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Claude Monet (1840 - 1926), Nymphéas (Water Lilies),signed Claude Monet and dated 1906 (lower right), oil on canvas, 88.5 by 100cm. 34 3/4 by 39 3/8 in. Painted in 1906. Estimate £20-30 million / $33–50 million. Photo: Sotheby's. 

LONDON.- Sotheby’s London is delighted to announce that a highlight of the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on Monday 23rd June 2014 is Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (Water Lilies) of 1906, estimated at £20-30 million/ $33-50 million. Instantly recognisable and revered the world over, Claude Monet’s Nymphéas are among the most iconic and celebrated paintings of turn of the century. The profound impact the series has made on the evolution of modern art marks them out as Monet’s greatest achievement. 

This painting was selected by the artist to be exhibited at his seminal exhibition held at the Galerie Durand- Ruel, Paris, in 1909 to unveil his Water Lily paintings in a show dedicated purely to this subject. It had also been singled out and acquired by Paul Durand-Ruel - the legendary art dealer who championed the Impressionists and represented Monet, among many other of the greatest artists of his time – and it remained in his personal collection throughout his lifetime. The painting has since been widely exhibited at some of the world’s most prestigious international museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, and since 2011 has been on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It is this painting, together with the others in this series, that eventually led to Monet’s Les Grandes décorations which were painted between 1914-26, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. 

Helena Newman, Sotheby’s Co-Head, Impressionist & Modern Art Worldwide comments: “Impressionism’s greatest genius was Claude Monet and his finest works were the increasingly abstracted paintings he made of his lily pond at Giverny near Paris. Museum-quality paintings of this importance are the driving force in the art market now and this work’s square format and exquisite colouration has already attracted much attention when exhibited internationally in the lead-up to the sale.” 

The Legacy of Monet’s Nymphéas
The lasting legacy of Monet’s late work is most clearly seen in the art of the Abstract Expressionists, such as Mark Rothko, whose bold colour planes and rejection of figuration is foreshadowed by the Nymphéas . In recent years Gerhard Richter's monumental abstract canvases have carried on the tradition established by his artistic forebears. Jean-Dominique Rey, author of Monet’s Water Lilies: A Catalogue Raisonné, commented: ‘ 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 colour, 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’.

Monet and Giverny
By 1890, Monet had become financially successful enough to buy the house and 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. The garden offered a boundless source of inspiration, and provided the major themes that dominated the last three decades of Monet’s career. As Monet explained to 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’.

Notes on this painting

Claude Monet’s Nymphéas are amongst the most iconic and celebrated Impressionist paintings. The profound impact the series has made on the evolution of Modern Art marks them out as Monet’s greatest achievement. The famous lily pond in his garden at Giverny provided the subject matter for most of his major late works, recording the changes in his style and his constant pictorial innovations. The present work, which dates from 1906, is a powerful testament to Monet’s enduring vision and creativity in his mature years. Monet’s Nymphéas from 1905-1907 are triumphantly achieved monuments of colour; the water reflects the skies’ shifting hues and the lilies themselves are elegant touches of paint applied with bravura. As Daniel Wildenstein notes, all the works created in 1906 were painted from the same spot, and took an especially close up view of the pond, with a number of water lilies in the foreground of their compositions (figs. 1 & 2).

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1906,  oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago.

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1906,  oil on canvas. National Museum of Wales. Cardiff.

By 1890, Monet had become financially successful enough to buy the house and 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. 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 that 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 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 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 colour 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 three crucial years, from 1905 until 1907, Monet experimented with different approaches and painting techniques. The paintings from 1905 were thickly painted with a dense surface and horizontally oriented (fig. 3), whilst those from 1906 have a more painterly interplay between rich impastoed areas with finer luminous washes. In 1907 Monet used his canvases vertically and experimented with longer brushstrokes (figs. 4 & 5). 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 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 colour 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 fulfils the promise of Elstir’s intentions, managing to transcend paintings traditional, illusory function in order to create a new sense of purpose for art.

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1905, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts. Boston.

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1907, oil on canvas. The Israel Museum. Jerusalem.

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1907,  oil on canvas. Göteborgs Konstmuseum. Gothenburg.

Even in his earliest depictions of the Nymphéas Monet embraced a monumental scope, which would be most fully realised in his Les Grandes décorations (fig. 7), 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).

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Monet in his studio at Giverny, circa 1920, in front of Les Grands Décorations, now in Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris.

The present work was included in the seminal exhibition held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1909, which the artist entitled Les nymphéas, series de paysages d'eau par Claude Monet. This long awaited show had been planned for many years, and delayed by Monet’s prevarication and his lengthy trip to Venice earlier in the year. The artist insisted on payment for almost all the works to be included in the show, resulting in Durand-Ruel, not having the funds to bankroll the whole exhibition, having to jointly acquire the pictures with the Bernheim-Jeune brothers - though the present work was soon owned solely by Paul Durand-Ruel, with whose family it remained for many years. Monet and the dealers chose 48 canvas all of the same subject which were shown in three rooms and drew the attention and admiration of countless collectors, as Daniel Wildenstein notes: ‘These works perfectly matched the aesthetic of the first years of the 20th Century’ (D. Wildenstein, Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 2003, p. 388), their natural grace and exuberance related to the Art Nouveau. Writing on the exhibition at the time, Jean-Louis Vaudoyer stated: ‘None of the earlier series… can, in our opinion, compare with these fabulousWater Landscapes, which are holding spring captive in the Durand-Ruel Gallery. Water that is pale blue and dark blue, water like liquid gold, treacherous green water reflects the sky and the banks of the pond and among the reflections pale water lilies and bright water lilies open and flourish. Here, more than ever before, painting approached music and poetry. There is in these paintings an inner beauty that is both plastic and ideal’ (J.-L. Vaudoyer in La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, 15th May 1909, p. 159, translated from French).

The lasting legacy of Monet’s late work is most clearly seen in the art of the Abstract Expressionists, such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis, whose bold colour planes and rejection of figuration is foreshadowed by the Nymphéas. In recent years Gerhard Richter's monumental abstract canvases, such as Cage 6 from 2006 (fig. 9), have carried on the tradition established by his artistic forebears. As Jean-Dominique Rey writes: ‘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 colour, 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).

 

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Gerhard Richter, Cage 62006, oil on canvas. Tate Modern. London.