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The Path through the Irises, 1914-1917

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Artist Monet, Oscar-Claude

In an interview given in 1918 and published posthumously, Monet discussed the working method he had evolved, in the face of impending blindness, to create the monumental series of decorations on which he was occupied exclusively during the last decade of his life. By now "insensitive" to the "finer shades of tonalities and colors seen close up," he found, however, that his eyes did not "betray" him when he stepped back and "took in the motif in large masses " He continued: "I waited until the idea took shape, until the arrangement and composition of the motifs had little by little inscribed themselves on my brain."

Indeed, The Path through the Irises—one of the many large-scale canvases painted in plein air, and referred to by Monet as his "sketches"— captures and fixes both the explosive color and joyous virility of a flower that abounded on Monet's property at Giverny. Despite the wildness of his handling—the flailing strokes of red, blue, green, and violet pink dragged dry on dry—Monet's control of the form and structure of his composition is unwavering. The pathway curves in an arabesque and disappears to the upper left, with irises in plentiful bloom on each side. Monet's bird's-eye perspective and daring magnification of the flowers tend to diminish the pathway; from contemporary photographs it is clear that the garden's paths were wider and the flowers less encroaching. Yet Monet's commitment to the reality of his site is uncompromising. The power of The Path through the Irises resides precisely in this concentration on the physical, in Monet's rigorous attachment to what Cezanne had called "that magnificent richness that animates nature."

However, the nature that Monet painted was by this time both fabricated and subject to his organization and control. By the 1920s the water garden at Giverny had become a celebrated and colorful confection; since the turn of the century, it had been noted that the aging Monet was never as happy as in the company of his small army of "blue-bloused and sabotted gardeners," discussing with them the mysteries of propagation, grafts, and color schemes.

The iris was one of Monet's favorite flowers—in "Le Clos Nor- mand" they lined the pathways leading to his house—and the pathway by the Japanese bridge was one of his favorite motifs. A group of paintings done in 1900 shows clearly the path with irises as it ap- proaches the bridge and disappears behind it. It was a segment of this view that Monet isolated in The Path through the Irises, painted between 1914 and 1917, at a time when he must have had great difficulty focusing visually on the flowers themselves, although the monumental sketch betrays none of this insufficiency. Characteristic of his working method in these years, Monet painted a cluster of similarly scaled compositions that share the same motif: for example, Irises and Irises on the Pathway (private collection, France), in which the flowers themselves are not in bloom. He thenshifted his canvas a little more toward the lily pond itself, in the exuberant and freely painted Iris , in which individual forms are less clearly articulated. In this painting the pathway is cut off and the blue of the pond intrudes to form a triangle of water reflecting in the center of the composition. Iris was, in turn, the starting point for two other large sketches of Irises by the Pond, where the flowers have fully yielded to the ever-encroaching water.

For Monet's friend, the critic Octave Mirbeau, irises evoked a dusky sensuality. Although Monet himself often represented water lilies as passive, supine elements, floating calmly above the animated surfaces of the all-seeing pond, irises took on an altogether more forceful, straining energy in his late work, their wild leaves and pulsating blooms assuming a thrusting, almost threatening, masculinity.

Monet's published correspondence for the period from 1914 to 1918 is also mute on the genesis of The Path through the Irises, al- though we know that his obsession in the years after 1914 with the panels he would bequeath to the French government led him to work with great economy: practically every canvas he painted in the last decade of his life related in some sense to the decorations in process. What, then, is the status of The Path through the Irises? Initially, this painting and its cognates seem to bear little connection with any of the great decorations. On the contrary, the ample and expansive presentation of both the flowers and pathway in this group of paintings effectively blocks out both sky and water—the two essential elements of all the grand panels, whether retained or not. After a visit to Giverny in 1920, the Due de Trevise characterized the subject of Monet's decorations as "the subtle play of air and water, under the varied fire of the sun. The earth, being too material, is ex- cluded " , None of the composite panels that have been recorded includes the pathway and irises with such singularity of focus.

Yet, a relationship between The Path through the Irises and the grand decorations, although attenuated, does exist. As previously noted, once Monet had painted the irises and the curving pathway, his vision moved inexorably toward the banks of the lily pond, until the water came to occupy equal space in his compositions. By anchoring the irises and the pathway to the edge of the pond itself, Monet returned to a motif that had a well-defined place within the schema of the water-lily decorations. The edge of the riverbank with irises shrouded in the haze of dawn provides the subject of the fourth and final panel for Morning (Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris), installed in the first room of the Orangerie and painted between 1921 and 1926, several years after The Path through the Irises was painted. This section, painted on a squared canvas, is the ulti- mate reprise of a motif that had once enjoyed independent status, but that, in the visionary last works, could exist only in submission to the water itself.

Monet's determination to engage himself with motifs he could hardly see succeeded through the intervention of memory and imagination, as he himself divulged. In the end he was forced, almost in spite of himself, to adopt a method of painting in which these forces collaborated—the equation recalls Degas—and, indeed, The Path through the Irises is a fine example of this reflexive manner of painting, recently described as Monet's "conceptualization on a grand scale of the repertoire of gestures he had had at his command for so long...".



Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 200.3 x 180 cm












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