France 1840 – 1926
Villas at Bordighera
[Les villas à Bordighera] 1884
oil on canvas
canvas 115.0 (h) x 130.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase with the joint assistance of the Fonds du Patrimoine, the Foundation Meyer and funds from an anonymous Canadian gift 2000
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The Italian village of Bordighera, a resort filled with gardens and palm trees, became popular in the 1880s as a destination for upper-class English and German travellers. Situated on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria, about twenty kilometres east of the French town of Menton, it attracted Monet and Auguste Renoir in 1883 in their search for new, paintable landscapes. Monet returned alone the following year, and painted more than forty views of the area, the town and its gardens. His energy was ferocious; at first he worked on four canvases each day, and between 24 January and 2 February 1884 he completed fourteen.1
Monet wanted to paint Mr Moreno’s garden in particular, and waited for letters of introduction. He visited on 5 February 1884, and began painting the famous palm trees, interrupted by various excursions around the town and to Monte Carlo. As always, the artist was frustrated by aesthetic and practical difficulties (the blues were difficult, the light changed, it rained). The shimmering golden pinks and blues seemed almost incredible, as Monet wrote to his companion Alice in Giverny:
Obviously people will exclaim at their untruthfulness, at madness, but too bad—they [also] say that when I paint our own climate. All that I do has the shimmering colours of a brandy flame or of a pigeon’s breast, yet even now I do it only timidly. I begin to get it.2
Villas at Bordighera is a variant version of another painting. It was made by Monet for his fellow Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot, it seems at the time, as a copy of an identical view, although at twice the size of the first painting.3 The off-centre composition and radically cropped elements such as trees and buildings point to the ineradicable example of Japanese woodblock prints, of which Monet was a keen collector. It is interesting how naturally such influences have been absorbed and are no longer an end in themselves. Instead, Monet searches for the southern light, the harsh whites and bright light blues which unify the tamed elements of garden and town with the unconquerable suffused colours of sky and mountains.
The subject of the ‘tourist view’ was not new in art, as Spate has pointed out—but Monet’s approach differs from the Salon’s more conventional renditions in ‘their resolutely anti-associational character. They do not evoke the past … and do not refer to the inhabitants of the landscape, or its uses. They are, indeed, mute records of places visited, icons of exotic sites … [and are] commodities.’4 Monet may therefore be the first painter of the avant-garde to bring his famous ‘eye’ to the business of promoting the safe exoticism of the Mediterranean for the sensory pleasures of modernity.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet: the triumph of Impressionism, vol. 1, Köln: Taschen; Paris: Wildenstein Institute 1996, p. 195.
- Quoted in Virginia Spate, The colour of time: Claude Monet, London: Thames and Hudson 1992, p. 167.
- Wildenstein, vol. 2, cat. 856, p. 320.
- Spate, pp. 166–67.