The years from the summer of 1914 until Monet's death in 1926 comprise a period of extraordinary activity in the artist's career. Although he is thought to have destroyed a number of canvases in frustration—by boot, knife and fire—none the less 200 generally large paintings remain from this period. The majority of these relate to the great cycle of water-lily paintings that was finally installed in the Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris in May 1927, six months after the artist's death.1 While he was working towards this project he was loath to let any related works leave the studio, and most of these paintings therefore are neither signed nor dated. This is the case with the Australian National Gallery's painting, which was still in the artist's studio at the time of his death.
By its scale alone, however, the Gallery's painting clearly belongs to the period of Monet's work on the water-lily decorations. The vertical dimensions of the water-lily paintings which Monet exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery in 1909 ranged up to 107 cm, with the average being around one metre. However, once he had formulated his idea of a large-scale decorative scheme his work divides into two kinds of format: the long canvases intended for the decorations, with vertical dimensions of 2 metres and widths up to 6 metres, and others of a nearly square or upright format which were to be worked on in the open air. Some of these studies, including the Gallery's painting are up to 2 metres in one dimension, suggesting that they were cut from the same bolt of canvas as the larger decorations.
These are large canvases to work on in the open air, but Monet managed to set them up with the help of his gardeners. A photograph taken in the summer of 1915 shows Monet beside the pond, perched on a high stool and shaded by an enormous umbrella, at work on one of these large studies, which is now in the Portland Art Museum, Oregon. The Duc de Trévise also saw some of these studies when he visited Monet in 1920:
He shows me vast and disconcerting studies, made for his purpose on the site during these last summers; skeins of related hues which no other eye had unravelled, bizarre assortments of incorporeal threads, thanks to which the artist possesses the [colour] scale of every atmosphere.2
The fresh, spontaneous brushstrokes of the Gallery's painting, and its particularity of observation, including some unusual, almost obtrusive compositional features, suggest that it was at least begun in front of the motif. Monet started the painting by blocking in the curve of the bank at his feet in a vertical plane of blue paint that might initially have been suggested by the shadow in the water of the Japanese bridge or the pond bank but was subsequently overpainted along the inner curved edge with chopped brushstrokes of green and yellow that clearly indicate the grassy verge of the bank itself. This is an unusually strong and specific foreground element in Monet's pond-side studies. More often it is the dark reflection of overhanging trees or the fringes of irises or agapanthus growing on the bank that frame the expanse of the pond without interrupting the continuous water surface.
From the bank the lily-pads, consistently foreshortened, lead the eye back into space. The open curve of the bank and the closing curve of the water-lilies create an apse of space behind which a mauve curtain, like mist rises vertically and grows lighter towards the centre. However, this reading of an inclined horizontal recession is complicated by a large violet and white flower suspended in the upper left corner, which draws attention back to the vertical surface plane and, further, by three blue water-lily shapes in the upper right that trail reflected shadows like a tangled tress of hair down the right-hand side of the painting and around the central group of water-lilies. The addition of these elements deflects a feeling of consistent recession, encouraging attention to revolve within the image, to linger. In the Gallery's painting there is still a tension in this spatial ambiguity, as if one construct of space was superimposed upon another. And indeed, the looser handling of paint in the flower in the top left corner, and especially in the shadowy water-lilies in the upper right with their scumbled trailing shadows, suggests that these may well have been added later by Monet re-working the original composition towards the decorative and contemplative structure that prevails seamlessly in the final cycle of these paintings.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.76.
- Wildenstein, cp. cit., vol. 4, cat nos 1782-1983.
- 'Il me montre de vastes et déconcertantes études faites exprès, au cours de ces derniers étés, échevaux de teintes parentes qu'aucun autre oeil n'eut eut débrouillées, bizarres assortments de laines immatérielles, grace auxquelles le peintre possédait la gamme de chaque atmosphere.' (Duc de Trévise, 'Le pèlerinage de Giverny (deuxième article)', La Revue de l'art ancien et moderne, February 1927, p. 130).
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010