wander in Paradise, as the human eye gathers one by one for the incomparable festivals all the harmonies of light with which earth and sun can glorify the happy gleam of visions from the most grandoise to the most delicate. (G. Clemenceau, Claude Monet, The Water Lilies, Garden City, New York, 1930, pp. 68-70)
Marcel Proust too composed a poetic ekprasis of the garden at Giverny:
Claude Monet's garden...is not so much a garden of flowers as of colors and tones, less of an old-fashioned flower garden than a color garden, so to speak, one that achieves an effect not entirely nature's, because it was planted so that only flowers with matching colors will bloom at the same time, to harmonize in an infinite stretch of blue or pink. This clearly manifest painterly intent had neutralized, to a certain extent, everything that is not the same color. The picture consists of land flowers as well as of water flowers, these soft white water lilies that the master has depicted in sublime canvases, of which this garden is like a first and living sketch, or at least, like the palette already artfully made up with the harmonious tones required to paint it. The garden is a real transposition of art, rather than a model for painting, for its composition is right there in nature itself and comes to life throughout the eyes of a great painter. (Quoted in C. Stuckey, Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 250)
The present painting is one of twenty-one pictures of irises that Monet executed late in his career at Giverny. Irises were one of Monet's favorite flowers. He painted great banks of irises along the pathway behind his house (fig. 2), and also placed them all around the edge of his pond. Monet collected all species of the plant; and after the famous horticulturalist Georges Truffaut visited Giverny in 1913 he invited Monet's head gardener to publish an article on irises in his journal Jardinage (F. Breuil, "Les iris aux bords des eaux," Jardinage, Oct., 1913, no. 21). Nevertheless, the group of twenty-one paintings is not precisely datable. No objective evidence such as photographs or literary references exists by which to document the date of the paintings' creation. On the basis of style, however, the paintings can be convincingly assigned to the period 1914-1917 and they are dated thus in the Wildenstein catalogue raisonné.
Three works in this group, including the present picture, have a vertical rather than horizontal orientation. One of the other vertical paintings of irises (Wildenstein, no. 1826; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo) is identical in size to the present work, and it is therefore conceivable that the two were conceived as a pair. This hypothesis, however, is far from certain, since the two paintings differ in palette and perspective.
The second decade of the century was a difficult time for the artist. His wife Alice died in 1911, his son Jean died in 1914, his close friend Octave Mirbeau died in February 1917, and Degas passed away in October of that year. Moreover, the Great War deeply affected all of France, including Monet. The Western Front was close enough to Giverny that Monet occasionally worried about the threat of being overrun. The artist was also concerned about the fate of his son, Michel, who went off to war in 1915. To make matters worse, beginning in 1912 Monet suffered cataracts which affected his eyesight and caused him anxiety; he eventually had corrective surgery in 1923. Alice's death was especially grievous for the painter; in the fall of 1911, he said, "I am completely fed up with painting and I am going to pack up my brushes and colors for good" (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., vol. I, p. 396).
Despite these difficulties, however, Monet experienced a personal renaissance in 1914 that was to carry him through to the end of his life. That year the seventy-four-year-old artist discovered a renewed passion for painting, writing in April, "I feel I am undertaking something very important" (quoted in ibid, p. 402), and telling Durand-Ruel in June, "I have thrown myself back into my 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. I am as well as possible, my sight is good, finally. Thanks to work, the great consolation, all goes well" (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 204-205). This passion for painting and nature continued, and in 1918 he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "I work constantly, constantly at grips with nature" (quoted in J. Isaacson, Claude Monet: Observation and Reflection, Oxford, 1978, p. 44).
The iris series is an expression of the artist's joy in creation--both the beauty of nature and the beauty of painting. In the present painting, the closely packed flowers are seen swaying and rustling in a gentle breeze as they unfurl and climb with vital energy. It is not a strictly realistic and mimetic image--rather it is intended to represent the quintessential ideal of all floral imagery: birth and growth. The painting is vibrant, luxuriant and poetic.
One striking characteristic of the iris series is Monet's experimentation with unusual and unexpected vantages. In two versions of Le chemin au milieu des iris (fig. 3, and Wildenstein, no. 1829; National Gallery, London), for example, Monet painted the picture from a high viewing point by setting up his easel on the Japanese bridge in his garden. The result is a picture in which the space seems to recede up the face of the painting, in violation of the norms of post-Renaissance perspective. In other canvases, Monet established an uncommonly low and close vantage, making the irises seem gigantic (fig. 4). This extraordinary height, furthermore, underscores the vitality of the plants, giving them a nearly mythic stature. In the present painting, too, the view point is close and low, although less emphatically so.
In 1909 the critic Roger Marx quoted Monet as saying,
I have no other wish than to mingle more closely with nature, and I aspire to no other destiny than to work and live in harmony with her laws... Nature is greatness, power and immortality. (Quoted in C. Stuckey, op. cit., p. 267)
(fig. 1) Monet in his garden at Giverny, circa 1923
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Le jardin de Monet, les iris, 1900
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Le chemin au milieu des iris, 1914-1917
Private Collection (promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Iris jaunes, 1924-1925
Musée Marmottan, Paris