Dazzling floral symphony greets visitors as soon as they arrive in Giverny. Spread across four acres, 350,000 flowers of all shapes and sizes are planted every year by a team of eleven gardeners. Drawing on personal accounts, letters, sketches, paintings, and other archive materials, they strive to identically reproduce the two green spaces – the Clos Normand and the Water Garden – that Claude Monet skillfully designed a century ago. “His garden was one of the most beautiful in the whole world,” said playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry, one of the painter’s close friends. “He decided on the colors a few months in advance. And he only had one luxury: his flowers.”
A tireless botanist, Monet brought plants and seeds back from his travels, and even had them sent from far-flung lands such as Japan. He shared his horticultural experience with painter Gustave Caillebotte and writer Octave Mirbeau. His garden, with its myriad of colors, shapes, and scents, the result of more than forty years of thought and work, became a “painting in the heart of nature,” in the words of Marcel Proust.
Visiting Giverny also means discovering the aesthetic vision of the Impressionists’ figurehead. Every room in the house, faithfully recreated, exudes the particular atmosphere crafted by a lover of color, shadow, and light. The walls are decorated with countless paintings by Impressionist friends and more than 200 Japanese engravings chosen by the artist himself, including Hokusai’s renowned Great Wave off Kanagawa. Besides the Japanese prints, the other works are copies. The Fondation Claude Monet did not want to burden itself with an extensive security system, and this freedom emphasizes the immersive aspect of the visit. After all, visiting Giverny is also a trip back through time.
Picture the Scene, a Century Ago...
Monet rose with the sun every morning. After a rather peculiar breakfast (an andouillette sausage washed down with a glass of dry white wine), he would go to one of his three studios to start working. The cacophony of nature offered by the Clos Normand – chirping birds, buzzing insects, clucking hens – was matched by the commotion in the house. Imagine the racket made by the eight children in the painter’s blended family! The atmosphere was no less agitated in the kitchen, where the cook, Marguerite, would prepare endless delicacies. The countless gleaming copper utensils are a testament to the diversity of copious dishes the master loved so much. The doorbell would then ring, announcing the arrival of friends for lunch. At 11:30 a.m. sharp, Monet would emerge from his studio and join them around the table. The guests on any given day could have been the statesman Georges Clemenceau, the painters Renoir, Pissarro, and Caillebotte, the sculptor Rodin, Guitry, Mirbeau, and art collector Paul Durand-Ruel.
After the meal, the guests would take a walk around the garden accompanied by the artist. They took the central pathway – being careful to not step on the nasturtiums! – to reach the Water Garden. In the early summer, the small Japanese bridge was always covered with wisteria, whose fragrance wafted through the weeping willows, irises, bamboo, and azaleas. Monet’s gaze was drawn to the white waterlilies, aquatic plants similar to lotuses, floating on the pond’s surface. Sat under a large parasol, he would often spend the afternoon painting what he nicknamed the “floral aquarium.” In 1890, he wrote: “Water with grass waving at the bottom… Quite wonderful to behold, but capturing it is enough to drive one mad! No matter! I always tackle these sorts of things!”
This obsession led to Water Lilies, the most iconic series of paintings in Monet’s career. Over the last thirty years of his life, Monet painted more than 250 versions of this scene, which changed with the light and the seasons. Eight of these panels, each spanning more than ten feet in width, can be admired at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. This series also betrays the painter’s gradual macular degeneration, which meant he was almost entirely blind by the time he died in Giverny at the age of 86. During the funeral in 1926, Clemenceau “the Tiger” tore off the black sheet draped over his friend’s coffin and replaced it with a colorful fabric, crying, “No! No black for Monet!”
Article published in the August 2021 issue of France-Amérique. S’abonner au magazine.