Claude Monet and his daughter Blanche Hoschede with Georges Clemenceau in Giverny circa 1921. Photo by Apic/Getty Images.
NEW YORK - I have often thought that one of the distinguishing characteristics of a great artist is how they end their career. While the slightest fraction creates a body of work that will last forever, the vast majority simply fades away. Even amongst those remembered many were present at the inception of a movement, such as Pointillism, Fauvism, Surrealism, when they caught the wave and created works that were authentically avant-garde. They just didn’t, however, continue to innovate. I have heard that in certain creative fields, peaks in a career often occur at early ages – mathematicians, musicians, chess players, etc. We have the benefit today of time, which has sorted things and, in retrospect, made very clear who were the towering artists amongst the innumerable others; those who sustained their creative force and vision. In his most deeply moving, end-of-life self-portraits, no artist was ever Rembrandt’s equal. Nor did the greatest majority of artists find their way to the brilliant solution to the endless challenges of the integration of form, color and line that Matisse found with his late cut-outs.
I have always believed – and I am far from alone – that Monet’s late paintings based on the water lily pond and gardens at his home in Giverny, are probably one of the most radical and progressive bodies of work ever created by an artist at the end of his career. The elimination of horizon lines and distinctions between fore and background in most of these paintings led Monet to the very precipice – and often over it – of abstraction. In their absence of perspective lines and markers of clear spatial recessions, his paintings after 1900 are as much about the surface and color as the imagery.
The Japanese inspired bridge in Monet's Garden in Giverny France. © Proehl Studios/Corbis.
With regard to the above, I think back to my visit to Paul Hayes Tucker’s brilliant exhibition, Monet in the 20th Century, in which the present work was included (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998). I spent as much of my time just a few nose lengths away from each painting (with the guards keeping a wary eye on me) as I did from ten steps back. Some of the surfaces were composed with liquid, long strokes applied so quickly that each swipe of pigment picked up and carried traces of the still wet underlying layers; threads of color intermingling across the canvas. In other works, Monet allowed layers to dry and then added successive applications of paint, each accumulating atop the dried ridges and chance formations of its predecessor.
Claude Monet’s Le Pont Japonais, circa 1918-24. Estimate $12,000,000-18,000,000.
Le Pont Japonais, the work we will be offering on May 7th in the Impressionist and Modern Art sale, unquestionably belongs to the latter. The surface is so richly encrusted; it takes on the textures of a coral reef or bubbly face of volcanic rock. In my nearly 30 years here, I have rarely seen a painting with such a rich, seductive surface. The beauty of the work however doesn’t rest on the surface alone. As you take steps back, the form of the bridge, fauna and plane of the water slowly reveal themselves. They are elusive though and remain just beyond our visual grasp. This painting is imbued with an abstract sensibility decades before the term abstraction was elevated with a capital ‘A,’ as the identifier of an art movement. In fact, during the post-war period of Abstract Expressionism, supporters and defenders often referred back to late Monet as a foundation and inspiration.
Detail of Claude Monet’s Le Pont Japonais, circa 1918-24. Estimate $12,000,000-18,000,000.
One of the great joys of my job here is that I don’t have to stand on a line to see a great painting. I can be alone with an artwork. When studying it closely to review the condition, I can get close to the painting, close enough to almost still smell the wet paint, close enough with a magnifying glass to see into the peaks and curls of each brushstroke. I don’t recall ever examining a painting where the surface was as rich an experience. But you don’t need to be close to the painting to enjoy it (and I’m sorry you won’t be able to get quite so close!) Taking a seat ten feet back or so is a whole other way to absorb the artwork. We are often accused here of stretching too far in far-flung comparisons of artworks and artists. But it is no stretch to say that watching the forms and colors emerge and recede in Le Pont Japonais is like the effect of being before a glorious Rothko. It reminds me that as much as art and styles change, there is and has always been the immutable challenge for every artist of every age of putting this material substance of paint on a two-dimensional surface of canvas to create the most intangible sensations of light and space, as well as tangible three-dimensional form. I think with Le Pont Japonais, Monet has met and conquered that challenge.