After many years of limited recognition and dire poverty, Monet began to prosper; in 1890, at the age of fifty, the artist enjoyed enough popular success to afford the luxury of his own house and garden at Giverny (fig. 1). Despite his fascination with the distinct characteristics of light he found in England, Italy and Norway during the 1890s, his attention was increasingly focused on the environs of his new home. The gardens were originally intended to be a source of flowers to be painted during bad weather but in 1893, he started with feverish activity:
To improve the building, to add large studios, to lay out an elaborate garden and finally, to create beyond the garden and on a plot separated from it by the tracks of a rarely used railroad, a pond of waterlilies... It took patience and ingenuity as well as a good deal of money to achieve all this but Monet immersed himself in this labour with the passion of a perfectionist... The greatest achievement, however, was to be the pond of waterlilies, a feat of design and engineering from which the waters of the little Epte had to be diverted, cleansed of impurities, and then released into the Seine (thus providing the indispensible current, for stagnant waters would have defeated the whole undertaking). Monet shaped the shores of the pool, dotted it with a Japanese footbridge... nature obliged treating this man-made paradise as though it were one of her own inventions, a setting she had always wanted for her whimsical extravagances. The colours of the floating lines, the sprouts of the bamboo, the undulations of the willow branches were his to determine, so that she 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 to the rest of his life (J. Rewald, The Gardens of Giverny, New York, 1983, pp. 9-10).
In 1914, at the suggestion of his close friend the politician Georges Clemenceau, Monet began to create his Grandes Décorations, a sequence of monumental paintings that would take his depictions of the waterlily pond in a new direction. Despite failing eyesight, the project occupied him for the rest of his life and involved the construction of two additional studios. This phase, by contrast with the works of the first decade of the century, were categorized by free, sweeping brushstrokes and lush color. Paul Tucker writes that these new paintings "were characterized by an unprecedented breadth in terms of their size, touch and vision. Nearly all of these pictures...were twice as big as his earlier Water Lilies. They were also more daring in their color schemes and compositions. And they were much looser in handling... At once exploratory and definitive, hesitant and assured, these paintings thus constitute a unique group of canvases in Monet's oeuvre. They were a sustained and evidently private enterprise in which Monet tested out his ideas for his decorative program on a scale he had never attempted for these watery motifs" (P. Tucker, Claude Monet, Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 203-204).
In Nymphéas, Monet's innate ability to organize his sensations of the transience of natural phenomena is readily apparent. The ambiguous spatial relationships of colors and forms are critical to this passionate description of his aquatic garden and there is a charismatic tension generated between the solid forms of the floating flora and the intangible elements of the forms of colored reflections dancing on the surface of the water. In spite of the combination of green and blue, the canvas is exceptionally bright, its brilliant touches of blue and yellow enlivening the reflection of the sky and overhanging trees in the dark and brooding waters. The composition is further balanced with small touches of intense red. There is neither beginning nor end in this reflective surface, only the myriad of colors used to describe the flora, the changing light, and the motionless water. Precise as his recordings of phenonema are, it is an image rich with allusions to an ethereal, mystical realm.
Nymphéas is compositionally similar to two other works from the same period (figs. 2 and 3); however by contrast with the series of works from 1906-1908, the increasingly abstract treatment of the paint surface of the later works and the more diverse palette create a unique atmosphere in each painting. While the Fauves and Cubists had already established a break with the figurative tradition, these large scale colorist paintings predict the work of the New York Abstract Expressionists. As Michael Leja wrote:
In the late 1950s, a wave of interest in Monet's paintings surged in New York and swelled east across the Atlantic and west to Los Angeles. As museum exhibitions of his work appeared throughout the United States--the first in thirty years--and as the art press, newspapers, and mass-circulation magazines substantially increased their attention to his work, commentators routinely marveled at the speed and size of the surge they found themselves sustaining. With surprising unanimity they traced its origins to 1955 or so and understood it as a brilliant rediscovery in which artists, critics, collectors, and curators collaborated...
[André] Masson's short essay 'Monet le fondateur' asserted that Monet's Grandes Décorations were his supreme works, and it expressed the hope that young French artists would discover Monet and the new beginnings his work offered. American critics and journalists generally agreed that Masson's essay was influential...but they believed American painters were already well ahead of their French counterparts in building upon Monet's late work. What had really provoked the Monet revival was not Masson's words but the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists--Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and some of their associates--who had educated the vision of contemporary viewers to recognize the achievement of Monet's late work...As critic Clement Greenberg put it in 1956, 'even Monet's own taste had not caught up with his art... That he himself could not consciously recognize or accept 'abstractness'--the qualities of the medium alone--as a principle of consistency makes no difference: it is there, plain to see in the paintings of his old age' (M. Leja, "The Monet Revival and New York School Abstraction", Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1998 pp. 98 and 100).
The edges of the present work sustained damage during the Second World War and as a consequence were trimmed under the supervision of Michel Monet to its present size.
(fig. 1) Claude Monet painting in his garden at Giverny.
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1914-1917.
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon. Acquired through the Helen Thurston Fund, 1959.
© 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris.
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1914-1917.
Private collection, Japan.
© 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris.