Lot 36. Claude Monet (1840-1926) Le pont japonais, stamped with signature 'Claude Monet' (Lugt 1819b; lower right); stamped again with signature 'Claude Monet' (Lugt 1819b; on the reverse), oil on canvas, 28 ¾ x 39 ½ in. (73 x 100.3 cm.) Painted in Giverny, circa 1918-1924. Estimate USD 12,000,000 - USD 18,000,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2019.
Provenance: 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.
Literature: D. Rouart and J.-D. Rey, Monet: Nymphéas ou les miroirs du temps, Paris, 1972 (illustrated; dated circa 1923-1925).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1985, vol. IV, p. 298, no. 1915 (illustrated prior to stamp, p. 299).
D. Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. IV, pp. 915-916, no. 1915 (illustrated prior to stamp, p. 915).
G. Morel, "Le cycle des nymphéas" in Connaissance des arts, March 2018, no. 808, p. 18-19 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited: Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie, Nymphéas. L’abstraction américaine et le dernier Monet, April-August 2018, p. 66, no. 6 (illustrated in color, p. 67).
Note: Of the twenty-four versions that Monet painted of Le pont japonais, sixteen are in public institutions, including Musée Marmottan, Paris; Kunstmuseum, Basel; Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand; Kunsthaus Zürich; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
During 1918-1924, Claude Monet painted a sequence of 24 canvases featuring the Japanese footbridge that spanned the western banks of the oval lily pond on his property in Giverny (Wildenstein, nos. 1911-1933). All are identically titled Le pont japonais, save one, more descriptively documented as La passerelle sur le bassin de nymphéas, which is the sole picture in the series that Monet signed and dated—1919—when he sold it to Bernheim-Jeune in November of that year (no. 1916; Kunstmuseum, Basel). This was also the only picture in the series exhibited in the artist’s lifetime, at Bernheim-Jeune in 1921.
Monet had already embarked on the majestic Grandes décorations, the suite of large lily-pond compositions that his friend Georges Clemenceau, the noted statesman and twice the Prime Minister of the Third Republic, had commissioned for the French state. Because Monet persisted, at the same time, in painting smaller easel pictures—such as the Japanese bridges—Clemenceau complained to the artist that he had been attending to them as an excuse to put off the deadline that had been set for the completion of the Grandes décorations.
The Pont japonais sequence of paintings all focus on the simple structural element of the arching, wooden Japanese footbridge, completed during 1894-1895. Monet first painted the bridge under an early April snowfall in 1895 (Wildenstein, no. 1392) and later that year in the full brilliance of summer (nos. 1419-1419a). When Monet created his very first paintings of the water-lily pond during the summer of 1899—once the plants had matured and spread out across the pond—he included in each of them the Japanese bridge, resplendent in its pale blue-green paint (nos. 1509-1520). Monet had an overhanging, metal trellis installed during 1904-1905. Both the balustrade and the new framework were draped in wisteria, which quickly engulfed the bridge, appearing to absorb it within the masses of foliage along the banks of the pond and the dangling branches of the large willow on the southern end of the bridge, at right in the present painting.
The curving rise of the bridge marked the culmination of a line of sight from the front door of the artist’s large house at the northern end of the property, down along the garden-lined, pergola-covered grande allée, and across the road and railway track into parcel of land that enclosed the pond. Monet intended the Japanese bridge to serve as the connective, harmonizing motif, as well as the most elevated vantage point within his artfully designed and painstakingly cultivated garden landscape. Although barely recognizable as the original bridge amid the profusion of nature in the 1918-1924 series, the line of this graceful arabesque centers and provides breadth to the horizontal aspect of the pondscape, in counterpoint to the vertical cascades of foliage and the reflections of shadow that appear to rise up from the surface of the water.
While notable as an exotic feature in the traditional Norman landscape, the Japanese footbridge is more importantly Monet’s tribute to the general cultural phenomenon of japonisme as a transformative influence on the arts of France, his own included, since the 1860s. By late in his life, Monet’s collection of Japanese prints numbered over two hundred examples, by Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige—a “Japanese Impressionist,” Monet called the latter—among others. In 1921, Monet received at Giverny a succession of Japanese artists and collectors, who came with Clemenceau to admire the painter’s gardens. Foremost among them was Kojiro Matsukata, the son of a former Prime Minister of Japan and a personal friend of the emperor, who purchased 15 canvases from Monet at this time for his planned museum of modern Western art, including a 4.25-meter-wide Nymphéas mural originally destined for the Grandes décorations(Wildenstein, no. 1971). “I’m especially flattered that the Japanese understand me,” Monet explained, “since they are the masters who have felt and represented nature so profoundly” (quoted in R. King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, New York, 2016, p. 246).
In addition to having become a desirable feature in Japanese gardens since the 12th century, classical Heian Period, the arching bridge form appears in numerous woodblock, ukiyo-e prints of travelers and traders. “Last autumn I was a sad dreamer, and suddenly I imagined myself walking in a picturesque landscape passing innumerable bridges,” Katsushika Hokusai captioned his brush drawing A Dream of a Hundred Bridges, 1832. “I found myself so happy that I took up my brush right away and drew this landscape, before it got lost in my imagination.” As a symbol of passage, of crossing over from one stage in life to the next, the poetry of the bridge resonated with special urgency in Monet’s mind during the years 1918-1924.
News of events of the day in early 1918 were as discouraging as they had been for most of the previous three and a half years of the murderous Great War. The stalemate on the Western Front appeared unbreakable as neither the Allies nor Germany could gain the upper hand. A grim struggle of attrition was draining the will, material resources, and manpower of both sides. Realizing that the entry of America into the war in November 1917 must eventually result in an Allied victory, in March 1918 Germany unleashed its all-out, last-ditch offensive to crush the French and British armies on the Western Front.
Still grieving at the passing of his beloved wife Alice in 1911, and the death his eldest son Jean in early 1914, Monet feared terribly for the safety of his sole surviving son Michel and stepson Jean-Pierre Hoschedé, both in harm’s way on the battle lines. Monet—then in his mid-70s—might only find meaning in the transient nature of all things as he contemplated the rhythms of growth and decay, life and death in the serenity of his water garden sanctuary. This palpable evocation of abundant nature had been for the past two decades his pride and joy, his personal corner of the world, where he could retreat into an environment that he had created as a work of art, for the sake of his art, and which became a universe unto itself.
This development marked in his oeuvre the emergence of the late period, a final decade of visionary transfiguration in his art. But as in the personal histories of other great masters who painted to the very end of their lives, Monet confronted formidable trials and tribulations during this period, in his case stemming from news of the most horrifying kind, especially for a painter. He had been diagnosed in 1912 with cataracts, far more advanced in his right eye than his left, and he understood that he was in danger of losing his sight. The ordeal that ensued would have defeated a spirit less courageous and indomitable than his own. In the end he triumphed, completing his final magnum opus, the twenty-two panels of the Grandes décorations, to be installed in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, which had been specifically redesigned and dedicated to receive them. To appreciate, however, the artist’s agony and feelings of despair, and then the qualities of the patience and strength he summoned to confront this challenge, one should turn to the paintings of le pont japonais.
Monet sought to avert surgery for as long as possible by trying alternative treatments that were proposed to him, and which, for a while at least, appeared to offer some relief. It was not until 1919 that his cataracts again began to give him trouble. Although he admitted being able to see “less and less,” as he told a journalist in early 1921, “I always paint at the times of day most propitious for me, as long as my paint tubes and brushes are not mixed up” (quoted in P. Tucker, Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 80). Monet typically painted the footbridge in the early morning hours—he was an inveterate early riser—and in the late afternoons, near dusk.
The present pont japonais renders the blue-green tonality of the foliage, with touches of violet, in the early morning, when the cool, silvery white vapors of a mist had settled on the pond. The artist had situated himself at the western tip, along the channel that drains the water back into the Ru river. Gazing through the shadowy form of the bridge, he beheld the gathering light at the eastern end of the pond. Late in the day, Monet would place his canvas on the opposite, eastern bank, and look westward through the bridge into the reddish light at sunset, giving rise to the fiery colors that characterize this portion of his bridge production, also found in the concurrent L’allée de rosiers series, the seven paintings which depict the garden path under the rose-covered arches (Wildenstein, nos. 1934-1940).
By 1922, however, it became clear to Monet that only surgery, hazardous as it might be, could sufficiently ameliorate his condition and allow him to continue painting, as he knew he must, for the sake of completing the Grandes décorations. Apprehensive as ever, Monet had the first date postponed, but then between January and July 1923, Dr. Charles Coutela performed three operations which restored the artist’s sight, but with the side effect of adversely altering his perception of color.
Various corrective lenses were tried—one set rendered things too blue, another, too yellow. In early October Monet received a special pair of glasses from Germany. “Much to my surprise the results are very good,” he wrote Dr. Coutela on 21 October. “I can see green, red, and at last an attenuated blue” (Letter no. 2664). Trials with other lenses led to further improvement. On 20 November the artist wrote Joseph Durand-Ruel, “I’ve plunged into my work again and am having to make up for so much lost time… I’m working hard so that my Decorations will be ready on time” (Letter no. 2543; both quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Monet by Himself, London, 2004, p. 185). To André Barbier on 17 July 1925, he declared, “I am working as never before, I am satisfied with what I do…my only request would be to live to one hundred” (Letter no. 2609).
“The new Le pont japonais pictures were a throwback to his first engagement with this aquatic paradise, but now on radically different terms,” Paul H. Tucker has explained. “Completely disregarding artistic decorum, Monet lathered the surfaces of these canvases with thick, wet paint, making the liquid medium appear to seethe and dance as if fired by some unseen power. These paintings are cauldrons of cacophonous color, trumpeting Monet’s daring and abandonment, while asserting the value of the unknown over the secure, the reckless over the refined” (Claude Monet, Late Work, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, p. 36).
Jean-Pierre Hoschedé, Monet’s stepson, “noted that the Bridges with their ‘perfect tonalities’ had been produced a long time after the operation thanks to the ‘appropriate glasses’” (D. Wildenstein, cat. rais., op cit., 1996, vol. 4, p. 912). The surfaces of the Pont japonais series have been heavily worked, probably over a lengthy period of time, as Monet felt the need to put them aside and then take them up again, perhaps repeatedly, at times working from memory, and in the end brought them to the state in which we now know them, once the artist had the “appropriate glasses,” as Hoschedé described. And indeed, it has turned out, on account of this densely layered facture, the seething matière, the insistent palpability of these structures formed in paint—as much as for the emphatic color in these works—that artists of the post-Second World War generation were drawn to these compelling late canvases, including practitioners of pure painting associated with American Abstract Expressionism, European Tachisme and Art Informel, and turning eastward to Japan, the Gutai group.
Monet’s late work manifests the searching inwardness, the contemplation and acceptance of darkness and light in confronting the world and one’s fate within it, that are evidence of a profound personal struggle during which he attained the ultimate measure of mastery we now appreciate in his life and art. “The truth is simple,” he stated in conversation with Roger Marx. “My only virtue consists in subordination to instinct: because I have discovered the hidden powers of intuition and given them priority, I was able to identify with Creation and merge with it… Interpreters of my painting think that, in connection with reality, I have achieved the highest degree of abstraction and imagination. I would prefer it if they recognized in this the abandonment of my self” (“Les Nymphéas de M. Claude Monet,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, June 1909; in K. Sagner-Düchting, ed., Monet and Modernism, Munich, 2001, p. 29).
Christie's. Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, New York, 13 May 2019