The theme of waterlilies—which became not only Monet’s most celebrated series of paintings, but 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 large-scale oil, dates from the last great period of these experiments as the artist moved further and further towards the realm of abstraction.
‘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. […] 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.’
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, in which waterlilies gradually matured. 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. As John House writes: ‘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’ (John House, Monet: Nature into Art, Newhaven, 1986, p. 31).
‘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 as of colours and tones, less of an old-fashioned flower garden than a colour garden, so to speak, one that achieves an effect not entirely nature’s because it was planted so that only the flowers with matching colours should bloom at the same time […]. 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 present work belongs to the group of Nymphéas that Monet painted during the First World War as he worked towards his Grandes Décorations, a sequence of monumental paintings of the gardens that would take his depictions of the waterlily pond in dramatic new directions (fig. 2). 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’, Le Cri de Paris, Paris, 23rd May 1909).
Daniel Wildenstein explored the artist’s earlier focus on a fully immersive environment of water imagery in his 1996 catalogue raisonné for the artist: ‘We know this from a letter addressed to G. Geffroy on 30 April 1914. Monet was impatient, having made a “false start” due to “a deterioration in the weather”; “I feel I am undertaking something very important. You will see some old attempts at what I have in mind, which I came across in the basement. Clemenceau has seen them and was bowled over. Anyway, you will see them soon, I hope.” These lines put an end to all previous speculation on the origins of the Grand Decorations: it was chance, or at least a lucky foray in the storeroom, which resurrected the forgotten ﬁrst attempts. These were almost certainly the canvases which M. Guillemot had mentioned in 1898. Seeing them again, Monet resolved to exorcise this long-standing temptation by undertaking a large-scale decorative ensemble. If we exempt the few old pictures found in his cellars, we can say with certainty the great work that Monet decided upon on the eve of war, and which was to occupy the remaining years of his life, was begun only in May 1914. As for Clemenceau’s often evoked intervention at this decisive moment – “Go ahead and stop procrastinating,” “you can still do it, so do it” – the letter to Geffroy clearly conﬁrms Clemenceau’s role and his own account of it’ (D. Wildenstein, Monet, Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Cologne, 1996, pp. 402-03).
‘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.’
Rendered in vivid blues, purples and greens, the present work is one of only a small number of canvases from 1914-17 to be painted in the vertical format, an arrangement that the artist would continue to explore as the decade wore on, particularly in Coin du basin aux nymphéas (fig. 4). Indeed there is a connection with that slightly later group of paintings which show a small corner of the pond with the rich foliage of the garden behind. In the present work, Monet depicts not only the waterlilies floating on the surface of the water but the hanging branches of a willow reflected in that surface. This creates an extraordinary effect; with the tree necessarily depicted upside down, orientation is redundant, so too is depth. The lilies are painted over the willow, but the richly textured use of paint and gestural brushstrokes merge them together as Monet moves increasingly away from a sense of subject into an exploration of pure colour and form.
These formal experiments are Monet’s enduring legacy. 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, Monet Water Lilies. The Complete Series, Paris, 2008, p. 116).
‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now; the dormant and fertile waters completely cover the field of the canvas […]. Certainty becomes conjecture, and the enigma of mystery opens the mind to the world of illusion and the infinity of dreams.’