In the province of Normandy, France, lies the quiet, picturesque town of Giverny. Here the impressionist painter, Monet, lavished love and care on his garden for over 40 years. The lush garden with its profusion of flowering shrubs and brilliantly coloured flowerbeds still conjures up images of Monet’s paintings of water lilies, the Japanese footbridge and the wonderfully colourful garden paintings. In all of art history there is, to my knowledge, not a more a complete record of an artist’s inspiration, than the gardens of Monet at Giverny. These gardens are an extension of his art. Some people even say that the gardens itself is Monets greatest creative legacy to the world.
For any person, like myself, with a passion for travel, art and gardening I can hardly think of a more ideal destination.
An easy 40-km.train journey into the Normandy countryside to the north west of Paris lays the picturesque village of Giverny. It is easy to see why Monet fell in love with the village when he first saw it. It is situated where the rivers Ru and Epte flows into the Seine.
It all started in1883. Things were not going well for the struggling painter and the big family of ten people he had to provide for. He decided to move out of the more expensive Paris to a country village where he could have cheaper accommodation and supplement their diet with vegetables he can grow in the garden. On seeing the town from a train window he decided to move there. He rented a large family house on two acres of land, which already had established formal gardens and orchards.
He immediately started with an extended vegetable garden to provide for the family’s needs. A keen gardener,he soon started on the rest of the garden. The formal layout did not appeal to him. He dug huge flowerbeds, which he planted with all the flowery annuals he could find. Gravel paths intersected the flowerbeds. The excess trees were uprooted and soon the formal gardens disappeared into his lush informal garden.
He planted and weeded the gardens himself. His children helped with the gardening and especially the watering. Under his encouragement two of his children later became accomplished horticulturists.
Initially the house and gardens was a hideaway for Monet and his family. They were poor, poorly dressed and had no social standing. Being artists they were not understood and was shun by the community.
Later, as Monet’s reputation grew it became a haven for painters. Many of his friends and fellow painters joined him here to paint outside in the garden, as the impressionist painters loved to do. His house was also a gathering place for poets, writers and intellectuals. Here they ate their meals outside under the trees, talked and argued together in the midst of the splendid gardens.
Monet planted his gardens like he painted his canvasses, using the same principles he used in compiling his palette. As a background he used the almost monochrome green foliage with no variegated leafs. He chose his flowering shrubs so, that they possessed an abundance of relatively small blooms , that the whole plant formed a colourful mass of flowers. Poppies, irises, climbing roses, daisies and marigolds forms splashes of saffron, vermilion and blue on a background of emerald green.
In 1883, the now well known and financially secure Monet, bought the property as well as more ground on the other side of the railway track. On this piece of property he created the famous water gardens by diverting a part of the river Ru into a system of ponds he created. This triggered another war with the village. Villagers were scared that the foreign bulbs would poison the river, threatening their lives and that of their livestock. Some even said that their washing was stained and that their crops were ruined because of the water from the river running through his ponds! Ironically today the gardens provide most of the town income as a major tourist attraction. In the end the villagers were pacified and in 1901 the ponds were extended, becoming so big that Monet had to use a boat to tend them and to paint from.
The water gardens are cool and tranquil with islands of exotic water lillies in white, yellow and mauve. The now famous Japanese footbridge is creaking under loads of wisteria flowers. Sitting under the weeping willows next to the water gardens, seeing the shimmering reflections in the water brings back memories of Monet paintings to be seen in all major European art galleries. Here one can understand why Impressionist painters did not just try to paint their subject but also tried to capture the essence of the changing light and the atmosphere surrounding their subject.