Painted in 1913, Les arceaux de roses, Giverny is one of a small group of three paintings, one of which is in the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, that marked a return to form for Claude Monet, after a string of troubles, not least the death of his beloved wife, Alice, two years earlier. It is telling that, when he was captured in a photographic portrait while painting the Phoenix painting, Les arceaux fleuris, Giverny (W. 1779), the author gave the following caption: 'the admirable painter completing one of his most beautiful pictures' (A. Arnyvelde, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Cologne, 1996, p. 837). This description can also be seen to be true of its sister-picture Les arceaux de roses, Giverny, which is filled with water, with reflections and plays of light, and with the beloved water-lilies for which Monet had become so renowned. There is an effervescence in the reds of the flowers, reflected in the water, which adds an electric contrast to the painting and which demonstrates Monet's absolute love of colour.
It was essentially as a result of this love of colour that Monet created his now-legendary garden at Giverny, which remains a site of pilgrimage for admirers of the arch-Impressionist to this day. Even during his lifetime, hordes of artists hoping to learn from the master himself had moved to Giverny, apparently pushing up the price of living there, but at the same time resulting in the increasing acceptance of Monet by the locals, who were more than grateful for the extra custom. However, while a few journalists did manage to enter Monet's verdant sanctuary, few of these optimistic students ever managed to breach the low walls to any great effect-- the artist had deliberately chosen the countryside over Paris so that he could select his acquaintances. His answer to the petitions of these artists was recounted in an article by Maurice Kahn in 1904: 'I live in the country so as to be left alone. It's hard for me to work, and I don't have the time to teach students. Do as I do: work, experiment' (Monet, quoted in C.F. Stuckey (ed.), Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1986, p. 241). More welcome visitors to Giverny, to whom Monet's hospitality was so much warmer, apparently, than it had been in Paris, looks like a Who's Who of the writers, painters and thinkers of the age: Rodin, Bonnard, Vuillard, Mallarmé, Sargent, Clemenceau, Caillebotte, Cézanne, Pissarro...
Monet had moved to Giverny in 1883, initially renting a property there but gradually increasing his domain by securing various appending areas, while also adding to the complex of buildings on the site. As his recognition and wealth grew, he focussed increasingly on creating a constant source of motifs to paint. In order to do this, he filled the place with colour, each patch of flowerbed becoming filled with plants. And, having lived there for some time, he even managed to divert some of the Epte, a tributary of the Seine, through an area next to his gardens in order to create the water lily-strewn pond that has been immortalised in so many of his masterpieces and which is shown to such effect here in Les arceaux de roses, Giverny. Of course he was being modest when he said that, 'Gardening and painting apart, I'm no good at anything,' but this claim is nonetheless a telling reflection of the importance to Monet of his gardens at Giverny (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, vol. I, Cologne, 1996, p. 368).
Even a dozen years before this picture was painted, the effect of the garden was considered overwhelming by visitors, and it essentially improved year after year, with only a few blights on its progress. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Arsène Alexandre wrote about a visit to Monet's home:
'Giverny appears along the road, which passes through it; the village is pretty but somewhat characterless, being partly rural and partly middle-class. Suddenly, just as one has reached the end of the village and is about to proceed on toward Vernon-- not having been drawn by any desire to stop-- a new and extraordinary pageant greets us with the unexpectedness of all great surprises. Imagine every colour of a palette, all the tones of a fanfare. This is Monet's garden.'
'Because it is longer than it is deep, and its length is parallel to the road, and the artist who created it closed it off with only a very low wall and a very plain gate-- from either generosity or coquetry, or both-- the passerby can enjoy nearly all of its splendour. Yet though the effect from the outside is dazzling enough, the sensation on entering is even more intense, even more surprising.'
'The horticultural exhibitions held in the Tuileries gardens might give one an idea, but, while those brilliant beds last only four or five days, there is no 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...'
'[You] find that you are in the domain of a master gardener' (A. Alexandre, quoted in ibid., p. 220).
It is telling that Alexandre refers to the visual effect of Monet's garden as 'floral fireworks' later in the same article-- this is an effect that is clearly visible in the bursting reds in Les arceaux de roses, Giverny. Monet, the master of capturing impressions, gradually designed a garden in which a thousand beautiful impressions could be perceived and then captured. The pond itself was created essentially because the original one was too small to benefit properly from an expansive water view, especially one upon which the nymphéas could sit, adding little commas that punctuated the general expanse of the water itself. The importance of water to Monet is clear in Les arceaux de roses, Giverny, where it takes up the majority of the canvas. Indeed, more sky is shown in reflection in the water than is in the upper portion of the picture. In this sense, it is clear to what extent the landscape was formed in order to suit Monet's tastes, reversing the typical process of the landscape painter who depicts the world in front of him. Here, Monet has created the domain that he has then represented.
This is evident in the arches upon which the roses are growing, built as a focal point on the far side of the pond from the house and initial garden and providing a visual focus that Monet depicted surprisingly seldom. There is a romantic feel to this construction, which echoes the ruined castles of the vedutistes of a prior generation. And yet the enjoyment of the scene is wholly Monet's own, indulging as he does in a loving portrayal of the scene that he knew, loved, and had indeed created. It is telling, as a reflection of the fact that Monet had created this garden to his own specifications in order to be able to explore, on canvas, the effects that he had at other times so appreciated elsewhere in France, London, Norway, Bordighera and so forth, that Alexandre mentioned it in these terms:
'He also wants, perhaps above all, his flower palette before him to look at all year round, always present, but always changing. Everything is designed in such a way that the celebration is everywhere renewed and ceaselessly replaced. If a certain flower bed is stilled in a certain season, borders and hedges will suddenly light up. The other day, what dominated-- or at least most charmed one's gaze-- were the broad but subtle harmonies of yellows and violets.'
'This last helps to describe the master's creation; the effect is explosive and joyful, and every effect is planned' (A. Alexandre, quoted in ibid., p. 221).
The deliberate manner in which Monet had created, by a gradual evolution over several decades, a landscape that captured so many effects also had beneficial results for paintings of motifs other than Giverny itself. For often, if Monet was travelling, for instance when he painted his series of views of the Thames, he would return with pictures that were not yet complete, finishing them in his studio, turning to certain corners and aspects of his gardens in order to take the inspiration and to examine the light effects in order to come to some point closer to completion.
One effect of the evolution of the garden was that it gradually, in parts, acquired a distinctly Japanese character, and this is apparent in Les arceaux de roses, Giverny in the distant arches, the pond itself and the composition overall. Monet claimed that this was a fortunate side-effect, that he had not actively sought a Japanese look for the gardens, even when raising the so-called 'Japanese Bridge'. However, inside his home, walls were covered in Japanese prints, reflecting an interest in the Oriental that he had acquired during the 1880s from his friend and fellow artist James McNeill Whistler. And this Japanese spirit was to infuse many of his works from that period onwards. In Les arceaux de roses, Giverny, the restraint with which the artist has rendered the scene and the deliberate sense of space with which he has filled it, both reflect the Japanese prints to which he turned so often. At the same time, it is important to note the air of meditative tranquillity, emphasised by the stillness of the only faintly rippling pond, with which this painting is filled, which itself recalls the gardens of Japan as well as its paintings.
This air of contemplation exists in this 1913 painting and its two companions, the only oils listed from that year in Daniel Wildenstein's catalogue raisonné, despite a slew of events that had pushed Monet, during the preceding years, to the point of despair. In terms of the garden, Monet had been horrified to find that floods and storms had ravaged the scenery only the previous year. His letters provide an insight into his despair: 'We were in the midst of a great flood and I, in my selfishness, could think only of my garden, my poor flowers that have been soiled with mud' (Monet to Julie Manet-Rouart, quoted in Wildenstein, op.cit., 1996, Vol. I, p. 392). Meanwhile to Bernheim-Jeune he wrote,
'With this weather I haven't managed to do anything and to add to my miseries an appalling storm has created havoc in my garden. The weeping willows I was so proud of have been torn apart and stripped; the finest entirely broken up. In short a real disaster and a real worry for me' (Monet, letter to Bernheim-Jeune, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Monet by himself: Paintings, drawings, pastels, letters, London, 1989, p. 246).
And to Durand-Ruel he was positively apocalyptic:
'For a moment I thought that my whole garden was lost, which was a great sorrow to me. Now the water-level is slowly falling, and although I am losing many plants, perhaps it will not be the great disaster that I had feared. But what a calamity! What misery!' (Monet to Durand-Ruel, quoted in Wildenstein, op.cit., 1996, Vol. I, p. 392).
It is telling that, in response to his despair, the artist's friend Octave Mirbeau wrote what were clearly intended to be words of consolation pointing out a faint silver lining to this cloud of doom:
'It will never be over. I am beginning to think it is the end of the world. If we survive, ah! the work you will have! But more work, I think, than real loss. If your plants have not been uprooted, they will survive... Has the tall bamboo been damaged? If not, just wait and see how it grows! So do not lose heart, my dear Monet, until you know what the situation really is' (Mirbeau, quoted in ibid., p. 392).
Luckily, as can be seen in Les arceaux de roses, Giverny, the damage was temporary, although it meant the loss of plants and trees, some of which had to be cut down in response to the storm and its effects.
Monet's pessimism about the storm was in many ways a response to his general depression in 1911 and 1912, much of which was caused by the gradually declining health and then death of his wife Alice. After a lingering illness, she had died in 1911, leaving the artist desolate and distraught. Several times, he claimed that he could see no point in continuing to paint, a telling indication of his gloom. It is important to note his attachment, described above, to his garden by 1912 as an indication of the fact that he was beginning once more to conceive of working again. 1913 saw a return to work that coincided with a massive improvement in his formerly fragile health. It is in part for this reason that his rare paintings of 1913, such as Les arceaux de roses, Giverny, mark such a joyous return to form for the artist. And this return to form would in many ways be the story of the following years, not least in the monumental series of Nymphéas housed in the Orangerie in Paris.
Like the Nymphéas, which were donated to the French State by the artist, Les arceaux de roses, Giverny's own provenance reflects the generosity of the artist, who donated it for auction in order to benefit the Fraternité des Artistes in 1917. It then passed through the hands of Jean d'Alayer, who possessed a fantastic collection of Impressionist masterpieces as befitting the fact that he married into the family of the eminent dealer, Durand-Ruel.