"A landscape does not get under your skin in one day. And then all of a sudden I had the revelation of how enchanting my pond was. I took up my palette. Since then I’ve hardly had any other subject," Claude Monet told Marc Elder in 1924. Thirty-one years earlier, in 1893, the painter bought a small piece of land across the railroad tracks from his property at Giverny that included a small pond formed by water from the Ru stream, a diversion of the Epte river (a tributary of the Seine). His intention was to construct something "for the pleasure of the eye and also for motifs to paint" (quoted in Tucker 1990, p. 255). He installed a Japanese-style footbridge over the pond late that year following the same axis as his main garden path and first painted the motif in three canvases of 1895 before planting water lilies (see Additional Images, figs. 1, 2). Monet returned in a concerted way to depict the bridge over his pond in eighteen canvases of 1899–1900 and exhibited twelve of them all with similar titles at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in 1900. He had spent the warm-weather months of 1899 devoted to the series, as his letters of that summer attest. In The Met’s canvas, the bridge is front and center, much larger than the bridge of his first forays into the subject.
In 1901, after this initial series, he purchased more of the marshy land adjacent to the pond and enlarged it by diverting water from the stream. He also added a framework to the bridge for wisteria and planted bamboo, Japanese apple and cherry trees as well as rhododendrons, in addition to the large willow and poplar trees that were already there. The painter returned to the motif after modifying the pond again, with a second series created between 1903 and 1908 and exhibited in 1909. After a final enlargement of the water garden due to flooding in 1910, he undertook a third group in the years during and after the First World War, comprising the large decorations for the two oval rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
The Picture: The Met’s 1899 picture is similar in composition and colors to two others of that year in the National Gallery, London, and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (see Additional Images, figs. 3, 4); other examples from his 1899 series include paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Pushkin Museum, Moscow; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; National Gallery, London; Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo; and private collections. Whereas these paintings retain an illusion of recession of the pond into depth (despite the extremely minimal remaining patch of sky), later efforts moved toward a flatter abstraction of the water surface itself that became influential decades later to the generation of Abstract Expressionist artists. In all, Monet painted at least one hundred images of his waterlily pool over a period of more than twenty years. His first series came soon after another contemplative series, Mornings on the Seine (1897) (see, for example, MMA 56.135.4), where he attended to the particular qualities of morning light reflected on the water.
In the present work, the surrounding features of the landscape have been left by the wayside to focus on the bridge itself and the water lilies below. While most of the paintings in the series have a nearly square format, The Met’s picture is one of two in vertical format, which here allows for a greater relationship between the flora of the earth and water, giving slightly more prominence to the lilies. The Met’s work distinctively lacks the tuft of irises that flanks the bridge at left in all of the other examples of that year. While there were actually seven supporting bars that upheld the ramp of the bridge, only four of them are visible in The Met’s painting and either four or five in the other versions that year. The strong rhythm of the four vertical bars punctuating the bridge mid-air contrasts with the water lilies that seem to expand horizontally beyond the picture plane. At the same time, there is a palpable tension between the illusions both of recession into depth and of the reflective, translucent quality of the water in comparison with the thick dabs of yellow, light pink, white, and green paint that make up the water lilies and seem to sit on the two-dimensional surface of the painting. The deep red curved form at the bottom of the painting representing the bridge’s shadow also figures in this two- versus three-dimensional interplay.
Monet had a team of outdoor workers helping him to maintain his gardens at Giverny. Gardening was so important to him that "had he not been a painter, he probably would have been a botanist" (Tucker 1990, p. 255). He was receiving all sorts of advice from French gardening experts, subscribing to horticultural magazines, and ordering exotic plants from far-off locales. The year before undertaking The Met’s painting, the critic Guillemot (quoted in Tucker 1990, p. 255) remarked that Monet read more catalogues and horticultural price lists "than articles by aesthetes." Monet focused so intensely on the water lilies that when guests arrived in late afternoon, he would rush them over to the pond to see the lilies before they closed at five o’clock (Vauxcelles 1905). It has been noted (Wildenstein 1985) that, most likely, he painted the entire series from a makeshift studio always placed at the same vantage point at the outlet of his water basin. The art critic Arsène Alexandre (1901) noted it sat in the marsh "like a tent and an observatory" (see Additional Images, fig. 5). Monet also may have used a rowboat that visitors recalled having seen moored to the bridge to sit in and paint the bridge with a head-on view. He retouched the works as a group before exhibiting them, stressing links of color and form among them. While most of the canvases from 1899 have greenish tonalities, those from 1900 integrate warmer colors into the greens.
Japonisme: Local residents called his water garden the "Japanese garden" and Japanese visitors saw similarities to Japanese gardens, yet, according to Maurice Kahn (Kahn 1904), Monet claimed he had not had the idea of creating a Japanese garden in mind when constructing it. The Japanese gardens Monet might have seen on view at the Universal Exposition in 1889 were very different, too (see Seiberling 1976). Still, Monet certainly knew and collected Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints with images of bridges. He had been collecting Japanese prints since the 1860s. At the end of the nineteenth century in Paris, all things Japanese were very much in vogue, particularly among the arts, so much so that Jules Claretie coined the term "japonisme" in 1872 to describe the phenomenon. While Monet never visited Japan, he learned of its culture through its art and believed, as did many Europeans of the time, that Japanese culture was artistic and that Japanese people had refined artistic tastes (Spate and Bromfield 2001, p. 4). The very notion of creating serial paintings, it has been suggested (Spate and Bromfield 2001, pp. 8, 36), may have come to the painter from such Japanese landscape print series as Katsushika Hokusai’s famous Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji; Monet owned nine prints from the series, and three volumes of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji numbered among a long list of books and articles on Japanese art and culture that filled his library (see list in Monet and Japan 2001, p. 213). A bridge depicted in Monet’s Japanese print collection, such as Utagawa Hiroshige’s Monkey Bridge, Kai Province (1853), probably inspired him to build his own (Dumas 2015, p. 215). Hiroshige created several images of Japanese bridges surrounded by nature (e.g., see Additional Images, fig. 6), even including the wisteria that Monet would add later to his bridge in abundance. The Japanese woodblock artist tended to place his bridges to one side, though, where Monet’s was placed more squarely head-on in the present and concurrent canvases. Viewers still saw a connection, though, at the exhibition in 1900, where his work was received favorably.
When talking about his bridge paintings, Monet spoke of "peaceful meditation" and the Japanese idea of evoking "the whole by means of a fragment"; he said he had "no other wish than to mingle more closely with nature" (quoted in Mühlberger 1993). His notions of inner peace reached through a study of nature melded with his japonisme; he planted flowers he saw in Japanese prints, such as Hiroshige’s wisteria, and even painted his dining room in yellows that had been used by his favorite Japanese artists Hiroshige and Hokusai and mounted his Japanese print collection against those tones (see Additional Images, fig. 7). Later, Monet commented of Japanese woodblock prints to the Duke of Treviso, "what we appreciated above all in the West was the bold fashion of designing their subjects: those people [Japanese artists] have taught us to compose differently, there is no doubt about that" (quoted in Guitton 2014). His flattening of the picture plane with the motif of the bridge in The Met’s version and others, as well as his tightly cropped and contained view, display a compositional debt to Hiroshige and Hokusai (see, for example, Hiroshige’s Rain Shower above the Great Bridge at Atake  and Inside Kameido Tenjin Shrine  from his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo as well as Hokusai’s Under Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa [1830–31, from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji]).
The design of Monet’s Eastern-inspired water garden contrasted with that of his flower garden, which was more traditionally Western in conception and evokes eighteenth-century formal country-house garden designs with strong geometric plans. The lily pond’s inclusion of the bridge, bamboo, gingko trees, and Japanese fruit trees on its banks recalls Asian precedents. Just as they commingled with Western plantings, Japanese cherry, apple, and maple trees as well as Oriental poppies and Japanese anemones took root in the flower garden (see Tucker 1990, p. 256).
Monet and the New Botany: Monet could have learned of Japanese gardens from a variety of sources: recent publications on the topic, such as Gustave Geffroy’s article on Japanese landscapists and their gardens in Siegfried Bing’s Le Japon artistique in December 1890; his friends, patron Tadamasa Hayashi and journalist, author, and art critic Théodore Duret; the horticultural exhibition at the Universal Exhibition of 1889; and a Japanese garden near Versailles built by Hugues Krafft in 1885. Hayashi was a frequent visitor to Giverny and owner of two Monet paintings for which he may have traded Japanese prints; he also may have taught Monet about the religious significance of Japanese gardens. Duret had visited the gardens of the summer palace of Hamagoten in Edo and could report back. Monet may have seen photographs of gardens in Japan, Japanese screens with images of gardens, and a Japanese garden first-hand at the horticultural exhibition of 1889 or at Versailles, where Krafft built his 1885 Japanese garden Midori no Sato ("Hill of Verdant Greenery") with a waterlily pool and a red lacquer bridge following a trip to Japan. Finally, a letter from Monet to fellow painter Paul Helleu of June 9, 1891, makes reference to the expected visit of his Japanese gardener, so influences of Japanese-style gardening at Giverny may have been very direct (Wildenstein 1974 ; for all of these possible sources, see Spate and Bromfield 2001, p. 46).
Monet kept abreast of what could be called the "new botany" of the period, following the new hybrid creations of French growers Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac and Antoine Lagrange. While scholars often have discussed Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem "Le Nénuphar blanc" (1885) as the source for Monet’s interest in water lilies, Monet’s choice of flower, nymphéas (nymphaea), was cultivated by Latour-Marliac through a hybrid of hardier American with African and other types, not Mallarmé’s common wild nénuphars (Willsdon 2004, p. 211). In fact, the reddish tones of Monet’s 1900 series relate to the red undersides of the leaves of Latour-Marliac’s new scented hybrid water lilies. On display in a stream at the 1889 Universal Exhibition as if they were growing wild, Latour-Marliac’s water lilies completely covered the surface, as they would in Monet’s pond until the painter enlarged it in 1901 (see Additional Images, fig. 8). Monet was another exhibitor at the 1889 Universal Exposition, so it is most likely that he saw the stream display there, which won first prize. (The grower’s water lilies won a gold medal at the 1900 Universal Exposition, where Lagrange displayed his water lilies as well.) Monet ordered small amounts of these expensive varieties from Latour-Marliac in 1894 and 1904, as well as other colorful varieties from Lagrange (Bocquillon 2009 and Willsdon 2015, p. 40). He may have also seen colorplates of the yellow, pale pink, and red new varieties of water lilies that were included in horticultural magazines and books from the 1880s on (see Holmes 2012). Another source for the idea of growing his water lilies in a wild fashion, instead of the more traditional Victorian style of growing them in rows, was William Robinson’s The Wild Garden, a popular British gardening book published in 1870 Monet may have encountered on his stay in London that year during the Franco-Prussian War or later when it found a following in France (see Willsdon 2004, pp. 138, 220, 264 n. 25, 272 n. 101, who notes that Robinson had been one of the first to publicize Latour-Marliac’s new water lilies, dedicating the 1893 volume of his journal The Garden to the French grower and including in it an article on the new water lilies [see Willsdon 2015, pp. 45, 314 n. 74]).
The Garden as Refuge: The critic Arsène Alexandre visited Giverny in 1901 and described Monet’s ease and good will in his newly constructed natural floral surroundings, as opposed to the artist’s city guise, which was "cold, laconic, and sarcastic" (Alexandre 1901). The psychologically transformative aspect of Monet’s water garden was one of which the artist was proud; he chose to share the experience of his garden with passersby, according to Alexandre. Indeed, two scholars have reckoned that the artist had sought—at the time of the Dreyfus Affair—to create a Utopian "healing dream state" for France through both his water garden and his paintings of it (see Tucker 1990 and Willsdon 2004; quote from Willsdon, who notes of the scented water lilies the healing power of synaesthetic experience, pp. 220–21). That political conflict ripped at the core of the French nation from 1894, the date of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s conviction of treason, until 1906, the year of Dreyfus’s exoneration. The split of the French people between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards was at its height in 1899, the year of Dreyfus’s return to France for a new trial, conviction, and pardon, and the year of The Met’s painting. Alexandre’s description of Monet’s water garden revels in its beauty: "Damascened full round leaves of water lilies, encrusted with precious stones that are their flowers, this water seems, when the sun is played on its surface, the masterpiece of a goldsmith who would combine the most magical metal alloys." Such poetic portrayals of the water garden abounded at the turn of the century alongside nationalistic rhetoric about it. This conjunction may seem odd for an image of a pond and its overarching bridge, but the artist’s retreat to nature, which began in earnest once at Giverny in the nineties, has been seen by some to have resonance beyond the personal realm to the political body of France.
Monet was encouraged to expand his repertoire of subjects after his critical acclaim at the exhibitions of 1898 and 1899, according to Tucker (1990, p. 260). The contemporary critic Raymond Bouyer, for example, wrote that Monet’s work "expresses France" and called him "our great national painter" and "the most significant painter of the century" (quoted in Tucker 1990, p. 260); such high praise emboldened Monet to seek beyond the Western motifs in his garden, even painting the Houses of Parliament, Charing Cross Bridge, and other monuments of London (where he spent parts of the winters of 1899–1901), as well as his Japanese-inspired footbridge.
Monet was also seeking refuge at the pond from a number of irritants, from his ever-increasing age and frailty, to the bustling modern cities of Paris and London, to France’s torn state in the height of the Dreyfus Affair. It has been noted that the painter withdrew to paint his "self-styled Eden," just as he had painted the garden in Argenteuil in the seventies in reaction to the industrial and commercial developments that surrounded him in a formerly "idyllic" town. And, as in his garden pictures of Argenteuil, Monet contained the view, closing off both background and sides, so there is no choice for the viewer but to give in to nature’s jewels (see Tucker 1990, p. 261; Tucker 1998, p. 23). Unlike this compositional containment, the return to the fundamentals of an Impressionist technique in the series of 1899 has been seen as a "clarion call for France to reexamine her building blocks, to encourage an honest accounting, and to start anew," rather than a retreat (Tucker 1998, p. 26). It has been argued that Monet used the association with the East to show France could find important guidance at that critical moment from Japan, taking from the Japanese deep engagement with nature and its aesthetically-minded people new ideas for the French nation (Tucker 1990, p. 264).
The critics’ reaction to Monet’s new Eastern motif sometimes invoked patriotic sentiment. While some may have wondered with trepidation what it could mean for the artist’s reputation as a singularly French artist to resort to foreign influence, the Impressionist defender Julien Leclercq felt that Monet had surpassed the Japanese with this series. Leclercq (1900) summarized his support of Monet’s new images of his Japanese footbridge in the face of any possible xenophobic criticism: "to discredit [the series] is to discredit France" (Leclercq 1900). His exhibition of the footbridge paintings in 1900 directly followed his strong representation at the Universal Exposition of that year (Tucker 1990, p. 266). The quick shift in motifs, however, between his Universal Exposition contributions and the present series on view three weeks later actually brought forth mixed reviews and some puzzlement. But select critics like Leclercq guided the public toward a broader vision of the artist as still particularly French in his exploration of nature in art. Monet would pursue his images of Giverny for another two decades, producing five hundred pictures in all of his precious gardens, whether simply as further explorations of the garden theme he had pursued for decades, as near-at-hand balms for his own aging, or as sources of strength for his troubled world from the Dreyfus Affair through the First World War.
[Jane R. Becker 2015]
Arsène Alexandre, "Le jardin de Monet," Le Figaro 47: 221 (August 9, 1901).
Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, "Monet’s Garden in Giverny," Monet’s Garden in Giverny: Inventing the Landscape, Musée des Impressionnismes, Giverny, 2009, pp. 16–17.
Ann Dumas, "Monet’s Early Years at Giverny," Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015, pp. 208–17.
Marc Elder, A Giverny chez Claude Monet, Paris, 1924, p. 13, translated in Gordon and Forge 1983, p. 261.
Caroline Holmes, Impressionists in their Gardens, Woodbridge (Suffolk), 2012, p. 45.
Maurice Kahn, "Le Jardin de Claude Monet," Le Temps 44 (7 June 1904), unpaginated.
Richard Mühlberger, What Makes a Monet a Monet?, New York, 1993, p. 41.
Grace Seiberling, "Monet’s Series," Ph.D. diss., New Haven, Yale University, 1976, p. 340 n.4.
Virginia Spate and David Bromfield, "A New and Strange Beauty. Monet and Japanese Art," Monet & Japan, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001, pp. 1–63.
Paul Tucker, "The Revolution in the Garden: Monet in the Twentieth Century," Monet in the 20th Century, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998, pp. 14–85.
Louis Vauxcelles, "Un Après-midi chez Claude Monet," L’Art et les Artistes 2 (1905), p. 86.
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet: biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1974 (1979), Vol. 3, p. 261, L.1111bis.
Clare A. P. Willsdon, "Making the Modern Garden," Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015, pp. 29–46.
For all other citations, see References.