Each year, more than 500,000 people travel to a small village of Giverny to the northwest of Paris, France to visit a place of exquisite beauty that Marcel Proust described as "the transposition of art." Immortalized in a range of masterworks, this place is an oasis with a charming pink farmhouse with emerald-green shutters surrounded by vibrant flowerbeds of tulips, lavender or sunflowers, plantations of weeping willows and bamboo shoots, and a pond packed with waterlilies crossed by a familiar Japanese footbridge cloaked in wisteria. It is Claude Monet's Giverny Garden - an idyllic inspiration and open-air studio behind some of the world’s most famous paintings, but also a total work of art in its own right.
Monet first noticed the village of Giverny while looking out a train window, quickly deciding to trade the avenues of Paris for the rolling hills of Normandy and make it his home. In 1883, he bought the house and land surrounding it, fitting the house to his needs, fairly simple in style but filled with warmth and color, and turning the land into magnificent gardens. Giverny is a home where Monet lived and worked until his death in 1926.
Upon his arrival in Giverny, Claude Monet transformed the existing house with his own palette - he painted the doors and shutters green, the interior in hues of blue and yellow, set up a studio inside and hanged his collection of Japanese prints from the 18th and 19th centuries. He then turned to gardens.
When he arrived, the land around the house was planted with an orchard and enclosed by high stone walls, with a central alley bordering with pines. He had the pines cut down, keeping only two yews closest to the house to please his wife Alice.
Instead, he created a garden full of perspectives, symmetries and colors, divided into vibrant flowerbeds that combine the simplest flowers such as daisies and poppies with the rarest varieties. The central alley features iron arches on which climbing roses grow, surrounded by ornamental or fruit trees. As he didn't like constrained gardens, he combines the flowers according to their colors and allowed them to grow freely. Developing a passion for botany, he would also exchange plants with his friends or buy rare varieties at great expense, once stating, "All my money goes into my garden." Selected with a painters eye, every step of the huge walled garden is a visual treat.
In 1983, the artist bought the piece of land neighboring his property on the other side of the railway, crossed by a small brook. This is where he had the first small pond dug, enlarging it over the years to its present-day size. Full of asymmetries and curves, the water garden is inspired by the Japanese gardens that Monet knew from the prints he collected avidly. It features the famous Japanese bridge covered with wisterias, other small bridges, weeping willows, a bamboo forest and the famous Nymphéas which bloom all summer long. Initially, the locals were opposed to his plans to build water gardens, fearful that the strange plants would poison the water of the tributary feeding the ponds. The pond is filled with magnificent water lilies, immortalized in so many of Monet's paintings, with its edges decorated with weeping willows, cherry trees, rhododendrons and azaleas, ferns, irises and much much more.
Believing it was important to surround himself with nature and paint outdoors, Claude Monet gained much of his inspiration from his Giverny gardens. Never before had a painter so shaped his subjects in nature before painting them.
Monet would find his inspiration in this water garden for more than twenty years. Among the most famous is the Water Lilies series that he started painting in 1899, initially in vertical views with the Japanese bridge as a dominant motif and later in the series of water lilies in large-scale. Each one shows his motifs at a different time of the day or a different point in the seasons. Throughout his lifetime, Monet painted more than two hundred paintings featuring these motifs.
Always looking for mist and transparencies, Monet would dedicate himself less to flowers than to reflections in water, a kind of inverted world transfigured by the liquid element.
When Monet died in 1926, the entire estate was passed on to his son Michel. As he never spent time in Giverny, Blanche Hoschedé Monet, the daughter of Alice and the widow of Jean Monet, took over the care of the garden. After Blanche died in 1947, the garden was left untended.
Since Michel, who died in a car crash in 1966, had no heirs, he had bequeathed the estate to the Académie des beaux-arts. At the time, the house and gardens were neglected and left in a desolate state. In 1977, Gérald Van der Kemp, then curator at the Palace of Versailles, and his wife Florence appealed to American donors through the Versailles Foundation-Giverny Inc. to raise funds, and thereafter played a key role in restoring the garden to its former lush, which took the next ten years. Van der Kemp hired Gibert Vahé as a head gardener, who continues to take care of this paradise to the present day. Vahé lives next door, where he keeps his own garden—which is a sight in itself, captivating tourists on their way to Monet’s home.
The property became opened to public visit in 1980 after completion of large-scale restoration work, including the restoration of the huge Nymphea's studio, the display of the precious collection of Japanese woodblock prints in several rooms, and replanting the gardens as they once were. The Fondation Claude Monet was created the same year as the estate was declared public. Today, the house and gardens is a site of pilgrimage for not only art lovers, but also botany enthusiasts.
The visitors can visit Claude Monet's house, comprised of the blue salon, the "épicerie", the living room/studio, the dining room and the blue-tiled kitchen on the ground floor; the family rooms, including Monet's, Alice Hoschedé's bedroom and the room of Blanche Hoschedé on the first floor; as well as the studio next door where the artist painted some of his most famous works. The visitors can also wander Monet's gardens through designated pathways, admiring its unparalleled beauty and all its diverse perspectives.
Season by season, Claude Monet's Giverny Garden charts the splendor of the world-renowned garden Monet cultivated and then translated into more than 500 paintings. Here is a unique and visionary portrait of one of the most frequently visited places in all of France. Starting with the story of how Monet acquired and transformed the land in Giverny into an open air studio, author Vivian Russell details the history of the garden and traces the development of Monet as an artist and gardener. She presents a vivid account of the evolution of Giverny, with insights from the people who restored the garden to its former glory, as well as from its current caretakers.
Featured images: Claude Monet's Giverny Garden. All images via Creative Commons.
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