Claude Monet wrote (above) :
“Beyond painting and gardening, I am good for nothing.”
Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny is the holy grail of natural sites for every art lover visiting France. It is where the artist spent the last four decades of his life, digging, planting, weeding and painting and it is an easy day trip west of Paris.
Growing and Painting Flowers.
Monet said of gardening,
“It is a profession that I learnt during my youth… when I was unhappy… It is maybe to flowers that I owe becoming a painter.”
As a young man, Monet always enjoyed being outdoors and wherever he lived, he planted flowers. He justified his obsessive garden-making on the grounds that flowers gave him a subject to paint, but his flowers also gave him some relief I imagine, from the frustration and financial hardship of his early career.
When Monet and his family moved to Giverny in 1883, he rented a house which came with an ample-sized garden with alleyways of cypresses and orchards of various fruit trees. The garden was fairly formal, with few flowers and no doubt desperately boring for the artist.
“We all took to gardening; I dug, planted, weeded myself; in the evening, the children watered. As the situation got better, I did more and more.”
With the help of his family, he changed the garden’s appearance from a farming plot to an oasis of flowers and ornamental trees. Around the house, they sowed seeds for his favourite annuals: poppies, sunflowers, and nasturtiums. In Spring, they planted daffodil bulbs and primroses and willowherbs. He exchanged seeds and cuttings and advice on handling flowers with his friend, Gustave Caillebotte, another Impressionist painter.
Monet was often obliged to be away from home and he would write to family and friends about his garden.
Monet wrote to Caillebotte,
“My dear friend, don’t forget to come Monday as agreed, all my irises will be in bloom, later some will be over. This is the name of the Japanese plant which I obtained from Belgium: Crythrochaete. Be sure to talk to Monsieur Godefroy about it and to give me some information about its cultivation.”
When we visited the garden and hous in late August, these are the flowers that were blossoming ….
Some of the wonderful views around the house …..
By the late 1880’s Monet’s paintings were becoming popular, both in Europe and in the Americas, and in 1890 he was able to purchase the house.
Now that the land belonged to him, he embarked on a much more ambitious gardening plan. He hired two full-time gardeners, a team that eventually grew to six, built a large greenhouse to propagate species and reserve bulbs, and rented a separate garden, not far away from his house, to move all the vegetable and fruits, so that he could devote his own garden solely to growing flowers.
His flower collection grew with a more extensive range of species: irises, peonies, delphiniums, Oriental poppies, asters and many species of sunflowers.
Unlike structured and rather linear French gardens, Monet’s garden has an English style. Instead of spacing plants apart, he covered every centimetre of the flower beds with foliage and annuals, perennials, and biennials. He planted the flowers with such a meticulous consideration and planning – when some withered, others would bud, just in time to provide fresh combinations of primary and contrasting hues.
Monet’s Water Garden.
Once Monet was happy with his flower garden, he started casting his eyes across the road where there was a marsh with a small pond used by local farmers to water cattle. It seemed like a perfect place for his dream of having the Oriental floating garden. But, it didn’t come easy.
First, the land was separated from the existing garden by a railroad and a major street. Second, the locals and town authorities objected to his plan with such a fervour that they managed to delay the process of acquisition for as long as possible.
A map of the garden now ….
He bought part of the coveted land in February 1893, but he had to deal with a lengthy battle with bureaucracy, to convince the locals that his exotic plants would not poison the water supply.
He grew so frustrated, that, whilst away in Rouen he wrote to his wife:
“This enrages me and I want no longer to have anything to do with… all those people in Giverny. There is nothing but trouble ahead, believe me, I give it up completely. Don’t rent anything, don’t order any lattice, and throw the aquatic plants in the river; they’ll grow there. I want to hear no more about it, I want to paint. Shit on the natives of Giverny, and the engineers. I’ll give the land to whoever wants it.”
Inspired by one of his treasured Japanese prints (see previous article), Monet had two Japanese bridges built and had them painted green, to distinguish them from the traditionally red paint that is used in Japan.
The oriental atmosphere is recreated with the choice of plants such as bamboos, ginkgos biloba, maple trees, Japanese peonies, various breeds of Irises, white lilies and the weeping willows which so marvellously frame the pond.
Lastly, Monet planted nymphéas in the pond itself.
He went on a spending spree and bought the newest species of water lilies available, such as Arethusa, Atropurpurea, and James Brydon:
“I love water, but I also love flowers. That’s why , once the pond was filled with water, I thought of embellishing it with flowers. I just took a catalogue and chose at random, that’s all.”
Monet was so proud of his water garden that he liked to receive his guests there and spent hours contemplating it. A full time gardener, in charge of its maintenance, had to remove each and every dead leaf that dropped into the water, to ensure the perfect beauty of the pond.
The nymphéas paintings.
In 1897, he started to paint the Nymphéas paintings.
In obsessively seeking to capture what he experienced when contemplating the mirror like surface of the pond, Monet achieved his greatest masterpieces. He pushed his painting to the limits of his ability to create and invented vibrations of colour and form that evoke a myriad of emotions in the viewer.
I want to paint the air around the bridge, the house, the boat. The beauty of the air where they are, and it is nothing other than impossible.
It took me some time to understand my water lilies… I cultivated them with no thought of painting them… One does not fully appreciate a landscape in one day… And then, suddenly, I had a revelation of the magic of my pond. I took my palette. From this moment, I have had almost no other model.
Monet wrote to the art critic Thiébault-Sisson :
“I have painted a lot of these water lilies, modifying each time my point of view, renewing the subject following the seasons of the year, and therefore, following the different effects of the light engendered by these changes. The effect of the light varies all the time anyway. The essential subject is the mirror of the water whose aspect, at any one time, changes thanks to the expanse of sky that is reflect in it. A passing cloud, a fresh breeze, the threat of and falling rain, a sudden gust of wind, the light failing and shining again, so many reasons, elusive to the profane eye, which transform the tint and disfigure the body of water.”
Once Monet had completed the development of his garden, he devoted the last three decades of his life to creating almost 250 panels depicting the serene surface of his water-lily pond. He also developed an idea of creating a space with giant panels covering the walls, where the public could take a break from the rush of daily life and find peace in the contemplation of his garden.
Claude Monet’s Legacy.
Unfortunately, the artist did not live to see the realisation of his idea. The French State built a pair of oval rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie, in Paris, to permanently house eight of Monet’s water-lily murals. The exhibition opened to the public on 16th of May 1927, a few months after Monet’s death.
Today, thanks to Google Art Project, you can virtually visit the rooms at the museum. The interactive tool allows you to freely walk in between the spaces, zoom into the panels and take your time exploring the murals with no tourists taking selfies, getting in the way.
Gustave Geffroy, a French journalist, art critic, historian, and novelist, and who is noted as one of the earliest historians of the Impressionist art movement, wrote:
“It is in Giverny that you should see Monet in order to know him, his character, his taste for life, his intimate nature. This house and this garden, it is also a masterpiece, and Monet has put all his life into creating and perfecting it.”
There is a wealth of good things to see and read on the Claude Monet foundation’s website here, in French, English or Japanese.
And there is a wonderful collection of Monet’s work at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.
I hope you enjoyed reading this tale of a French artist’s garden, as much as I’ve enjoyed both visiting and photographing the garden and researching this article. I feel so very lucky to live in this area of France, just west of Paris, where I enjoy the lovely countryside and all that my favourite city can offer, a city that I have called home for thirty four years now.
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