From a meadow naked, without a tree, but watered by a babbling and winding arm of the river Epte, he created a true fairy garden, digging a large pond in the middle, planting at the edge of the pond exotic trees and willows whose branches felt in long tears along the bank, drawing all around the valley whose the arches of greenery, intertwining, gave the illusion of a big park, sowing galore, on the pond, thousands and thousands of water lilies whose rare and chosen species were coloured all the tints of the prism, from purple, red and orange until pink, lilac and mauve, planting finally on the Epte at its output of the pond, one of his little rustic, humped bridge, as we see in the gouaches of the eighteenth century and on toiles de Jouy.
An American accented guide, expert on the gardens of Giverny and life of Claude Monet, tried a little too hard it seemed, to convince his clients of his passion, not even five steps into the first scene. Only two, and a little more as I surreptitiously hovered close behind to fall into his dialogue. A guide myself, I am attracted to other storytellers, we share a craving for knowledge and history, if only one were more attentive.
‘Darn. I should have brought my other camera.’ splitting words from the guide. Her eyes never left the screen of her phone, hand waving about like a conductor, only click, click … pausing to view the shots, never looking at the actual garden.
This was spoiling my experience and I drew away quietly, back to the beginning of the dream. The entrance.
The way to Giverny from Paris is a simple route. Regular trains from Gare Saint Lazare will stop at Vernon where a bus, for ten euros return, will deposit you at the road leading to Giverny. The day had started well, a brisk walk through the Tuilleries, up past Maxim’s and the Madeleine Cathedral, fresh September morning. Serendipity would pop two lovely ladies on the train seats beside me. Ronni and Barbara were from Israel, the former having lived in Paris for some time. Short questions turned to lovely conversations and we kept ‘hello again’ into each other in the garden. We talk still. A perfect start to my dream walk, no matter how long it would take, but every petal would be important.
And it was so. Late September is the perfect time to visit any European garden, and in particular Giverny. Any season will reveal the splendour of different colour and hue, vivid or gentle, but with the Spring and Summer, waves of tourists, bless them, descend and kill whatever poetry may lurk within this treasure. It becomes single file, flashing photography, the want of quiet expelled, the pushing of photo opportunities on the bridge over the water lilies a travesty to anything sacred to the memory and artist within the green space. Not now. Now there was a trickle of like minded souls, each stooped and pleasured by a crimson dahlia or the softest rose. Gardeners came to the garden.
Claude Monet was born in Normandy, where Giverny lies, in 1840. In 1858 he was introduced to the idea of plain-air painting by Eugéne Boudin, whom he credits for his later success. Following a stint in the army, he joined a Paris studio at the age of twenty-two, run by Charles Gleyre, where he studied with August Renoir and Fredérc Bazille, the latter becoming one of his closest friends.
You can only imagine what times were like then, all these aspiring young artists, seeking a patron, approval, funds and sales. Success was being accepted into the Salon, yet these young artists were straining at the restrictive codes for entry and acceptance and over time (I am giving you a brief overview) artists like Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Rodin, Renoir and Degas joined together to exhibit their works independently from the Salon. This in the most liberal version of art history events, led to a new genre in art – Impressionism. Rather than the clarity of realism and the finite depiction of detail, these artists wanted to paint the idea, the impression of what they were seeing and experiencing in art. Short, visible brush strokes, play with light and movement in nature, depicting natural, organic scenes in parks and small towns, common scenes, the everyman.
I only give you this soupçon of art history to place Monet and his desire for painting nature in the heart of Giverny, his garden, his paradise and place of colour and light. Monet was to live here for the last forty-three years of his life. ‘My garden is my most beautiful work of art.’ – Monet
The planting for this time of year are the jewel colours, with the hint of Autumn in the air. Crabapples and fruit trees begin the rusting of their leaves, roses left to form bright hips. The first ‘rooms’ have lawns with pods of purple and pink. As you meander, it is to the famous arches, now laced with nasturtiums that fall like curtains to the ground. Everyone wants this money shot, so synonymous with Giverny, and it is possible to linger and take it all in.
To the lily pond. To understand the enormity of this scene is to visit the many galleries, mostly the Museé de l’Orangerie in Paris, where the larger than life paintings can only take your breath away. Then you can begin to understand the singular passion Monet had for painting them. It is here that he planted, visited at all times of the day, to paint the light, the colour and the seasons of lilies, foliage, water and reflections and transfer them into art. I am in awe, I feel I understand the man here and why this garden became the centre point of his life and work.
Monet’s house completes the afternoon. If only I could live in a house like this, big rooms, incredible views over the garden, bright and bold colours in every room. The home of an artist, happy with his second wife, Alice and a brood of children. A happy place to read, feast, sleep and be enveloped by the fragrance of his garden. Monet would rise at five in the morning, take a walk through the garden, confer with his gardener about planting styles and seasonal choices, paint all day and in the evenings, read and rest, satisfied that his vocation has borne fruition of his greatest passions, painting and gardening.
Please refrain from only witnessing this garden through the lens of a camera – smell, touch and taste the passage.
I want to start the journey from the beginning, look for the American tour guide and hope that he managed to infuse and excite his clients about this magical story in Giverny. Sadly it is time to leave, to have a glass of wine in a nearby cafe and plan my return journey. The romance of it all is intoxicating, the blessing of being able to immerse myself in this place, wonderful. Simply wonderful.