Depicting a brightly colored bouquet of chrysanthemums in a blown glass vase, the present canvas is one of some twenty floral still-lifes that Monet painted between 1878 and 1882. Wildenstein has suggested that it may be the painting of flowers that Monet mentioned in two letters to the dealer Durand-Ruel written from his home at Poissy in November of 1882 (Letters 301 and 302). Although Monet turned to still-life only intermittently during his long career, his achievement in the genre has been widely recognized. John House has written, "Monet's explorations of this subject include some of the most lavish still-lifes produced by the Impressionist group, and some of the most radical challenges to a long-standing still-life tradition" (Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 43). An avid gardener throughout his life, Monet was particularly drawn to floral compositions. Indeed, he once declared, "I perhaps owe it to flowers for having become a painter" (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 178). Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have commented, "It is particularly in Monet's still-lifes that we recognize what it was that Van Gogh learned from him: not simply the powerful and expressive palette but also a quality of impassioned drawing that is much more apparent in the flower paintings--forms painted at the range of stereoscopic vision, therefore more tactile--than in most of his landscapes. In these sumptuous flower paintings, the drawing and color are carried along together with tremendous impetus. His love for flowers is unmistakable. The character, the quality of growth, the specific rhythm of each bouquet is given its due" (ibid., pp. 214-215).
The still-lifes that Monet produced between 1878 and 1882, while he was living first at Vétheuil and then at Poissy, represent the artist's most sustained exploration of the genre in his entire career. He had experimented with still-life on several occasions during the 1860s, but abandoned it during the years that he spent at Argenteuil (1872-1878), concentrating instead on landscape. He returned to still-life in earnest following his move to Vétheuil, spurred at least in part by commercial interests. The years at Vétheuil and Poissy were marked by great financial hardship for the artist, and his still-life paintings, particularly the floral compositions, were readily salable and yielded higher prices during this period than his landscapes. Several of the still-lifes sold for five hundred francs each, while at least two netted Monet as much as seven hundred, more than the yearly rent on his house at Vétheuil. Charles Stuckey has declared, "Financially speaking, landscape painter Monet was saved by his work in still-life" (Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, p. 56). Following his move from Poissy to Giverny in 1883, Monet's interest in still-life again waned. His only major efforts in the genre after this were a set of thirty-six canvases commissioned by Durand-Ruel in 1882-1885 to decorate the six double doors of his drawing-room (Wildenstein, nos. 919-954) and a group of four large paintings of chrysanthemums dated 1896-1897 (Wildenstein, nos. 1495-1498). Monet continued to take inspiration from flowers throughout his career, however. One of his first concerns upon settling into his new home at Giverny was to get the gardens in order, and the water-lily pond that he built there became his principal subject for painting during the final two decades of his life.
Although commercial concerns played an important role in Monet's renewed interest in still-life at Vétheuil and Poissy, they were not the sole impetus. Monet included a comparatively large number of still-lifes in exhibitions in the early 1880s, indicating a desire to bring his aesthetic achievement in the genre to the attention of critics and the public. Although some of his still-lifes from 1878-1882 are fairly traditional, with restrained brushwork and artfully arranged compositions, other examples, including the present canvas, are more innovative. Abundant bouquets of flowers are arranged in bold patterns that give a pretext for virtuoso displays of colored brushwork, creating a rich weave of color and texture that virtually fills the canvas. House has written, "Monet's still-lifes of around 1880... systematically undermined the conventions of the then-dominant Chardin tradition. Within that tradition, the objects in still-lifes were presented in clear, orderly groupings, and firmly grounded on the surfaces on which they stood. Monet played down the physicality of the objects in favor of emphasizing their optical effect, with the informality of their grouping suggesting that this effect has been rapidly perceived, rather than carefully ordered. The pictures themselves, of course, are as elaborately contrived and organized as their predecessors; it was by his calculating rejection of the tradition that Monet sought to give them their sense of immediacy" (op. cit., p. 42).
Monet seems to have had a particular predilection for chrysanthemums, the subject of the present painting. Chrysanthemums, which had originally been imported from China in the eighteenth century, were still associated with East Asia in Monet's day, and the artist owned at least one Japanese print (from Hokusai's series of Large Flowers) that depicted the blossoms. Following a visit to Giverny, Gustave Geffroy explicitly mentioned the presence of chrysanthemums in Monet's garden there: "As soon as you push the little entrance gate, you think, in almost all seasons, that you are entering a paradise. It is the colorful and fragrant kingdom of flowers. Each month is adorned with its flowers, from the lilacs and irises to the chrysanthemums and nasturtiums" (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., p. 206). Monet's corpus of still-lifes from Vétheuil and Poissy includes four additional paintings of chrysanthemums, each depicting a single, profuse bunch of flowers in an ornate bowl or vase (Wildenstein, nos. 492, 492a, 634, 635; Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Private collections; fig. 1). He also featured chrysanthemums in three of the panels that he painted to decorate Durand-Ruel's dining room (Wildenstein, nos. 925, 927, 947; fig. 2), and he depicted two bouquets of the bushy blossoms in one of his rare still-lifes from the late 1880s (Wildenstein, no. 1212; Private Collection). Most notably, he chose chrysanthemums for his last significant effort in still-life, a group of four paintings from 1896-1897 in which the canvas is covered entirely by a vibrant, virtuoso display of flowers and foliage that anticipates the "all-over" composition of his celebrated late water-lily paintings (Wildenstein, nos. 1495-1498; fig. 3).
Another Impressionist artist with a well-documented love of chrysanthemums was Gustave Caillebotte. Monet and Caillebotte were close friends and fellow gardeners, and Monet often sought Caillebotte's advice about horticulture, including information on purveyors of chrysanthemums. Monet also spoke of his admiration for Caillebotte's art: "In still-life, he has achieved pieces which are worthy of Manet's and Renoir's greatest successes" (quoted in J. House, op. cit., p. 43). Around 1882, Caillebotte acquired one of Monet's chrysanthemum compositions from Vétheuil (Wildenstein, no. 635), and he began to paint his own floral still-lifes shortly thereafter. In 1893, the year before his death, Caillebotte made six paintings of chrysanthemums (Berhaut, nos. 484-489; fig. 4). Three of these depict the blossoms arranged in vases, following the example of Monet's still-lifes from Vétheuil and Poissy; the remaining three show the entire canvas filled with flowers in a way that anticipates Monet's late Chrysanthème compositions. Caillebotte gave one of the latter paintings to Monet as a gift, an eloquent expression of his admiration for his friend (Wildenstein, no. 484; fig. 4). In 1896-1897, Caillebotte is likely to have been on Monet's mind due to the controversy surrounding his bequest to the French state of sixty-seven Impressionist paintings, including sixteen by Monet. House has suggested that Monet's four paintings of chrysanthemums from these years may indeed have been intended as a tribute to the artist's recently deceased friend (ibid., p. 43).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Chrysanthèmes, 1878. Sold, Christie's, New York, 9 November 1994, lot 10.
Barcode: 2660 3001
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Vase de chrysanthèmes, 1883. Sold, Christie's, New York, 8 November 2006, lot 15.
Barcode: Transfer 1722, Lot 15
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Chrysanthèmes, 1897. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2007, lot 8.
Barcode: Transfer 1900, lot 8
(fig. 4) Gustave Caillebotte, Chrysanthèmes blancs et jaunes, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers, 1893. Musée Marmottan, Paris (ex-Collection Claude Monet).
Barcode: 2660 2998