Claude Monet’s famous lily pond in his garden at Giverny provided the subject matter for most of his major later works, paintings whose significance in the development of modern art is now fully recognised. The theme of waterlilies, that became not only Monet’s most celebrated series of paintings, but possibly one of the most iconic images of the Impressionist movement, dominated the artist’s work over several decades, recording the changes in his style and his constant pictorial innovations. The present monumental oil, which dates from 1914-17, is a powerful testament to Monet’s enduring vision and creativity in his mature years. This work and the other in this series led to the celebrated 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).
By 1890, Monet had become financially successful enough to buy the house and a 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, in which waterlilies gradually matured (fig. 3). 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 told 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 waterlilies 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 colours 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 the present work, Monet juxtaposes the waterlilies floating on the water surface with the grass that appears to be hanging from above them. Moving towards an increasingly abstract treatment of space, the artist focused on the effect of light and shadow on the water surface, blurring the boundary between the sun-drenched grass and its shadow. He also eliminated the horizon line, thus minimising the illusion of perspective. The only sense of depth is derived from the long grass that seems to burst into the scene from an invisible source outside the scope of the canvas. The surface of the canvas becomes a two-dimensional pattern, contrasting the round and oval shapes of the waterlilies with the elongated blades of grass. The elimination of the horizon line led Monet towards a transition from the horizontal format to the square canvases, that he started using after the turn of the century.
In 1914, Monet began to conceive of his Les Grandes décorations
(fig. 4), a sequence of monumental paintings of the gardens that would take his depictions of the waterlily pond in a dramatic new direction. The artist envisaged an environment in which the viewer would be completely surrounded by the paintings. He wrote: ‘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).
Writing about Monet’s creative outburst from 1914, Daniel Wildenstein observed: ‘His activity was dominated by the desire to create a major set of decorative paintings, the Water-lilies Decoration
, for which he had a special studio built quite early on. This enabled him to work every year during the off-season on his large panels, the preparatory studies for which, despite their considerable size, were painted from life in spring and summer, thanks to an arrangement of ropes and stakes which kept them steady (J.P. Hoschedé, 1960, vol. I, p. 133). A short rest period in early October generally marked the transition between the two campaigns. However, before the end of World War I, the studies ceased to absorb all of the artist’s working hours and he returned to painting at the easel as well. Many of these easel paintings were on larger canvases than those he had used previously’ (D. Wildenstein, op. cit
., 1996, p. 839). In the later part of his career, it was Monet’s intention to depict atmosphere and colour rather than to record a specific scene; working towards this goal, he reached a level of abstraction that was to play a profound role on the development of later twentieth century art.