Gustave Geffroy, France (on loan from the artist between 1910 and 1913)
Michel Monet, Giverny (the artist's son)
Private Collection, France (acquired in the 1920s)
Paris, Durand-Ruel, Monet. Nymphéas, 1909, no. 4
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Claude Monet, 1931, possibly no. 110
Paris, Paul Rosenberg, Œuvres de Claude Monet de 1891 à 1912, 1936, possibly no. 23
Lionello Venturi, Les Archives de l'Impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, vol. I, pp. 421-425
Denis Rouart, Jean-Dominique Rey & Robert Maillard, Monet Nymphéas ou les miroirs du temps, Paris, 1972, illustrated p. 157
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet. Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne & Paris, 1985, vol. IV, no. 1662, illustrated p. 207
Daniel Wildenstein, Monet. Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. IV, no. 1662, illustrated in colour p. 750
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 Impressionism, dominated the artist's work over several decades, recording the changes in his style and his constant pictorial innovations. The present example, which dates from 1904, is a powerful testament to Monet's enduring vision and creativity in his mature years.
By 1890, Monet had become financially successful enough to buy the house with a large garden at Giverny, which he had rented since 1883. With great vigour and determination, he swiftly set about transforming the gardens and creating a large pond, in which waterlilies gradually matured (figs. 1 & 2). 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's primary interest is in depicting the effects of light on the surface of the pond and on the waterlilies themselves and the play of shadows and modulations of light that the weather creates. Moving towards an increasingly abstract treatment of space, Monet focused almost entirely on the water surface. He reduced the horizon to a small patch of blue pigment in the upper left corner of the composition, thus minimising the illusion of depth and perspective. The sky and the trees, placed outside the scope of the canvas, are present through their reflection in the water. The surface of the canvas thus becomes a two-dimensional pattern, acquiring a spatial continuity in which all parts of the composition are treated with equal importance. The elimination of the horizon line led Monet towards a transition from the horizontal format (fig. 3) to the square canvases (figs. 4 & 5), that he started using in the year the present work was executed.
In 1914, Monet began to conceive of his Grandes décorations (fig. 3), 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). 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.
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