Oscar-Claude Monet is one of the most famous painters of the Impressionist movement, which began in France in the late 1860s. He was something of a rebel as an artist; at the time, the art scene in France was almost totally domineered by a reverence for the old masters, and for very traditional, carefully composed pictures. Great emphasis was placed upon making each painting look as real in every detail as possible. Each painting, it was believed, should tell a story, and that story should communicate a specific moral message. The art scene was very lively and competitive, and any artist that wished to be successful in a career as a painter was dependent on the approval of judges who selected paintings for exhibition at the Salon des Beaux-Arts.
It was during this period of strict regulations and high moral expectations that seventeen year old Claude Monet first made his entrance into the art scene. Another artist, Boudin, encouraged Monet to explore what was known as painting en plein air, or "in the open air." In a nutshell, this meant actually going outdoors and painting what he saw around him, rather than sitting in a dimly lit studio and working from models and the works of other artists. This suited Monet's personality quite well. He hated the strictures of formal art school, especially the hours spent indoors being told what to paint by an instructor with very different ideas of appropriate subject matter. During his travels, Monet spent some time in a smaller town in Normandy called Giverny, roughly 50 miles outside of Paris. Initially, Monet rented a house, known as the Cider Press (La Pressoir), that he thought ideally situated. A book I recently read, The Private Lives of the Impressionists, by Sue Roe, describes it this way:
"The house he and Alice had rented, the long, low pink building with roughcast walls, sat in almost two and a half acres of scrubby orchard and garden, surrounded by hills. At the foot of the garden ran the small railway connecting Vernon and the nearby medieval village of Gasny. The house, set with its back to the lane that wound through Giverny, was reached by a simple path, bordered with pine trees and sheltered by trellises covered with roses. The garden was a vast, walled space, partly ornamented with boxwood. There were two stiff flowerbeds running parallel to a broad alley bordered with spruce and cypress. (Giverny as we now know it, with its ravishing array of flowers and Japanese water garden, subject of the series of Water Lilies, was still a thing of the future.) Monet and Alice immediately removed the box, with they both hated, and began an argument--lasting two decades--about the spruce and cypress. Beyond the garden lay waterlogged meadows surrounded by willow and poplar trees, with poppy fields continuing into the distance". (Roe, 250)
Monet's home at Giverny after restoration,
photo by Jeff Pusch
As his fortunes improved and his paintings met with greater acceptance, Monet had the opportunity to purchase the house. The renovations of the gardens to his exacting specifications continued throughout the rest of his life. The garden consists of two parts, the Clos Normand flower garden near the house, and the Japanese-inspired water garden, which he later added on an adjacent piece of property. Always aware of the view from the house and from key locations throughout the garden, he grouped flowers based on their colors, rather than on strict conventions of formal gardening. He removed a whole group of boxwood shrubs and some other tall trees, because of how they affected the light and the views in key areas. He also considered the shape of the beds in deciding what to plant. The view from the Grand Allee, a wide path stretching from the front gate to the front door of the house, is particularly stunning. A series of wide metal arches span the path, and are covered in thickly blooming roses late in the summer. Late in the year, nasturtiums break the bounds of the flower beds and nearly cover the entire pathway with their lobed leaves and brilliant orange blooms.
Iron Rose Trellis over Nasturtium pathway,
photo by Joe Christiansen
While many artists had painted the natural world, Monet first shaped that world to create the scenes and perspectives he wished to paint. In the garden adjacent to the house, he carefully planned sweeping areas of color, considering bloom times and symmetry. On the website dedicated to his house, they quote Monet as writing to a friend, "All my money goes into my garden," he said. But also: "I am in raptures." Several photographs exist of Monet in his garden, and he truly does seem in his element there, as in this famous photograph by by Étienne Clémentel, c. 1917.
In 1893, ten years after his arrival in Giverny, Monet acquired another piece of property, on the other side of the railway. He laboriously replaced the marshy fields with a Japanese water garden, reflecting his long fascination with Japanese woodcuts. He built a Japanese bridge spanning the pond, and filled the assymetrical area with weeping willows, bamboo, quince, apple and cherry trees, and the famous water lilies that featured in so many of his later works. He painted an extensive series of images of the Japanese bridge in the years between 1889 and 1900. At the time, Monet and his family had to cross a road and railroad to reach the gardens. With the current renovations, visitors instead cross under the the road through a tunnel, and avoid the hazards of dodging traffic.Bridge in Japanese Garden,
photo by Alan Raine "Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge,"
1897-1898 Bridge in Japanese Garden,
photo by Audrey O'Reilly
When you examine an aerial view of the gardens, the contrast between the two is evident. The Clos Normand, a cottage-style garden near the house, is laid out in strict geometrical lines, though the crowded plants contained within the beds were not formally arranged, and tended to spill out in colorful profusions. In this area, he used "long, straight flowerbeds leading from the entrance of his house to a railroad track that marked the bottom of the flower garden. This arrangement of narrow, parallel beds. . .produces long lines of perspective that on misty mornings disappear into infinity." (The Magic of Monet's Flower Gardens, by Derek Fell). The Japanese Garden, in contrast, is made up of all curved, wandering paths and asymettrical shapes. Like any garden, Monet's was a work in progress, and he often redesigned areas and replaced plants as they fell out of his favor. He aimed for a balance of intricate flowers, like Japanese peonies and his beloved hybrid dahlias, with simpler masses of color provided by wildflowers native to the area. (Fell)
1902 Iris along path to house,
photo by Clancy Pammert "The Garden in Flower,"
When I began closely examining the works of Monet, I realized that he often chose a favorite setting, and painted it at different times of day, in different lights, and even in different seasons. Instead of a single painting telling a story of a specific event, at a specific moment in time, for the purpose of communicating a story, Monet painted whole series of paintings that taken together, tell the story of the ever-changing life of the garden. He painted around 250 images of the water lilies in his Japanese garden alone. He dedicated another series of ten paintings of weeping willow trees, to the young soldiers who fought in World War I. His own son was deployed to the front lines, and the advance of the German armies threatened his home and family directly. These paintings are a departure from his more popular works, both in color and in mood. Monet used a much darker palette for these works, and the trees seem to be brooding and mourning.
1918-1919 "Water-Lily Pond and Weeping Willow," 1916-1919 Water-Lily Pond and Weeping Willow,
photo by Alan Raine
Monet painted in his garden at Giverny over the course of forty-three years, from 1883 until his death at the ripe old age of 86 in 1926. If you have the opportunity to see a chronological arrangement of his work during this time period, you will not only see the development of his garden, as he added plants and watched it mature, but also the development of his unique artistic style. His earlier works show more controlled, detailed brush strokes, while his last works are much more abstract, with larger, sweeping strokes and less recognizable subjects. The size of his paintings reflected his change in style, as well. Rather than small canvases, with small, controlled brush strokes, Monet in his later years came to favor huge canvases, sometimes mounted on rolling castors while he created them, to accomodate the huge, sweeping gestures he made with his brush. Some have attributed this to his dimming eyesight, as he suffered from cataracts in his later years. Others insist it was the just the natural progression of his style as a painter, as he moved ever farther from the strict demands for realism that had long been the standard for quality artwork. Regardless, he left us a phenomenal body of work to study and appreciate.
Unfortunately, after Monet's death, his home and gardens at Giverny fell into disrepair. His son, Michel, initially had charge of the property, but was unable to maintain it, and deeded it to Académie des Beaux-Arts. The gardens he so scrupulously planned and maintained were ignored and became overgrown. The house itself was so damaged by bombs during World War II, and subsequent years of neglect, that almost ten years were required to restore them to a state appropriate for public viewing.
The process of restoration was begun in the late 1970s by Gerald Van der Kemp and his American wife Florence, the same meticulous historians who had earlier restored the palace of Versailles. Thanks to the generous contributions of many, many art lovers in France and America, his home at Giverny has now been restored, and the gardens returned to some of their previous splendor. The gardeners have researched which plants he preferred, and studied his paintings, photographs, and letters in great detail in an attempt to recreate his gardens as accurately as possible. Remarkably, there were still a few people living in 1976, when they began the project in earnest, who had seen Monet's gardens in their glory. Their testimony as to the appearance of the garden under Monet's direction was indispensible. Thanks to the vision and dedication of Gerald and Florence Van der Kemp, visitors can once again experience the vistas that Monet so carefully designed and created, and which in turn inspired so many moving works of art.
Waterlilies, photo by Jeff Pusch"Waterlilies," 1916
I owe my thanks to several photographers who visited the restored gardens at Giverny, and posted their work on Flickr. I contacted them, and was so pleased when they each gave me express permission to use them in this article. Please respect their copyrights, and do not copy or use their work without permission. I appreciate their generosity and their quick responses to my inquiries! A trip to Giverny is definitely on my "wish list" of things I'd love to do some day!
Click on any photographer's name to visit their photostream on Flickr.
Images of Monet's artwork are in the public domain, and readily available on the internet. Those appearing in this article are from Wikimedia Commons.
To learn more about the restoration of Monet's home and gardens, visit this website.
For a partial listing of plants included in Monet's distinctly different gardens, visit here.
For video tours of different areas of Monet's garden, click here.
You may also enjoy this article here on Dave's Garden, by Carrie Lamont: Think Monet!
Information from this article was drawn from many sources, including:
Fell, Derek; The Magic of Monet's Garden: His Planting Plans and Color Harmonies, Firefly Books, 2007
Rafferty, Jean Bond; France Today, "How Monet's Garden Grew," April 24, 2011
Roe, Sue: The private lives of the impressionists, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006