- Claude Monet
- Signed Claude Monet (lower right)
- Oil on canvas
- 39 3/8 by 32 in.
- 100 by 81.3 cm
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris
Henri Canonne, Paris (acquired from the above in July 1923)
Jacques Canonne, Paris (by descent from the above)
Private Collection, Switzerland (sold: Christie’s, New York, November 7, 1995, lot 21)
Private Collection, United States (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby’s, New York, May 10, 2000, lot 22)
Acquired at the above sale
Paris, Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Claude Monet, oeuvres de 1891 à 1919, 1936, no. 28
Billings, Montana, Yellowstone Art Museum, Masterpieces from the William I. Koch Collection, 2000-01
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch, 2005
Adolphe Tabarant, “Nymphéas,” Le Bulletin de la vie artistique, Paris, September 1925, illustrated p. 376
Arsène Alexandre, La Collection Canonne, Paris, 1930, pp. 45-46
Lionello Venturi, Les Archives de l’Impressionnisme, vol. I, Paris & New York, 1939, p. 457
Denis Rouart, Jean-Dominique Rey & Robert Maillard, Monet Nymphéas ou les miroirs du temps, Paris, 1972, illustrated p. 165
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Lausanne & Paris, 1979, no. 1735, illustrated p. 231
Daniel Wildenstein, Monet Catalogue Raisonné, vol. IV, Cologne, 1996, no. 1735, illustrated p. 805
Denis Rouart & Jean-Dominique Rey, Monet Water Lilies, The Complete Series, Paris, 2008 illustrated in color p. 131
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 enormous vigor and determination, he swiftly set about transforming the gardens and creating a large pond. There were initially a number of complaints about Monet’s plans to divert the river Epte through his garden in order to feed his new pond, which he had to address in his application to the Préfet of the Eure department: "I would like to point out to you that, under the pretext of public salubrity, the aforementioned opponents have in fact no other goal than to hamper my projects out of pure meanness, as is frequently the case in the country where Parisian landowners are involved […] I would also like you to know that the aforementioned cultivation of aquatic plants will not have the importance that this term implies and that it will be only a pastime, for the pleasure of the eye, and for motifs to paint" (quoted in Michael Hoog, Musée de l’Orangerie. The Nymphéas of Claude Monet, Paris, 2006, p. 119). 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 obfuscated his initial intentions, perhaps with a mind to his own mythology, telling 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 water lilies 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 colors 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).
After the turn of the century, the gardens around Monet’s Giverny home became the central theme of his work. He produced a series of painting on the themes of the Japanese footbridge and water lilies. Monet’s attention to detail verged on obsessive and he fastidiously maintained the pond and its plants to near perfection. Elizabeth Murray writes: “The water gardener would row out in the pond in a small green flat-bottomed boat to clean the entire surface. Any moss, algae, or water grasses which grew from the bottom had to be pulled out. Monet insisted on clarity. Next 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" (E. Murray, 'Monet as a Garden Artist,' Monet, Late Paintings of Giverny from the Musée Marmottan, New Orleans, 1995, p. 53).
In 1908 Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier visited Monet at Giverny and gave a thoughtful description of Monet’s working methods for the review Fermes et Châteaux: "In this mass of intertwined verdure and foliage […] the lilies spread their round leaves and dot the water with a thousand red, pink, yellow and white flowers […]. The Master often comes here, where the bank of the pond is bordered with thick clumps of irises. His swift, short strokes place brushloads of luminous colour as he moves from one place to another, according to the hour […]. The canvas he visited this morning at dawn is not the same as the canvas we find him working on in the afternoon. In the morning, he records the blossoming of the flowers, and then, once they begin to close, he returns to the charms of the water itself and its shifting reflections, the dark water that trembles beneath the somnolent leaves of the water-lilies" (quoted in Daniel Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 2003, p. 384). The unending variety of forms and tones that the ponds provided allowed Monet to work consistently on a number of canvases at the same time.
The spectacular field of color presented by Nymphéas is created to elicit an instinctive emotional response rather than to record a particular location, temporal conditions or natural phenomena. Over the course of several years, Monet experimented with different approaches and painting techniques. The paintings from 1905 were thickly painted with a dense surface and horizontally oriented, while those from 1906 interplay between rich impastoed areas with finer washes. In 1907 Monet positioned his canvases vertically and experimented with longer brushstrokes.
Another important feature of the works from this period is how Monet removed the perspectival elements that had existed in his earlier renditions of the lily pond, so the banks and borders which were sometimes featured no longer informed the scope or scale of the works. Since the birth of Impressionism, Monet’s primary concern had been the sensation of color and its properties and these technical innovations underwrote his highly advanced theoretical approach. In Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the narrator goes to visit a fictional painter called Elstir who was based in part on Monet. Here, in the studio the narrator begins to see Elstir’s new purpose for art: "But I was able to discern from these that the charm of each of them lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the things represented in it, analogous to what in poetry we call metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew. The names which denote things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with itself" (quoted in Charles Prendergast, The Triangle of Representation, New York, 2000, p. 154). Monet’s Nymphéas fulfills the promise of Elstir’s intentions, managing to transcend painting's traditional, illusory function in order to create a new sense of purpose for art.
Even in his earliest depictions of the Nymphéas Monet embraced a monumental scope, which would be most fully realized a decade later in his Les Grandes décorations, a sequence of monumental paintings of the gardens that took his depictions of the water lily pond in a dramatic new direction - the artist envisaged an environment in which the viewer would be completely surrounded by the paintings. In 1909 Monet was quoted by Claude Roger-Marx outlining his vision: "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). The present work and the others in this series eventually led to Les Grandes décorations, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, which are according to Daniel Wildenstein "the crowning glory of Monet’s career, in which all his work seemed to culminate"(D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 840).
The lasting legacy of Monet’s late work is most evident in the art of the Abstract Expressionists, such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell and abstractionist Gerhard Richter, whose bold color planes and rejection of figuration is foreshadowed by Monet’s depictions of water lilies. Jean-Dominique Rey discusses Monet’s inarguable influence on future generations of artists: "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 color, 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, op. cit., Paris, 2008, p. 116).
Nymphéas was once in the prestigious Canonne Collection, formed by the Parisian pharmacist and industrialist Henri Canonne (1867-1961). Canonne invented the Valda tablet, a throat lozenge and one of the earliest over the counter medicines, which remains in circulation today under the control of Glaxo SmithKline. Canonne made a fortune from this invention and similarly to Dr. Albert C Barnes’s who invented Argyrol, Canonne amassed an impressive collection of Impressionist & Post-Impressionist art. The picture remained with Canonne's family throughout the war, and it was eventually inherited by his son Jacques.