Widely hailed as landmarks of late Impressionism, the paintings that Monet made of his gardens at Giverny constitute some of the most innovative and influential works of his entire oeuvre. Paul Tucker has written, "They stand as eloquent witness to an aging artist's irrepressible urge to express his feelings in front of nature and also attest to his persistent desire to reinvent the look of landscape art and to leave a legacy of significance" (in Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 14). During the last twenty-five years of his life, Monet devoted himself almost single-mindedly to depicting the lily-pond that he had fashioned at Giverny, producing an astonishingly complex and diverse group of around two hundred canvases. Describing this last major undertaking of his career, Monet explained, "The essence of the motif is the mirror of water whose appearance changes at every moment because of the areas of sky that are 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 brightens again--all these things transform the color and disturb the planes of water" (quoted in V. Spate, Claude Monet: Painter of Light, exh. cat., City Art Gallery, Auckland, 1985, p. 29).
The artist and his family moved to Giverny in April of 1883. Situated at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte rivers about forty miles northwest of Paris, Giverny was a quiet, picturesque farming community of just 279 residents. Upon his arrival there, Monet rented a large, pink stucco house on two acres of land. When the property came up for sale in 1890, Monet purchased it at the asking price of 22,000 francs, "certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside," as he wrote to Durand-Ruel (Letter 1079). An enthusiastic gardener all his life, Monet immediately began tearing up the existing kitchen garden and planting lush flower beds on the gentle slope in front of the house. Three years later, he acquired an adjacent plot of land and applied to the local government for permission "to install a prise d'eau in order to provide enough water to freshen the pond that I am going to dig for the purpose of cultivating aquatic plants" (Letter 1191). By the autumn of 1893, Monet had converted nearly one thousand square meters into a lavish lily pond, spanned by a wooden footbridge and ringed by an artful arrangement of flowers, trees and bushes (fig. 1). Describing the water garden in its finished form, 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).
Although Monet created the lily pond in part to fulfill his passion for gardening, he also intended it as a source of artistic inspiration. In his petition to the Préfet de l'Eure for permission to build the pond, Monet specified that it would serve "for the pleasure of the eyes and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint" (Letter 1191). Nonetheless, Monet was initially reluctant to paint the water garden. He made only ten images of it before 1899, possibly because he was waiting for the plantings to mature. In 1899-1900, he painted eighteen views of the lily pond, and from thereafter it was the predominant subject of his art. He later recalled, "It took me some time to understand my water lilies. A landscape takes more than a day to get under your skin. And then all at once, I had the revelation--how wonderful my pond was--and reached for my palette. I've hardly had any other subject since that moment" (quoted in S. Koja, Claude Monet, exh. cat., Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna, 1996, p. 146). Monet worked particularly feverishly on the series from 1905 until 1908, preparing for an exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel that opened in the spring of 1909. During this interval, Monet completed more than sixty views of the aquatic garden, about one every three weeks. The present picture was painted near the end of this enormously fertile period. It is dated '1907' in the lower right corner, but Daniel Wildenstein argues from comparison with other canvases from this year and the next that it was probably painted in 1908 instead (op. cit., 1996, p. 795).
The paintings of the lily pond from 1905-1908 can be divided into three groups. Within each, Monet devised variation after variation, altering the arrangement of the blossoms, increasing or reducing the amount of reflected material, and exploring a wide array of lighting effects. The paintings in the first group, executed in 1905-1907, are characterized by large, horizontally striated islands of lilies, juxtaposed with undulating reflections of trees and sky (fig. 2). Other compositions from 1907 are bolder and more experimental. Many of these employ a vertical format, sliced down the middle by a narrow band of light (fig. 3). On either side are dark rivulets of foliage and truncated clusters of lilies, rendered with vigorous brushstrokes and a moody palette. In the final group of canvases, including the present one, Monet retains the central stream of light, but replaces the strong contrasts of the preceding sequence with a delicate palette and ethereal effect. Describing these works, Paul Tucker has written:
Monet had maintained his focus, more or less, on the same basic motif of his 1907 pictures--the stream of light weaving through the tangle of foliage on its way to a broader space in the lower section of the canvas. But beyond that, these new pictures could not be more different. Gone is the strident color, the aggressive brushwork, the curious vertical shapes, the tensions between reflections and surface forms, the strong contrasts of light and dark, and the sense of surprise and unease. Much of this change is due to the way that Monet manipulated the shapes in the scenes. The reflected foliage, for example, has been rounded out significantly, its errant boughs brought into the fold, its internal rhythms calmed. With fewer visual incidents overall, the surfaces of the pictures assert their primacy with remarkable authority. The result is greatly enhanced by the muted palette Monet employs. In many of the paintings the colors are so close in value that they create an emphatic, flattening effect, pulling the image over the canvas so tightly that it is almost a struggle to read the space. In the end, these pictures attest to the pressure that Monet has applied to the elements at his disposal. Space and form have been so compromised that they play only a minor role in the scenes. Light is so continuous that it loses its hold on forms and ceases to be physical. Local color has all but been eliminated. Most important perhaps, bravura has been capped. What is left is the residue of all these matters. They coalesce on the surfaces of the pictures to suggest a kind of essential presence, like some enchanting fragrance or the sensed rhythms of silence (op. cit., p. 49).
The first owner of the present picture was Henri Canonne, a Parisian pharmaceutical tycoon and a leading collector of Impressionist paintings. Canonne owned more than forty paintings by Monet in the course of his career, including seventeen canvases from the Nymphéas series. These were acquired mainly between 1920 and 1926, the same years that Monet was painting his Grandes Décorations, an ensemble of twenty-two mural-sized Nymphéas panels that were eventually installed in the Orangerie.
(fig. 1) Claude Monet's lily pond at Giverny. BARCODE 23662346
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, circa 1905. Sale, Christie's, New York, 13 November 1996, lot 15. BARCODE 23662070
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1907. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. BARCODE 23662339