‘I work constantly and lovingly on my garden. What I need most are flowers, always, always. My heart is always in Giverny’
‘In Giverny there is no respite from the flowers. Wherever you turn, they are at your feet, over your head, growing to chest height, lakes, garlands, hedges of flowers, whose harmonies are at once improvised and calculated, and renewed as season follows season’
Painted in 1887, Pivoines is one of the very first works that Claude Monet made of his garden at his home in Giverny. With this pioneering painting, the most experimental of a series of three – of which one is now housed in the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, and the other the in Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva – the artist launched a body of work that would come to define the second half of his career. From this point onwards the garden, with its constantly changing carpet of colour, and later, the water lily pond’s ephemeral surface, would become the subjects that Monet painted more frequently than any other.
When Monet first settled in the small, rural village of Giverny in 1883, few could have foreseen the extraordinary creative blossoming – both literal and metaphorical – that would take place there. His home, Le Pressoir, the pink-stuccoed and green-shuttered farmhouse set in the centre of the village, would become an artistic and horticultural paradise, a place that would sustain, inspire and challenge the artist for the rest of his life. Bursting with flecks of rapidly applied, vibrant colour, Pivoines presents Monet’s first joyous and instinctive pictorial response to his carefully nurtured garden. The importance of this seminal painting is reflected by the fact that Monet chose not to sell it, instead keeping it in his personal collection for many years; a testament both to its significance within his oeuvre, as well as to the artist personally.
Soon after he settled in Giverny, Monet set about transforming the south-facing kitchen garden, known as the Clos Normand, which was originally planted with fruit trees and vegetables, into a dazzling floral spectacle of bursting colour and riotous pattern. Beyond this herbaceous haven lay the site that would become in later years the artist’s beloved lily-filled water garden. The artist’s love of gardening and horticulture had always played a central role in his art; at his homes in both Argenteuil and Vétheuil he had created modest gardens, often featuring them in his paintings. ‘I perhaps owe it to flowers’, he once stated, ‘that I became a painter’ (Monet, quoted in A. Dumas & W.H. Robinson, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, exh. cat., London, 2016, p. 17). Now living amidst extensive land at Giverny, he could finally indulge unimpeded in his passion. As well as consulting leading horticultural specialists, he imported exotic plants, cultivated new species and collected a library of rare horticultural volumes. Over the months and years that followed, he filled the gardens with multitudes of trees, shrubs and flowers, at first planting them himself, often with the help of his children. Upon visiting his friend in 1891, the writer Octave Mirbeau described Monet, ‘in shirt sleeves, his hands black with earth, his face tanned by the sun, happy to be planting seeds, in his garden constantly dazzling with flowers, against the modest and discreet backdrop of his little pink-stuccoed house’ (Mirbeau, quoted in ibid., p. 211).
From seas of swaying tulips in the early months of spring, and jewel-like poppies, peonies, and cascades of clematis in May, to tumbling roses through the summer months, the garden and its abundance of flowers became Monet’s greatest passion, a sumptuous, immersive experience that beguiled the artist and all those who came to visit him. ‘In Giverny there is no respite from the flowers,’ one such visitor, the critic Arsène Alexandre described. ‘Wherever you turn, they are at your feet, over your head, growing to chest height, lakes, garlands, hedges of flowers, whose harmonies are at once improvised and calculated, and renewed as season follows season’ (Alexandre, quoted in Monet’s Garden in Giverny: Inventing the Landscape, exh. cat., Giverny, 2009, p. 16). Described by Alexandre as a ‘palette of flowers’, the garden was designed by Monet with painting in mind, planted to feature colour harmonies, differing heights and textures, and to convey seasonal differences. In many ways an artwork in its own right, Giverny remained a source of continuous joy as well as the inspiration for what have become Monet’s most famous and best loved works. Giverny was, the artist once said, his ‘most beautiful work of art’ (Monet, quoted in op. cit., p. 42).
So involved was Monet in designing, planting and nurturing his gardens, it was not until 1887 – four years after settling there – that he first turned to it as a subject for his painting. Among the first ever paintings inspired by his new surroundings, Pivoines takes as its subject the flowering peony beds of the Clos Normand. One of Monet’s favourite flowers, the peonies he planted were a particularly rare variety of which he was especially proud, taking care to protect them by installing straw covered awnings to shelter them both from late spring frosts and the early summer sun. ‘Should the Japanese peonies arrive,’ he instructed his gardener in 1900, some years after he painted Pivoines, ‘plant them immediately if weather permits, taking care initially to protect the buds from the cold, as much as from the heat of the sun’ (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 211). In Pivoines, these protective awnings are clearly visible, the stakes cutting through the array of flattened, vibrating colour that constitutes the composition.
The blossoming peony bushes are clearly evident in Pivoines, their blousy, jewel coloured petals serving as the spectacle of this scene. In the present work however, Monet was not seeking to depict a faithful rendering of his beloved blooms, but has rather transformed this view of the garden into a veritable feast of saturated and enveloping colour. Indeed, with Pivoines, Monet used his much-loved flowers to push the study of colour to an extreme. The surface of the painting comes alive with daubs, dabs and strokes of deep ruby red, amethyst and emerald, all of which sing under the dazzling sunlight that streams into the scene. The most expressively rendered of this breakthrough series of three garden scenes, the present work demonstrates Monet’s increasingly radical experimentations with traditional modes of picture making. Perspective and tonal modelling are replaced instead by a flat, mosaic-like composition constructed from abundant colour, while the sky and background are eliminated, leaving only the pure sensation of being immersed in this paradisiacal oasis set in a quiet corner of northern France.
It would take some years before Monet returned to this enveloping conception of luminous, vibrating, pervading colour. As the final years of the 19th Century unfolded, Monet increasingly embraced an ever-more abstract mode of painting, creating immersive, singularly modern visions of the reflections and surroundings of his water-lily pond. One of the very first paintings to reveal the direction in which Monet’s art would move, Pivoines encapsulates the powerful, symbiotic relationship Monet had between his art and his garden. Each passion fed the other, leading the artist to create some of the most innovative works of both the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. As Marcel Proust so accurately described, ‘The garden itself is a real transposition of art, rather than a model for a painting, for its composition is right there in nature itself and comes to life through the eyes of a great painter’ (M. Proust, quoted in ibid., p. 59).
It was Monet’s radical means of conveying nature that would become a prevailing influence on artists in the later Twentieth Century. For the Abstract Expressionists, Monet’s late work and its emphasis on the gesture and the very act of painting itself, served as an essential model in their artistic development. From Joan Mitchell’s gestural, abstract ‘all-over’ compositions that were directly inspired by Monet, to Mark Rothko’s luminous, enveloping colour field painting and Willem de Kooning’s painterly abstractions of the landscape, Monet’s late work served as a model for the form of subjective, expressive abstraction that they were pursuing. As Thomas Hess, one of the leading critics in the mid-century New York art world described, ‘In the past decade paintings by such artists as Pollock, Rothko, Still, Reinhardt, Tobey, and writings by such artists as Andre Masson and Barnett Newman have made us see in Monet’s huge late pictures and in the smaller, wilder sketches he made for them a purity of image and concept of pictorial space that we now can recognise as greatly daring poetry’ (T. Hess, quoted in M. Leja, ‘The Monet Revival and the New York School of Abstraction’, in P. Tucker et. al., exh. cat., Monet in the 20th Century, London & Boston, 1998-1999, pp. 100-101).