The Nymphéas pictures, created at the lily-pond behind Monet's house at Giverny, were the last serial undertaking of the artist's 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 his house there, but when the opportunity arose in 1890, he bought the property in for 22,000 francs, "certain of never finding a better situation or a more beautiful countryside," as he wrote his friend and dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. All his life, Claude Monet had been a passionate gardener, but never before had he enjoyed the means to fulfill this passion completely. Upon purchasing his house in Giverny, he immediately began to tear up its grounds in order to replace the kitchen garden with a flower garden. In 1893, when the property adjacent to and behind his land went up for sale, Monet 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." Despite the fact that 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 for the rest of his life, especially in expansions in 1901 and in 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 the 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, op. cit., 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 not 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)
Monet created this garden in part to be a subject for painting. As John Rewald has noted,
The colors of the floating lines, 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 to 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)
In an essay on the garden at Giverny, Marcel Proust made a similar point:
If...I can someday see M. Claude Monet's garden, I feel sure that I shall see something that 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 water flowers, those soft white water lilies that the master has depicted in sublime canvases, of which this garden is like the 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 through the eyes of a great painter. (quoted in C. Stuckey, op. cit., p. 250)
Initially Monet was reluctant to paint the water garden; he made only ten images of it before 1899. It is possible that he was waiting for the plantings to mature and to acquire the character and beauty necessary to inspire his art. But in 1899 and 1900 Monet painted eighteen views of the lily-pond, and from thereafter it was the predominant subject of his art. He worked particularly feverishly beginning in 1905, preparing pictures for an exhibition at Durand-Ruel's gallery which was eventually held in 1909. During this period, he completed some sixty pictures, about one every three weeks. This was a phenomenal rate of production, especially given the complexity of the pictures. The present painting was made around 1905, at the beginning of this enormously fertile period, and it is typical of these works in its extraordinary level of technical and conceptual achievement.
Writing of the artist's works of 1905 and 1906, Professor Paul Tucker has said,
Within [the] relatively standard shape [of his canvases], Monet devised variation after variation, altering the arrangement of the lilies, reducing or increasing the amount of reflected material, and exploring a wide array of lighting effects. In all of them, time is suspended, just as it had been in the Japanese Bridge pictures. But here the paint is applied with such subtlety and breadth that the canvases seem to possess a kind of expansiveness that defies their relatively limited size and pushes well beyond the more restrained handling in the first Bridge pictures. In the watery areas, for example, colors are laid one on top of the other to suggest the refractions of light and the changing hues in the depths of the pond. The water lilies themselves are rendered with the most impasto to give a sculptural presence, thereby affirming their position on top of the water. Wind sometimes seems to blow throughout the scenes suggested by passing clouds, while fleeting effects--quivering leaves, rippling water, and the melding layers of light--are reflected in the pond's surface. Despite their immediacy and bravura, the twenty [pictures] are surprisingly finished although most provide plenty of evidence of the pains Monet took to bring them to their state of completion. (P.H. Tucker, Claude
Monet, Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 192-194)
The Nymphéas pictures in many respects represent the quintessence of Impressionism: impermanence, reflection, the evanescence of light and the instantaneous movement of water, sky and perception itself. Monet is reported to have said,
The essence of the motif is the mirror of water whose appearance changes at every moment because of the areas of sky reflected in it.... The passing cloud, the freshening breeze, the seed which is poised and which then falls, the wind which blows and then suddenly drops, the light which dims and then brightens again, all these things...transform the color and disturb the planes of water.
(quoted in V. Spate, exh. cat., Claude Monet, Painter of Light, Auckland, 1985, p. 29)
From antiquity, one sign of being a painter of "universal" accomplishment was the ability to capture the evanescent events of nature. This standard was articulated in art theory by Pliny in the first century A.D., and it was again taken up as an ideal beginning with the circle of Raphael in Renaissance Rome. No painter in the west ever dedicated himself to this pursuit more fully than Monet; certainly none ever surpassed him in the achievement of this ideal.
(no fig. #) Monet in front of his house at Giverny, circa 1923
(no fig. #) Monet's lily-pond at Giverny, circa 1917
(Photo by Etienne Clémentel)
(no fig. #) Monet in his garden at Giverny, summer, 1926
(no fig. #) Monet's lily-pond, looking west toward the footbridge, circa 1933
(no fig. #) Monet painting his garden at Giverny
(no fig. #) The present painting (detail)