Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, Zurich
Emile & Alma Staub-Terlinden, Männedorf (acquired from the above on November 21, 1917)
Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., New York (acquired from the above in 1938)
Acquired from the above in 1955
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Monet, 1914, no. 15 or 19
Zürich, Kunsthaus Zürich, Französische Kunst des 19 und 20 Jahrhunderts, 1917, no. 134-22
Paris, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1938, no. 66
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., Claude Monet, 1945, no. 74
Lionello Venturi, Les Archives de l'Impressionnisme, Paris & New York, 1939, vol. I, mentioned pp. 422-425
Denis Rouart, Jean-Dominique Rey & Robert Maillard, Nymphéas ou les miroirs du temps, Paris, 1972, illustrated p. 157
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet, biographie et catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Lausanne & Paris, 1985, no. 1679, illustrated p. 213, mentioned in letter nos. 1885, 1887, 1888 & pieces justificatives, no. 263
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet, catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. IV, no. 1679, illustrated p. 761
Denis Rouart & Jean-Dominique Rey, Monet Water Lilies - The Complete Series, Paris, 2008, illustrated p. 122
By 1890, Monet had become financially successful enough to buy the house and large garden at Giverny, which he had rented since 1883. With enormous vigour and determination, he swiftly set about transforming the gardens and creating a large pond. There were initially a number of complaints about Monet’s plans to divert the river Epte through his garden in order to feed his new pond, which he had to address in his application to the Préfet of the Eure department: "I would like to point out to you that, under the pretext of public salubrity, the aforementioned opponents have in fact no other goal than to hamper my projects out of pure meanness, as is frequently the case in the country where Parisian landowners are involved […] I would also like you to know that the aforementioned cultivation of aquatic plants will not have the importance that this term implies and that it will be only a pastime, for the pleasure of the eye, and for motifs to paint" (quoted in Michael Hoog, Musée de l’Orangerie. The Nymphéas of Claude Monet, Paris, 2006, p. 119). Once the garden was designed according to the artist’s vision, it offered a boundless source of inspiration, and provided the major themes that dominated the last three decades of Monet’s career. Towards the end of his life, he obfuscated his initial intentions, perhaps with a mind to his own mythology, telling a visitor to his studio: "It took me some time to understand my water lilies. I planted them purely for pleasure; I grew them with no thought of painting them. 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 Stephan Koja, Claude Monet (exhibition catalogue), Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 1996, p. 146).
Once discovered, the subject of water lilies offered a wealth of inspiration that Monet went on to explore for several decades. His carefully designed garden presented the artist with a micro-cosmos in which he could observe and paint the changes in weather, season and time of day, as well as the ever-changing colors and patterns. John House wrote: "The water garden in a sense bypassed Monet’s long searches of earlier years for a suitable subject to paint. Designed and constantly supervised by the artist himself, and tended by several gardeners, it offered him a motif that was at the same time natural and at his own command - nature re-designed by a temperament. Once again Monet stressed that his real subject when he painted was the light and weather" (J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, Newhaven, 1986, p. 31).
In 1908 Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier visited Monet at Giverny and gave a thoughtful description of Monet’s working methods for the review Fermes et Châteaux: "In this mass of intertwined verdure and foliage […] the lilies spread their round leaves and dot the water with a thousand red, pink, yellow and white flowers […]. The Master often comes here, where the bank of the pond is bordered with thick clumps of irises. His swift, short strokes place brushloads of luminous colour as he moves from one place to another, according to the hour […]. The canvas he visited this morning at dawn is not the same as the canvas we find him working on in the afternoon. In the morning, he records the blossoming of the flowers, and then, once they begin to close, he returns to the charms of the water itself and its shifting reflections, the dark water that trembles beneath the somnolent leaves of the water-lilies" (quoted in Daniel Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 2003, p. 384). The unending variety of forms and tones that the ponds provided allowed Monet to work consistently on a number of canvases at the same time.
The spectacular field of color presented by Nymphéas is created to elicit an instinctive emotional response rather than to record a particular location, temporal conditions or natural phenomena. Over the course of three crucial years, from 1905 until 1907, Monet experimented with different approaches and painting techniques. The paintings from 1905 were thickly painted with a dense surface and horizontally oriented, whilst those from 1906 interplay between rich impastoed areas with finer washes. In 1907 Monet used his canvases vertically and experimented with longer brushstrokes. Another important feature of the works from this period is how Monet removed the perspectival elements that had existed in his earlier renditions of the lily pond, so the banks and borders which were sometimes featured no longer informed the scope or scale of the works. Since the birth of Impressionism, Monet’s primary concern had been the sensation of color and its properties and these technical innovations underwrote his highly advanced theoretical approach. In Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the narrator goes to visit a fictional painter called Elstir who was based in part on Monet. Here, in the studio the narrator begins to see Elstir’s new purpose for art. "But I was able to discern from these that the charm of each of them lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the things represented in it, analogous to what in poetry we call metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew. The names which denote things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with itself" (quoted in Charles Prendergast, The Triangle of Representation, New York, 2000, p. 154). Monet’s Nymphéas fulfils the promise of Elstir’s intentions, managing to transcend paintings traditional, illusory function in order to create a new sense of purpose for art.
Even in his earliest depictions of the Nymphéas Monet embraced a monumental scope, which would be most fully realised in his Les Grandes décorations, a sequence of monumental paintings of the gardens that took his depictions of the water lily pond in a dramatic new direction - the artist envisaged an environment in which the viewer would be completely surrounded by the paintings. In 1909 Monet was quoted by Claude-Roger Marx outlining his vision: "The temptation came to me to use this water-lily theme for the decoration of a drawing room: carried along the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity, it would produce the illusion of an endless whole, of a watery surface with no horizon and no shore; nerves exhausted by work would relax there, following the restful example of those still waters, a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium" (quoted in Claude Roger-Marx, "Les Nymphéas de Monet," in Le Cri de Paris, Paris, 23rd May 1909). The present work and the others in this series eventually led to Les Grandes décorations, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, which are according to Daniel Wildenstein "the crowning glory of Monet’s career, in which all his work seemed to culminate"(D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 840).
The present work was included in the seminal exhibition held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1909, which the artist entitled Les nymphéas, série de paysages d'eau par Claude Monet. This long awaited show had been planned for many years, and delayed by Monet’s prevarication and his lengthy trip to Venice earlier in the year. The artist insisted on payment for almost all the works to be included in the show, resulting in Durand-Ruel, not having the funds to bankroll the whole exhibition, having to jointly acquire the pictures with the Bernheim-Jeune brothers. Monet and the dealers chose 48 canvases all of the same subject which were shown in three rooms and drew the attention and admiration of countless collectors, as Daniel Wildenstein notes: "These works perfectly matched the aesthetic of the first years of the 20th Century’ (D. Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 2003, p. 388). Their natural grace and exuberance related to the Art Nouveau. Writing on the exhibition at the time, Jean-Louis Vaudoyer stated: "None of the earlier series… can, in our opinion, compare with these fabulous Water Landscapes, which are holding spring captive in the Durand-Ruel Gallery. Water that is pale blue and dark blue, water like liquid gold, treacherous green water reflects the sky and the banks of the pond and among the reflections pale water lilies and bright water lilies open and flourish. Here, more than ever before, painting approached music and poetry. There is in these paintings an inner beauty that is both plastic and ideal" (J.-L. Vaudoyer in La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, 15th May 1909, p. 159, translated from French).
The lasting legacy of Monet’s late work is most clearly seen in the art of the Abstract Expressionists, such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis, whose bold color planes and rejection of figuration is foreshadowed by the Nymphéas. In recent years Gerhard Richter's monumental abstract canvases, such as Cage 6 from 2006, have carried on the tradition established by his artistic forebears. As Jean-Dominique Rey writes: "Late Monet is a mirror in which the future can be read. The generation that, in about 1950, rediscovered it, also taught us how to see it for ourselves. And it was Monet who allowed us to recognize this generation. Osmosis occurred between them. The old man, mad about colour, drunk with sensation, fighting with time so as to abolish it and place it in the space that sets it free, atomizing it into a sumptuous bouquet and creating a complete film of a ‘beyond painting’, remains of consequential relevance today" (J.-D. Rey, op. cit., Paris, 2008, p. 116).
The first known owners of the present work were Emil and Alma Staub-Terlinden of Männedorf. Together they amassed one of the finest private collections of Impressionist art in Switzerland, much of it purchased over a short period of time around the end of the 1910s. Emil Staub inherited his families’ leather-working business and factories in 1890, and the substantial wealth that it provided allowed him and his wife to pursue the very best paintings by the preeminent artists of the day. Regular visits to Paris were taken up by trips to the galleries of Durand-Ruel, Bernheim-Jeune and Paul Rosenberg, often accompanied by the Swiss painter Carl Montag who acted as an intermediary between French artists and dealers and a number of Francophile Swiss collectors. Aside from the present work, the Staub-Terlindens acquired other highly important paintings, such as Cézanne’s La bouteille de menthe and Manet’s Des huîtres both now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare, arrivée d’un train in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. The present work remained in the Staub-Terlinden’s possession for many years, before being subsequently acquired by the present owner in 1955.
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