French Pastoral: Four Important Impressionist Paintings from a Distinguished French Collection
Of the four version that Monet painted of this subject, one is in the collection of The Musée de Grenoble, France, where it was gifted by the artist.
In mid-1918, with the outcome of the First World War hanging precariously in the balance after four years of devastating, all-out combat, Monet set up his easel on the northeastern bank of his beloved water garden at Giverny—a site of solace and serenity in a world seemingly come undone—and began a suite of four paintings that represent a radical departure from the now-iconic Nymphéas that had occupied him almost exclusively since early in the century. Instead of a broad expanse of water and reflections, a radically destabilized vision of the plane of the lily pond tilted to vertical, Monet now crafted a clearly defined terrestrial area that recedes along the reassuringly legible curve of the bank into the background, where the scene is closed off with a dense screen of foliage and flowers. In the midst of profoundly anxious times—“I do not have long to live,” Monet wrote in August 1918, “and I must dedicate all my time to painting”—these lush, lyrical canvases represent an irrepressible cry of hope: a return to the safety of terra firma, with streams of brilliant yellow light penetrating the darkness and promising deliverance (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 212).
Monet’s vigorous, gestural handling of paint, here more experimental and proto-abstract than ever, simultaneously reflects and amplifies the emotional urgency of this exceptional suite of canvases—the present Coin du bassin aux nymphéas and Wildenstein, nos. 1878-1880 (Musée de Grenoble; Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva; and Christie’s New York, 14 May 1997, lot 23). “Within this more traditional spatial arena, Monet flexes his painterly muscle,” Paul Tucker has written, “applying his medium in as many ways as there are elements in the view—blotching it, swirling it, layering it, dragging dry brushes across wet pigment, entangling wet strokes in wet strokes, pulling pigment up from the surface in some areas and pushing it down in others. It is as if he were trying out all of the discoveries he had made while working on the Grandes décorations but had not permitted himself the pleasure of including in one particular picture” (Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 76).
Monet’s visionary achievement in the water garden proceeded from an unprecedented feat of imaginative planning and construction that constituted a work of sublime artifice in itself. As if in a quest for a paradise lost, a new Eden amid the bustle of the modern, industrial era, Monet conceived and created the very pond and its surroundings that he eventually would make the sole, all-encompassing subject of his late art. Monet designed the pond in 1893 as the centerpiece of a tract of newly purchased acreage adjoining his home and property at Giverny, dedicating to this endeavor his substantial resources as a famous and successful painter; the acquisition of additional parcels of land in 1902 enabled him to triple the size of the water garden. “In this simplicity,” understood Gustave Geffroy, Monet’s friend and first biographer, “is found everything the eye can see and surmise, an infinity of shapes and shades, the complex life of things” (Claude Monet, sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1924/1980, p. 402).
The first exhibition devoted exclusively to Monet’s new paintings of his water garden took place at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in May 1909. The artist subtitled this selection of 48 canvases, painted between 1903 and 1908, Séries de paysages d’eau—“Water Landscapes.” Visitors to the gallery marveled at the paintings, which took as their sole subject the constantly shifting relationships among water, reflections, and light that transformed the surface of the lily pond with each passing moment. “No more earth, no more sky, no limits now; the dormant and fertile waters completely cover the field of the canvas,” Roger Marx wrote in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. “Through the incense of soft vapors, under a light veil of silvery mist, the indecisive meets the precise. Certainty becomes conjecture, and the enigma of mystery opens the mind to the world of illusion and the infinity of dreams” (quote in C.F. Stuckey, ed., Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 265).
Monet was deeply gratified by this response, which affirmed the ongoing relevance and vital, transformative character of his art. Following the close of the exhibition, though, there followed nearly five years in which the artist—exhausted from the intense work leading up to the show, and then suffering from a sequence of personal tragedies—barely picked up his brushes. His wife Alice and his elder son Jean both took ill and died during this time, and Monet learned that he had a cataract in one eye that seriously threatened his vision. Less grave but still distressing, flooding of the Seine and the Epte caused substantial damage to his gardens. It was not until the spring of 1914—while France was steeling itself for war—that he returned to the lily pond in earnest. “I have thrown myself back into work,” he wrote to Durand-Ruel in June, “and when I do that, I do it seriously, so much so that I am getting up at four a.m. and am grinding away all day long” (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 204).
Monet was 73 years old by then, well beyond the life expectancy for men of his generation. The mere fact that he resumed work on the Nymphéas series with such vigor is extraordinary. Rather than simply retreading his previous success, moreover, he set himself a wholly new challenge. In 1897, he had described to a journalist his vision of an enclosed space lined with mural-sized paintings of the lily pond that would transport the viewer into realms of aesthetic reverie. Now, at last, he set out to make this encompassing ensemble—the Grandes décorations—a reality. “It was not just his personal travails that drove him back to the studio, but a burning desire to do something that would move beyond his early Nymphéas,” Tucker has proposed. “In the first decade of the century, their beauty and inventiveness might have been an apt summation of his life’s efforts. But the second decade called for something more formidable, because everyone knew that a cataclysmic conflict was imminent” (Claude Monet: Late Work, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, p. 30).
Between 1914 and 1917, Monet completed a series of some sixty Nymphéas, in which he tested out ideas for the Grandes décorations on a scale that he had never before attempted. In summer 1915, he began construction on a huge studio to house the project; he occupied the building in October and began work on the actual murals at that time. By November 1917, he considered the panels sufficiently advanced that he permitted Durand-Ruel to photograph them in progress. Monet continued to work on the murals even as the Germans mounted an intense and frightening offensive against France in early 1918, their desperate, last-ditch effort to win the war. They broke through British defenses in the Somme valley in March and pressed on to capture Amiens, just 37 kilometers from Monet’s home. “I do not want to believe that I would ever be obliged to leave Giverny,” he wrote to Georges Bernheim. “I would rather die here in the middle of what I have done” (quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 212).
The present painting enters the story at this momentous juncture. By spring 1918, it had been nearly a decade since Monet had last shown his work from the water garden in public; he considered the Nymphéas of 1914-1917 as a private exploratory enterprise and, with rare exception, neither exhibited nor sold these canvases. Now, seemingly impelled by the decisive historic moment, Monet stepped back from the Grandes décorations and—before the weather turned cold again in the fall—began four independent series of easel paintings on various pond subjects, conceived for their own, expressive sake and not as part of a decorative program. In September, the Allies mounted a powerful counter-offensive, and by November the Germans had been pushed out of France and forced to the peace table. Over the course of the next year, Monet released nine of the brand-new canvases to his dealers, driven perhaps by the desire to share his intensely personal response to the war with the collective, battle-ravaged nation.
Of the four groups of paintings that Monet began in 1918, only one—a sequence of fourteen Nymphéas painted on pre-stretched, 1 x 2 meter canvases that Monet ordered that April—limits the field of vision to horizontal plane of the lily pond (Wildenstein, nos. 1886-1887, 1890-1901). To paint the other three series, Monet lifted his gaze from the surface of the water, taking in the encompassing milieu. Ten canvases, largely completed in 1918, focus on a magnificent weeping willow tree on the north bank of the pond, at once a traditional elegiac symbol, an emblem of fortitude and endurance, and a proxy for the artist’s own upright form (nos. 1868-1877). During the same year, Monet began his late series of Japanese Bridge paintings, which would engage him at intervals through 1924 (nos. 1911-1933, of which the first three probably date to 1918).
Finally, in the four Coin du bassin aux nymphéas canvases, completed between 1918 and 1919, Monet selected a vantage point that offered him the widest possible range of pictorial elements—a veritable compendium, as seen here, of the water garden’s myriad, restorative enchantments.
“Their lively surfaces amply attest to Monet’s unique virtuosity,” Tucker has written about these pictures, “but their spatial breadth and elegant arrangements bespeak his desire to lure his public into believing in the magic of his special place. Thus, in addition to the care with which he rendered the scene, he introduced all the motifs that had preoccupied him since the outbreak of the war: the water-lily pond in the foreground, with its complicated but verifiable reflections; the water lilies themselves, with their colorful crowning flowers; the sculpted bank that cuts through the scene to make the space understandable; and the dazzling stand of trees in the background, with their writhing rhythms and the spectacular light that appears as physical as the foliage” (op. cit., 2010, pp. 33-35).
On 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice was signed, Monet wrote to Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau—the nation’s wartime “Tiger” and the artist’s longtime friend—and offered to the French State two panneaux décoratifs that were near completion, most likely a Weeping Willow and a 1 x 2 meter Nymphéas. “It’s not much,” the artist admitted, “but it is the only way I have of taking part in the victory” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 77). Together, Monet and Clemenceau were two of the most famous men in France, and the affection between them was deep and enduring. “Remember old Rembrandt in the Louvre,” Clemenceau had written to his friend after Alice’s death. “He clings to his palette, determined to hold out until the end through terrible adversities” (quoted in R. King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, New York, 2016, p. 16). Now, moved by Monet’s patriotic gesture, Clemenceau visited Giverny with Geffroy and proposed the donation of the entire cycle of Grandes décorations, which then numbered twelve murals. The agreement, when finally drawn up in April 1922, ultimately provided for twenty canvases to be placed in two rooms of the Musée de l’Orangerie, to which Monet subsequently added two more panels.
Still intent on bringing his latest work before the public, between December 1918 and January 1919 Monet sold to Bernheim-Jeune two Weeping Willows (Wildenstein, nos. 1868-1869) and two paintings from the present Coin du bassin series (nos. 1879-1880)—the first time he had parted with a group of new canvases since releasing his Venetian views to the dealers in 1912. In November 1919, Bernheim-Jeune acquired another lot of recent pictures from Monet, consisting of four 1 x 2 meter Nymphéas (nos. 1890-1891, 1893-1894) and one Japanese Bridge (no. 1916).
In 1923, Monet donated a Coin du bassin picture to the Musée de Grenoble, with the aim of promoting the museum’s modernist tendencies (no. 1878). The present painting—one of the two largest from the sequence, along with the identically sized no. 1880—was thus the only Coin du bassin to remain in Monet’s studio until his death, where it provided the artist with ongoing inspiration as he completed the Grandes décorations. The canvas passed from the artist’s son Michel through the Parisian dealer Katia Granoff to the family of the present owner in the 1960s and has never again changed hand on the market.
French Pastoral: Four Important Impressionist Paintings from a Distinguished French Collection
Coin du bassin aux nymphéas
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Kunsthaus Zürich and The Hague, Dienst voor Schone Kunsten, Claude Monet, May-September 1952, p. 24, no. 122 and no. 89, respectively (titled Nymphéas à travers les arbres, fond du bassin and with inverted dimensions [Zürich]; titled Waterlelies, in de tuin te Giverny [The Hague]).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1985, vol. IV, p. 284, no. 1881 (illustrated prior to stamp, p. 285).
D. Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. IV, p. 893, no. 1881 (illustrated prior to stamp).
Estate of the artist.
Michel Monet, Sorel-Moussel (by descent from the above).
Galerie Katia Granoff, Paris (acquired from the above).
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, by 1960.