Last week in London, a Monet water lily painting sold for $54 million in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale. The work, a 1906 Nymphéas, is one of a series completed from 1905 to 1907 at Giverny.
Another from 1906, and apparently painted from the same spot, is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The series was first exhibited in 1909 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, and this Nymphéas was acquired by the dealer. Its provenance includes over a dozen public exhibitions, and the (unidentified) buyer is expected to loan it to exhibitions in Cleveland and London from 2015.
Monet’s water lilies are among the most recognizable of his works and of Impressionism. He moved to Giverny, fifty miles from Paris and along the right Bank of the Seine, in 1883. He constructed gardens, ponds, and greenhouses, and three glass-roofed studios where he could work almost in plein air. He began painting water lilies in 1899, leading to a series of large-scale works that occupied the last two decades of his life.
From 1914 and throughout World War I, Monet donated paintings to benefit sales for the war effort. In 1918 he wrote to Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, to offer two new paintings:
“Dear and great friend, I am on the eve of finishing two decorative panels which I wish to sign on the day of Victory, and am asking you to offer them to the State… it’s not much, but it’s the only way I have of taking part in the victory.”
The gift took almost a decade to be realized – Monet’s vision deteriorated as he continued reworking his paintings, and a location had to be prepared for them. In 1927, five months after Monet’s death, his Grandes Décorations and gift to France were installed for the public in the Musée de l’Orangerie.
The Nymphéas at the Musée de l’Orangerie are eight paintings installed in two elliptical rooms, and under diffused sunlight as Monet instructed. Visitors may experience variations of light across the paintings as Monet experienced it in his gardens.