Signed and dated Claude Monet 1908 (lower right)
Georges Bernheim, Paris (acquired from the artist in 1909)
Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (1923)
Henri Canonne, Paris (purchased from the above in 1924)
Jacques Canonne, Paris (Paris, Hôtel Drouot, June 5, 1942, lot 21)
Etienne Bignou, Paris (acquired at the above sale)
Dr. Guggenheim, Switzerland (by 1946)
Private Collection (acquired in Paris in 1946 and sold: Sotheby's, London, November 29, 1988, lot 42)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Les Nymphéas: Série de Paysages d'Eau par Claude Monet, 1909, no. 46
Basel, Kunstmuseum, Claude Monet: Nymphéas, 1986, no. 28
Louis Vauxcelles, Histoire générale de l'art français, Paris 1922, illustrated p. 159
Arsène Alexandre, La Collection Canonne, Paris 1930, discussed p. 44
Lionello Venturi, Les Archives de l'Impressionnisme, Paris 1939, vol. I, discussed pp. 421-422
Oscar Reutersward, Monet, Stockholm, 1948, illustrated p. 251
Denis Rouart, Jean-Dominique Rey and Robert Maillard, Monet, Nymphéas, Paris, 1972, illustrated pp. 41 and 164
Joel Isaacson, Claude Monet, Observation and Reflection, Oxford 1978, no. 134, illustrated p. 179
Michel Hoog, Monet, Paris 1978, no. 76, illustrated
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie et catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Lausanne and Paris 1985, no. 1728, illustrated p. 229 (see letters nos. 1885, 1887 and 1888)
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet, vie et oeuvre, vol. V, Lausanne and Paris, 1991, no. 1728, listed p. 53
Daniel Wildenstein, Monet, Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, no. 1728, illustrated p. 799
Pierre Georgel, Monet Waterlilies, Paris, 1999, illustrated p. 48
"It is no coincidence that Monet's most profound paintings should be of water, a theme which had fascinated him throughout his life. Water as a shapeless, colorless, constantly moving element was the perfect medium for Monet's exploration of light, for its surface is composed of countless, ceaselessly moving planes into which colored light sinks or in which it is reflected. Monet was always fascinated by the real and the unreal and their reflections ... Monet himself is reported to have said: 'The essence of the motif is the mirror of water whose appearance changes at every moment because of the areas of sky reflected in it ... The passing cloud, the freshening breeze, the seed which is poised and which then falls, the wind which blows and then suddenly drops, the light which dims and then brightens again, all these things ... transform the color and disturb the planes of water.' It is no wonder that Monet spent longer on this series than on any earlier one and frequently despaired of representing the complexities and subtleties of what he saw. He had never worked with such concentration on a single motif" (Claude Monet, Painter of Light (exhibition catalogue), Auckland City Art Gallery, 1985, pp. 27, 29-30).
Between 1903 and 1908 Monet worked on an extended series of waterlilies in a variety of formats and compositions. The earliest include a glimpse of the banks of the pond usually in the background, but sometime in 1905 he restricted his views to the surface of the pond. Monet's interest in the theme can be traced to at least 1890 when he wrote to his friend Gustave Geffroy, the art critic who later became his biographer: "I have again taken up things impossible to do: water with grasses swaying on the bottom ... it's wonderful to see, but it's maddening to want to paint it. But then I'm always working on such things" (Gustave Geffroy, Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, Paris, 1922, p. 188).
Of the many series that Monet completed during his late career, his Nymphéas are undoubtedly the most popular. The present work is among a handful of waterlilies executed in 1908 that were consistent in format and style (see figs. 3-5). The allure of these pictures lies with their remarkable ability to capture the interplay of light reflected and refracted on the surface of the water. As a series, they demonstrate how the artist could brilliantly resolve complex perspectival problems while maintaining the serenity and delicacy of his compositions. In this picture, horizontal patches of flowers and lily pads are juxtaposed with undulating reflections of the world above the water, forms that are perceived as the vertical axis of the composition. Because the reflection of the sky and the trees have almost as much visual presence in the picture as the lilies floating in the surface of the pond, Monet effectively recreates the dimensionality and atmosphere of this site at Giverny.
Monet's extensive series of Nymphéas paintings was a totally new departure in his art, although it does relate to the Morning on the Seine series of 1896-1897. Critics wrote of the 1903-1908 group of Nymphéas in such laudatory terms as "an exceptional tour de force" or as "unique poetry." Monet himself clarified their meaning by saying that: "The water flowers are far from being the whole scene; really, they are just the accompaniment. The essence of the motif is the mirror of water whose appearance alters at every moment, thanks to the patches of sky which are reflected in it, and which give it its light and movement" (quoted in Thiébaut-Sisson, Revue de l'Art, Paris, 1927, pp. 44-45).
In the early spring of 1907 Monet wrote to Durand-Ruel suggesting an exhibition of his recent water lily paintings. However, his work did not progress to his satisfaction and having already destroyed at least thirty canvases, the exhibition planned for May of that year was postponed to 1908. Again in the spring of 1908 Monet, plagued with doubts and suffering from fatigue and dizziness, delayed the opening of the exhibition for another year. Finally, on 28 January 1909, he wrote to Durand-Ruel, "You can absolutely count on me. I will be ready as my journey to Venice had the benefit of making me see my canvases in a better light. I have put aside all those which do not merit being exhibited and the rest will make, I believe, a far from banal exhibition."
This exhibition of forty-eight paintings, including the present work, opened on May 6, 1909 and was an unprecedented public and critical success. For example, the critic Arsène Alexandre wrote in Le Figaro on May 7 that "Claude Monet has painted the surfaces of the pond where water lilies flourish in a Japanese garden. But he has only painted this surface, seen in perspective, and he has given these pictures no horizon and their beginning and their end is only the limit of their frame, but a limit which imagination can easily extend as it pleases. Therefore, the only elements of the picture are the acquatic mirrors on which leaves and flowers are applied - and then the draped and infinitely variable reflection and the surrounding landscape and the sky above us. In one word these are paintings of reflections mixed with real objects, but harmonising with them in marvellous and capricious diversity. The most unexpected and the truest effects are not even repeated once in this extensive series which consist of no less than forty pictures" (Arsène Alexandre, Le Figaro, Paris, May 7, 1909).
The artist's overarching goals in the 1903-1908 series were clearly defined in an essay that Roger Marx wrote at the time of the exhibition. Marx quotes Monet as having said, "One moment the temptation came to me to use the Water Lilies theme for the decoration of a room: carried the length of the walls, completely covering the wall panels in its unity, it would have created the illusion of a whole without end, of a wave with neither horizon nor shore; nerves overstrained by work would have been soothed there, in harmony with the restful example of these still waters, and, for the person who might have lived there this room would have offered the refuge of peaceful meditation in the center of a flowering aquarium" (Roger Marx, "Les 'Nympheas' de M. Claude Monet," La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1909, p. 539).
The critic François Thiébault-Sisson met with Monet at his home in Giverny in 1918, and discussed with the artist his creative process for the painting of these works. Monet explained to him, "The basic element of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance changes at every instant because of the way bits of the sky are reflected in it, giving it life and movement. The passing cloud, the fresh breeze, the threat or arrival of a rainstorm, the sudden fierce gust of wind, the fading or suddenly refulgent light - all these things, unnoticed by the untutored eye, create changes in color and alter the surface of the water. It can be smooth, unruffled, and then, suddenly, there will be a ripple, a movement that breaks up into almost imperceptible wavelets or seems to crease the surface slowly, making it look like a wide piece of watered silk" (quoted in François Thiébault-Sisson, "Claude Monet's Water Lilies," June 1927 and reprinted in Charles F. Stuckey, Monet, A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 289).
Fig. 1, The artist in his garden at Giverny, June 1926, photograph by Nickolas Muray, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fig. 2, The artist painting one of his Nymphéas compositions, accompanied by his wife Blanche Hoschedé-Monet, July 1915. Photograph by Martin Bühler, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Philippe Piguet Collection.
Fig. 3, Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1908, oil on canvas, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
Fig. 4, Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1908, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 5, Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1908, oil on canvas, National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff
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