Monet's Nymphéas Lead the Impressionists Sale at Sotheby's

Tuesday, June 4, 2019
Monet's Nymphéas Lead the Impressionists Sale at Sotheby's

‘Monet insisted on the surface of the water always being absolutely pure so as to be a better mirror for the sky, the clouds, shadows, and the reflections of their surroundings.’ Jean-Pierre Hoschedé

Image: Claude Monet, Nymphéas 


‘Monet insisted on the surface of the water always being absolutely pure so as to be a better mirror for the sky, the clouds, shadows, and the reflections of their surroundings.’

Jean-Pierre Hoschedé


Claude Monet’s Nymphéas are among the most iconic and celebrated Impressionist paintings and their profound impact on the evolution of Modern Art marks them as Monet’s greatest achievement. The artist’s famous lily pond in his garden at Giverny provided the subject matter for most of his major later works, paintings whose significance in forging the path for subsequent artists is now fully recognised. The theme of waterlilies, that became Monet’s most celebrated series of paintings, recorded the changes in his style and his constant pictorial innovations. The present painting, which dates from 1908, is a powerful testament to Monet’s enduring vision and creativity in his mature years.



Claude Monet, Nymphéas 


By 1890, Monet was able to buy the house and a 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. Towards the end of his life, Monet 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 the rest of his life. 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).

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). 

The beauty and purity of the waterlilies are indeed abundantly evident in the present work, an extraordinary example of the artist's virtuosity as a colourist. The surface texture is rich with detail, particularly in the passages where the blossoms float atop the water. The distinction between reflection and surface, water and flora, and the general clarity of the scene are particularly striking in this composition. Here, 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. Writing about the group of canvases that includes the present work, Daniel Wildenstein observed: ‘The Nymphéas dated 1908 are characterized by a stream of light which descends towards the right, curving round a large pad of water-lilies in the foreground’ (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 793). While in some of the related compositions the light is intercepted by a lily pad in the foreground, in the present example it meanders all the way to the bottom of the canvas, describing an S-shape curve around the waterlily pads across the composition.

Moving towards an increasingly abstract treatment of space, here Monet focused entirely on the water surface, eliminating the horizon line and thus minimising the illusion of depth and perspective. The sky, placed outside the scope of the canvas, is present only through its 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. 1) to the square canvases (fig. 3), that he started using in his waterlily compositions of 1904.

The French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier visited Monet at Giverny in 1908 - the year he painted the present work - 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. 

In 1914, Monet began to conceive of his Grandes Décorations (fig. 4), 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.

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 and Joan Mitchell, as well as the abstractionist Gerhard Richter, whose layering of pure pigment is foreshadowed by Monet’s depictions of water lilies (fig. 5). Jean-Dominique Rey discusses Monet’s undisputable influence on future 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’ (D. Rouart & J.-D. Rey, Monet Water Lilies - The Complete Series, Paris, 2008, p. 116).


Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale

19 June, 2019, Sotheby's

Claude Monet
1840 - 1926
Estimate: GBR 25,000,000 - GBR 35,000,000
signed Claude Monet and dated 1908 (lower right)
oil on canvas
92 by 89cm.
36 1/4 by 35in.
Painted in 1908.

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