Monet’s Celebrated ‘Les Peupliers’ to Anchor Impressionist, Modern Art Sale

Claude Monet’s “Les peupliers,” done in oil on canvas and painted in 1891, is expected to bring between $20 and $30 million at the May 4 Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale at Christie’s New York

NEW YORK – Claude Monet’s “Les Peupliers,” one of the most celebrated of the pioneering artist’s great series of works from his years in Giverny, will be among the items up for sale at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, scheduled for May 4.

Painted en plein air during the summer of 1891, the work is the largest of the artist’s paintings devoted to a picturesque arrangement of poplar trees, known as the “tree of liberty” in his native France. Estimated to sell for between $20 and $30 million, the painting is offered from an important private collection and remains in pristine condition, in its original unvarnished and unlined state.

Monet’s “Poplars” paintings emerged from a particularly focused and prolific period in the artist’s career, when he committed himself to the task of capturing the instant and ever-changing effect of light on specific forms in nature. In 1891, when he learned that a stand of mature poplar trees on the river near his home were to be cut down, he made a deal with a wood cutter to leave them standing long enough for him to continue painting them. The result was a magnificent series of 24 paintings depicting the trees from varying perspectives and in different seasons and lighting conditions, all conceived from the artist’s small floating studio moored on the waterway.

In order to capture the truest essence of the scene at any given time, Monet reportedly worked on several paintings at once, exchanging one canvas for another throughout the day, and sometimes giving himself as little as seven minutes to work on a particular scene before the quality of light changed.

For the first 13 paintings in the series, of which the painting to be offered this May is included, Monet portrayed the trees in a graceful, serpentine pattern, before changing the composition to resemble a straight screen of trees. With their sinuous line and dynamic composition, the earlier S-shaped compositions are among the most widely recognized and highly sought-after of the artist’s great series paintings. At nearly four feet in height, “Les Peupliers” is the both the largest of the S-shaped compositions and one of the most fully finished, with a richly-worked surface and an elegant juxtaposition of cool and warm colors that separate the towering trees of the foreground from the curving line of leafy trees in the distance.

Since their first appearance in public in 1892, the “Poplars” have been received with great enthusiasm by collectors and critics alike. A selection from the series exhibited at the prestigious Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris sold briskly, reportedly for sums of 3,000 to 4,000 francs each. The first owner of “Les Peupliers” was Dr. Georges Viau, one of the most influential and discerning collectors of Impressionist paintings at the time. Among the later owners was Else Sackler, the first wife of Arthur M. Sackler, the connoisseur, collector and scholar. In 2000, Ms. Sackler consigned the painting for sale to Christie’s New York for its Evening Sale of Impressionist & Modern Art, where it was sold to the current owner, an Asian private collector.

“The appearance of this masterpiece-quality work marks the first time in over a decade that a major 1890s series painting has come to auction and we anticipate great enthusiasm from the many collectors, dealers, and museum directors who have been eager for a quintessential Monet scene such as this,” said Conor Jordan, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s New York. “As a painterly experience, ‘Les Peupliers’ is a wonderful exploration of nature through light and structure. Its classical beauty conveys the essence of “la France profonde” just as clearly today as when Monet conceived it more than 100 years ago.”

Of the 24 works in the “Poplars” series, the majority are housed in major art museums around the world, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Art in Tokyo, while the remainders are held in private collections around the world. In recent years, prices for exceptional examples of Monet’s work have soared, driven by demand from collectors worldwide for masterpiece quality works by the greatest master of the Impressionist period. The top price at auction for any Monet painting is $80.4 million for “Le Bassin aux nympheas” from 1919, which sold at Christie’s London in June 2008 against an estimate of $35-$47 million.

Les Peupliers”will be on display to the public at Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries beginning April 29. In advance of the May 4 sale in New York, Christie’s will tour this exceptional painting to its locations around the world, including: April 1-3, at Christie’s Moscow and April 8-11 at Christie’s London.

The complete e-catalogue for this sale will be available online at the Christie’s web site.

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