Among the 12 works from the Anne H. Bass Collection that will feature in the 20th Century Evening Sale at Christie’s New York this May are three exquisite paintings by Claude Monet, spanning the full range of the artist’s mature oeuvre: Peupliers au bord de l’Eptefrom his bucolic paintings of the French countryside in the early 1890s; Le Parlement, Soleil Couchant, one of his rhapsodic views of misty London from 1900-1903; and the 1907 Nymphéasfrom his ethereal visions of his beloved water gardens at Giverny.
The works, each purchased by prominent American collectors early in their history, not only highlight the artist’s work in series; They also underscore the significant role played by Monet’s first American patrons, whose enthusiasm for his visionary Impressionist style contrasted with the skepticism of the French public and proved essential to the artist’s growth in international standing and ultimately his success.
“These three large series of Monet paintings in one collection, releasing simultaneously, represent a rare opportunity,” said Vanessa Fusco, co-director of the 20th Century Evening Sale. “And they each speak to that collectible history and the American embrace of what was a very avant-garde art movement at the time.”
American audiences first got a glimpse of Monet’s bold pictorial language in 1866, when one of the young artist’s paintings was part of an exhibition of French art at the Derby Gallery in New York. Opportunities to see his work in the United States were sporadic over the next two decades, but each time his following grew among the East Coast cultural elite, impressed by the Impressionist’s innovative technique and fresh vision of the Impressionist’s carefully observed landscapes.
American painters who visited Paris – including John Singer Sargent, Tom Perry, Theodore Robinson and Mary Cassatt – further stimulated interest in Monet and his contemporaries: “They came back with stories of the strength and ingenuity of these painters,” says Fusco.
In particular, Cassatt introduced many leading figures in their social circle to the Impressionists and facilitated several important sales. “Monet is just around the corner…” she advised her brother Alexander in 1883. She also counseled Frank Graham Thomson and a young Louisine Waldron Elder, who would later marry sugar magnate Henry O. Havemeyer. In the 1890s, the Havemeyers were among the leading buyers of Impressionist art in the United States.
Monet’s earliest American collectors bought his works primarily in Paris while touring Europe, but in the 1880s some forward-thinking dealers began shipping the artist’s paintings across the Atlantic directly to the US market. One of the most influential was Paul Durand-Ruel, who met the artist in London in 1871 and later became his main dealer.
Durand-Ruel first tested the waters by sending three Monet landscapes to the American Exhibition of Foreign Products, Arts & Manufactures in Boston in 1883. Here the dealer came into contact with James F. Sutton, a founding director of the American Art Association, who later organized a large-scale exhibition of Durand-Ruel’s Impressionist holdings, including 48 paintings by Monet, in New York in 1886. The exhibition caused a stir and marked a turning point in American collecting trends and cemented the rise of Monet and his contemporaries.
All three Monet paintings offered at Christie’s in the forthcoming Bass Collection sale were acquired from Durand-Ruel by key American buyers whose advanced collections contributed to the artist’s international reputation as one of the most sought-after practitioners of Impressionism.
Peupliers au bord de l’Epte went to Henry Sayles of Boston in 1892. William Lowell Putnam of Boston acquired Monet’s indelible view of London Le Parlement, Soleil Couchant In 1907, just two years after his sister, the poet Amy Lowell, bought another London painting, Waterloo Bridge, Effect de Brouillard (1903) – which sold at Christie’s last year for $48,450,000. James W. Viles of Chicago Nymphéas (1907) in 1909.
The American collectors who did business with Durand-Ruel and built up sizable inventories of Impressionists were influential in their social circles and also generous in lending and donating works to prominent exhibitions and institutions, further establishing Monet as the artist in vogue among the cultural elite of the USA.
“Bringing the images to America was a brilliant marketing tactic on the part of Durand-Ruel, and it had a profound effect. Generations of Americans learned about Impressionism through the donations made by these early collectors to major museums such as the Potter Palmers at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Havemeyers at the Met,” notes Fusco.
“The American public bought moderately, but thanks to this public Monet and Renoir were able to live, and then the French public followed” – Paul Durand-Ruel
Sayles, for example, was on loan Peupliers au bord de l’Epte to several pivotal solo exhibitions of Monet’s work in Boston in the early 20th century – at the St. Botolph Club, Copley Hall and finally the Museum of Fine Arts. These and others, such as the artist’s first monographic museum exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1893, made Monet a household name across the country.
“Without America I would have been lost and ruined after buying so many Monets and Renoirs. The two exhibitions I did there in 1886 saved me. American audiences bought moderately, but that audience allowed Monet and Renoir to live, and then French audiences followed suit,” wrote Durand-Ruel.
American collectors proved to be an observant and discerning public, quick to recognize the talent and ingenuity of an artist who was initially an outsider himself, subverting and reinventing the formal techniques of the European painting tradition. And in keeping with their patronage, he went from an avant-garde oddity to an established grandmaster in the span of a few decades. At the time of the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Monet was widely regarded by the public as a leading member of the artistic establishment. Here his work appeared alongside a new generation of experimental modernist works – Cubist, Futurist, Expressionist – no doubt committed to his own pioneering path.