Michel Monet, Giverny (by inheritance from the artist)
Galerie Maeght, Paris
Sam Salz, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Konrad H. Matthaei, United States (by 1966)
Richard L. Feigen, Co., New York (acquired from the above in the early 1970s)
Private Collection, Baltimore
Private Collection, Switzerland
Acquavella Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above in 1979
In fact, after the turn of the century, the gardens around Monet's Giverny home became the central theme of the artist's work, as Monet produced series of paintings on the themes of the Japanese footbridge and the waterlilies. Monet paid exacting attention to the details of the garden, including maintaining the pond and plants in a perfect state for painting. 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” (Elizabeth Murray, ‘Monet as a Garden Artist,’ Monet, Late Paintings of Giverny from the Musée Marmottan, New Orleans, 1995, p. 53).
In 1914, Monet began to conceive of his Grandes Décorations, a sequence of monumental paintings of the gardens that would take his depictions of the water lily pond in a dramatic new direction. Paul Tucker writes that these new paintings “were characterized by an unprecedented breadth in terms of their size, touch and vision. Nearly all of these pictures... were twice as big as his earlier Water Lilies. They were also more daring in their color schemes and compositions. And they were much looser in handling... At once exploratory and definitive, hesitant and assured, these paintings thus constitute a unique group of canvases in Monet's oeuvre. They were a sustained and evidently private enterprise in which Monet tested out his ideas for his decorative program on a scale he had never attempted for these watery motifs” (Paul Tucker, Claude Monet, Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 203 & 204).
After constructing an enormous garden that could surround him while he worked, Monet conceived of a group of paintings that would similarly surround the viewer. Monet 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” (cited in Roger Marx, ‘Les Nymphéas de Monet', Le Cri de Paris, May 23, 1909).
Le Bassin aux Nymphéas was painted as Monet worked on the Grandes Décorations, the two rooms of large scale paintings of the water lily pond (see figs. 1 and 2). In this large scale, Monet has moved further away from a realistic depiction of the lily pond as the viewer is brought closer to the surface of the pond, seemingly hovering above the shifting colors of the pond's reflections. Monet's palette is more vibrant than in his earlier water lily series, and the handling is decidedly more loose and fluid, with flowers indicated by bold strokes of paint.. Related paintings of the same motif in the Honolulu Academy of Arts (see fig. 3) and another formerly from the Reader’s Digest Collection (see fig. 4) show a similar handling of paint. In the present work, the viewer is brought even closer to the surface, making the purple and green reflections even more striking in their indication of trees and sky that Monet does not elsewhere depict. This heightened sense of the pond's surface also emphasizes the surface of the painting as Monet's dazzling strokes of paint move back and forth, like the reflections of the lily pond, between the ripples in the water.
The large scale of the present work suggests that although it may have been conceived outside, it was almost certainly painted in the large studio that Monet had built expressly for the purpose of accommodating the Grandes Décorations. Monet's conception at this point was not to depict the actual pond but to surround the viewer with the “water surface with no horizon and no shore,” an effect the present work achieves with its striking scale and presence. Charles Moffett and James Wood write: “While the garden that he had made served as a first sketch, a springboard for the imagination, everything was subject to a revision in the studio. As his world contracted his canvases grew larger, culminating in the great mural-sized waterscapes in which nature is recorded in a scale of nearly one to one. Simultaneously the point of view was elevated, leaving the observer suspended above the ambiguities of translucence and reflections, deprived of a horizon line from which to plot his location. After 1916, when the barnlike third studio was completed, Monet devoted himself to the large, decorative Water Lilies cycle (Les Nymphéas, Etude d'eau) that was finally installed in the Orangerie in 1927. That Monet was nearly totally absorbed by a 'decorative’ cycle did not in any way diminish the importance of the project. Perhaps more than anything else, 'decorative’ suggests that he was synthesizing and abstracting form and color from nature to create a particular effect for a specific architectural setting. The image on the retina was now only a starting point, for in these vast close-ups Monet takes us through the looking glass of the pond's surface and into the shallow but infinite space of twentieth century painting” (Monet's Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 13).
Fig. 1, Monet’s Grandes Décorations in the artist’s studio at Giverny, photograph by Joseph Durand-Ruel on November 11, 1917, Archives Durand-Ruel
Fig. 2, Monet’s Grandes Décorations in the artist’s studio at Giverny, photograph by Joseph Durand-Ruel on November 11, 1917, Archives Durand-Ruel
Fig. 3, Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas, 1918, oil on canvas, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu
Fig. 4, Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-19, Oil on canvas, formerly in the Reader’s Digest Collection
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