Named after ‘Impression Rising Sun’, a painting by Monet, impressionism revolutionized painting to an extent he neither anticipated nor welcomed. “I am in it (the movement) but I seldom see my colleagues . . . the little chapel has become a school that opens its doors to any hack.” A truly inspired and extremely rare genius, Claude Monet was also an extraordinary landscape architect and gardener.
The countryside and climate of northern France blesses the many who till its excellent soil. Monet was as unstoppable a gardener as painter, and a force of nature—literally. When he painted the frozen Seine River covered with snow, he remained in the spot from sun up to sun down, a hot water bottle warming his fingers, icicles on his beard and several inches of snow on his hat.
Gardening is as natural as sleeping to the rural French. After his early success in the painting market, Monet moved with his wife and five children into a “peasant” house (simpler than a farmhouse) surrounded by a small orchard in Giverny, a village on his beloved Seine north of Paris. With a large family, Monet soon planted a vegetable garden. After several years exhausting the local scenery with his imagination, he decided to recreate nature in an ideal form on his property. He constructed a network of several acres of jewel-like flower gardens and spent the rest of his life painting them. The most famous spot is the waterlily pond, but there are many others. He especially liked poppies, clematis, dahlias, roses, agapanthus and zinnias.
Monet created the artificial pond from scratch with a crew of helpers from the village. The Epte River branches off the Seine and passes by the house. He channeled the unusually clear water into a clay bedded marsh. At the pond’s short end he built a Japanese-style footbridge. It was this scene that stimulated a change in his pictorial vision. He wrote to a friend, “It took me a long time to understand my waterlilies. I planted them for the pleasure of it; I cultivated them without thinking of ever painting them . . . and suddenly had the revelation of the magic of the pond. I took my palette . . . and since that day I’ve scarcely had another model.” He continued painting for several decades until his death in 1926.
While Monet produced ecstatic paintings that transformed the art world, he was also a product of the changes in his era. These include the “fast painting” techniques of artists who followed Second Empire military campaigns; the impact of the photograph; and the invention of tube paints, which made outdoor painting easy and inexpensive compared to the previous practice of mixing paints in the studio. However, thousands of artists encountered these pressures and opportunities. Only Monet responded so uniquely. Rather than breaking molds, he made new ones.
Toward the end of his life, after a long trip abroad painting foreign landscapes, he wrote the same friend, “I’ve gone back again to things that are simply impossible: water, with its weeds on the bottom waving under it, marvelous to see, but to want to paint it is enough to drive one mad. Still, this is the sort of thing I’m always tackling”.
Monet’s life is worthy of emulation. He had dedication, focus, strength and stoicism in the face of hardship and depression. And it wasn’t just “impressionism” he founded. A youthful Kandinsky was wandering through an exhibition of French painting in Moscow and encountered his first Monet. At that moment the founder of abstract painting realized “what a painting could be”.
I visited Giverny in 1989 and was astonished by its radiance. With eventual prosperity, Monet was able to add a studio and a couple of rooms to the house. He was a big fan of Japanese prints. They cover the walls of his sitting room and study. It was as if he used their stillness and simplicity as points of departure for his volcanic creativity. He once told a visitor who asked for artistic advice, “Paint what you really see, not what you think you ought to see . . . merely think, here is a square of blue . . . here a streak of yellow and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own impression of the scene”.
I visit “Monets” the way others do baseball parks, mountain trails, or—er, well—botanical gardens. Besides the “busman’s holiday” effect which results in my feeling like I’m at work, touring gardens does not compare to admiring art at museums. I simply prefer painting. The near-impossibility of capturing flower colors on canvas is a testament to Monet’s devotion to the task. It’s magic.
A gifted writer, Derek Fell, recently wrote and photographed a fine book about Monet’s garden. (He was, appropriately, a horticulturist at Burpee for many years.) Also, the renowned artist Stephen Shore created poignant photographs of the gardens almost thirty years ago. However, a visit to Giverny is also highly recommended.