Claude Monet - Le Bassin aux nymphéas
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The culmination of a lifetime’s study of nature, Monet’s epoque-defining series Nymphéas are among the most celebrated works of the Impressionist era. Painted in 1917-19, Le Bassin aux nymphéas comes from the revolutionary body of late work which propelled the artist toward the realm of abstraction and inspired generations of painters to follow.
Monet’s beloved water gardens at Giverny take pride of place in the present work and served as the inspiration for the iconic series which defined the artist’s last two decades. Begun in the 1890s with his early Japanese Bridge scenes (see fig. 1) and carried throughout the Grandes Décorations, Monet’s Nymphéas series bears witness to all manner of light and season but more importantly to the unprecedented and intrepid artistic exploration of a singular motif.
Monet’s Giant Water Lilies is one of the Finest Ever to Appear at Auction
In 1883, the artist rented a property in Giverny called Le Presoir. After years of financial insecurity in the pioneering years of Impressionism, the artist had at last achieved resounding success and by 1890 was able to purchase the estate. As a testament to his increased station in life and stature in the arts, he built a two-story studio with high ceilings and sweeping skylights with space on the ground level for the trappings of the leisure class like a darkroom and garage for his motorcars. Years later with the design of his Grandes Décorations in mind, Monet built his ultimate atelier (see fig. 2). Constructed in 1915, the vast space reached heights of nearly fifty feet and was flooded with natural light from the sweeping windows and skylights. Inside, Monet utilized a custom pulley system which allowed the artist the utmost control over the amount and quality of light filtering in. For the painter who made his name for his work en plein air, the studio provided a sanctuary for finishing compositions begun out of doors or in inclement weather and sheltered the monumental canvases of his late oeuvre.
“I can someday see M. Claude Monet’s garden, I feel sure that I shall see something that is not so much a garden of flowers a of colors and tones, less of an old-fashioned flower garden than a color garden, so to speak, one that achieves an effect not entirely nature’s because it was planted so that only the flowers with matching colors should bloom at the same time. Harmonize in an infinite stretch of blue or pink. This clearly manifest painterly intent has neutralized, to a certain extent, everything that is not the same color…The garden itself is a real transportation of art, rather than a model for a painting, for its composition is right there in nature itself and comes to life through the eyes of a great painter.”
The artist’s impressive succession of studios was rivaled only by the sprawling and expertly designed landscape which surrounded the property. In 1893 he began to construct his now-famous water gardens and lily pond, fed by water from a nearby river. An avid gardener for much of his life, Monet cultivated a botanical paradise at Giverny designed around his aesthetic and painterly concerns. Constantly supervised by the artist himself and tended to by an extensive staff, Monet’s gardens provided an endless font of inspiration, allowing the painter to record the changing effects of light and weather from myriad vantage points along his property. During 1901-02, Monet enlarged the pond and replanted the edges with bamboo, rhododendron, and blossoming Japanese apple and cherry trees, all of which feature predominantly throughout his late canvases. 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 S. Koja, Claude Monet (exhibition catalogue), Osterreichische Galerie-Belvedere, Vienna, 1996, p. 146).
The pond at the center of Le Bassin aux nymphéas was of particular concern to the Monet. Above all, the artist prized the clarity of the water and required that all stray patches of moss or grasses be removed in order to allow for maximal reflective effects. Elizabeth Murray writes of the artist’s exacting preferences: “The gardener would inspect the water lilies themselves. Any yellow leaves or spent blossoms were removed. If the plants had become dusty from vehicles passing by on the Chemin du Roy, the dirt road nearby, the gardener would take a bucket of water and rinse off the leaves and flowers, ensuring that the true colors and beauty would shine forth” (“Monet as a Garden Artist” in Monet, Late Paintings of Giverny from the Musée Marmottan, New Orleans, 1995, p. 53). Monet routinely had the surface cleaned by his gardeners via a small, flat-bottomed boat—itself reminiscent of the studio-boat he used to paint while drifting along the Seine, memorialized in his early painting (see fig. 3)
“Ever since pure painting and pure poetry have been spoken of, ever since attempts have been made in the arts to separate what is feeling, expression, music, and to isolate each from the terrestrial elements of the poem; ever since a plastic art has been sought out, a language removed from all distinct representation that moves, as the heart is moved by a piece of Persian faïence, by the charm of a rug, without taking into consideration the moral content of the thing painted or described; ever since we have tormented ourselves trying to invent an art that imitates nothing but is satisfied with evoking [and] is nothing but allusion, suggestion, symbol, I don’t believe that a formula superior to that of Claude Monet’s Nymphéas has been found.”
The term Grandes Décorations refers to Monet’s largest-scale, multi-panelled arrangements on the iconic theme of the Nymphéas. Begun in earnest in 1914, the series was designed to envelop a circular room and create a meditative and immersive experience for the viewer. The ambitious project became something of a personal quest for the artist who saw the series as the pinnacle of his artistic legacy. The massive canvases, typically measuring two meters high by at least four meters wide required the aging artist to work on a scale not attempted since even his earliest Salon-style paintings from the 1860s and demanded physical endurance as well as ample financial reserves.
"Big pictures are at their best, assertions of the artist's self-confidence and esthetic convictions, affirmations of his belief in the importance of painting itself."
Among the legions of Monet’s champions and benefactors was Georges Clémenceau, the artist’s long-time friend and the prime minister of France. During a period of wartime rations, a number of influential figures including Clémenceau had helped the artist obtain the requisite supplies for his aspirational undertaking. By the close of the war, Monet felt a great sense of pride in his country and immediately wrote to the prime minister upon hearing of the armistice on November 11, 1918. In a poignant letter congratulating the French leader, Monet stated: “Great and dear friend, I am on the verge of finishing two decorative paintings that I want to sign on the day of Victory and have you offer to the State on my behalf. It’s not much, but it’s the only way I can take part in the Victory. I want the two panels placed in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and would be happy if you chose them. I admire you and embrace you with all my heart” (quoted in Monet: The Late Years, op. cit. p. 20). In 1927, a year after Monet’s death, the gifted panels were installed in line with his directives at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris (see fig. 5).
Painted at the same time and directly related to the artist’s monumental Grandes Décorations works were a suite of slightly smaller yet equally impactful works of the same horizontal format. These canvases from 1917-19, including Le Bassin aux nymphéas, retain the awesome power of the grand panels and employ a daring color scheme and bold, expressionistic handling of paint. In the large-scale composition of the present work, Monet achieves a remarked breadth of color which seems to capture reflections in motion. The majestic willow trees which surrounded the pond—and which became the subjects of their own discrete series (see fig. 6)—here reappear in the upper right. The viewer is brought closer to the water’s surface, observing the scenery as if hovering above the shifting colors in the pond's reflections. At center is a trail of florid pink tufts, just loose enough in their handling to question their source; are these blossoms fallen upon the water’s surface or the mere echo of flowers just out of view? The lively palette of the present work stands out in contrast to the more subdued colors of his earlier water lilies and the handling is decidedly looser and more fluid, with flowers indicated by bold strokes of paint as mere suggestions of form. The vigorous brushwork heightens the sense of motion within the scene as the overlapping strokes of color and wet-on-wet paint application lends a tactility and gradient effect to the painting.
Similar paintings from the same vantage point reveal a flat aqueous expanse, set like a stage for the refracted imagery around it (see figs. 7 & 8). With the horizon omitted, the delicate interplay of reality and reflection are at times conflated or confounded. As the painter and historian William Seitz wrote, “It is surprising how little ‘aesthetic distance’ separates these images from photographic actuality; yet in their isolation from other things, and because of the mood they elicit, they seem, like pure thought or meditation, abstract” (quoted in Claude Monet: Water Lilies (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2009-10, p. 43). Exceptionally brilliant among the related body of work, Le Bassin aux nymphéas is remarkable for its bold, jewel-like facets of color and expressionistic brushwork and foreshadows the increasingly abstract compositions finished in the artist’s final years.
Despite a devoted following of many of his fellow artists, Monet's revolutionary late style did not always appeal to the critics of the era whose appetite for abstraction was tepid at best. Even the artist's friend, critic Arsène Alexandre gently conveyed the apprehension with which many of these late works were received: “The painter tried playing the prodigious virtuoso, seeing what color without form could give materially. It can go no further beyond suggestion itself” (quoted in ibid., p. 73). To that end, many of the late masterpieces from the pinnacle of the artist's career went under-appreciated and unsold in his lifetime. After Monet’s death in 1926, his son and only direct heir Michel was left with more than 500 works, including nearly 200 late paintings by the artist. Over the ensuing decades, Michel sold off the works from his father’s studio, often to dealers like Bernheim-Jeune, Paul Rosenberg and Wildenstein & Co., though few records documented such transactions.
“No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.”
While the market was not quite ripe for such grand and experimental canvases in Monet’s day, by the late 1940s a renewed appreciation for the late master was brewing. Public reception of these works began to change with the first published history on the Impressionists by the Museum of Modern Art as well as the 1949 Kunsthalle Basel exhibition. Not only did the show result in the first acquisition of a Nymphéas painting by an American collector, the renowned Walter P. Chrysler, but it also ushered in a wave of Swiss interest in the large scale works, leading to further exhibitions where younger artists like Ellsworth Kelly would first experience them. Awed by the scale, primacy of color and bold handling of the paint, Abstract Expressionists became the natural heirs to Monet's legacy in painting.
One need only to look to the Rothko Chapel (see fig. 9) to find the same meditative quality afforded by the Grand Décorations installations, while up close, Monet's directional brushstrokes speak to an entirely different genre of action painters like Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings echo the layered pigments and dynamic effects of Monet’s late work (see figs. 10 & 11). Monumental works of Joan Mitchell like City Landscape reflect the coloration and bold expressive lines first essayed in Monet’s early twentieth century canvases (see figs. 12 & 13), while works by Sam Francis and Gerhard Richter speak to the continuity and progression of the artistic tradition advanced by Monet (see fig. 14). As Richter stated, “I see myself as the heir to an enormous, great, rich culture of paintings, and of art in general, which we have lost, but which nevertheless obligates us” (quoted in Monet et l’abstraction, Paris, 2010, p. 28).
Monet: A Legacy of Abstraction
An exquisite example of Monet’s most iconic series, Le Bassin aux nymphéas stands as the quintessential embodiment of his revolutionary late oeuvre. The monumental canvas featured prominently in the critically acclaimed Monet: The Late Years exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in 2019 and remained on loan the collection thereafter. With provenance dating back to Monet’s son Michel and later held in the collection of legendary film producer Ray Stark, the present work comes to the market for the first time in nearly twenty years.