Monet’s Giverny Garden
French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a pioneer of a major art movement, but he created a thing of beauty that he believed eclipsed even his own celebrated works of art.
In his own words: “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”
Odyssey Traveller organises small-group tours that include a stop at Monet’s colourful house and garden in Giverny to provide a memorable travel experience: the Western Europe Treasures and Gardens tour and French History by Rail tour. Click through to sign up now, or read on to learn more about Monet and how the artist built his remarkable garden.
The Garden in Giverny
Monet’s garden in Giverny spans more than two acres, divided by a road that used to be railroad tracks connecting the quaint villages of Vernon and Gisors. On one side of the road in front of the artist’s restored pink stucco house with green shutters is the Clos Normand (the Norman Enclosure) with flowers planted in rows and grouped according to colour, not unlike an artist’s palette.
Carpeted with thousands of flowers, the flower garden comes into full bloom in April, with narcissi, daffodils, and tulips as the main blooms, joining violas, pansies, daisies, white cress, and the other flowers that bloom first in spring.
Across the road is the ethereal water lily garden, a pond with a bridge painted green instead of the traditional red colour used in the Japanese bridges that inspired it, framed by wisteria, bamboos, maple trees, and Japanese peonies, with nymphéas (water lilies) dotting the pond.
Monet’s garden has been open to the public since 1980 and is the second most visited tourist site in Normandy after the pilgrimage site Mont-Saint-Michel.
The Garden that Inspired 250 Paintings
The garden preoccupied Monet for the final 33 years of his life. The explosion of colours in the Clos Normand and the play of light and reflections in the water lily garden inspired him to create 250 paintings depicting various aspects of his beloved sanctuary. This includes the famous Water Lilies series, which formed a 91-metre long installation that can still be viewed in the Musée National de l’Orangerie des Tuileries in France.
Claude Monet spent a lot of time on the architectural design alongside the architect Camille Lefèvre…In the end, 8 panels, each 2 metres high and spanning a total length of 91 metres, were arranged in 2 oval rooms that form the symbol of infinity. Their east-west orientation places them in the path of the sun and along the historical axis of Paris which runs from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre. A vestibule provides access to the two rooms and marks the transition from the outside world. Finally, the natural light that enters though the ceiling immerses visitors in a state of grace, as intended by the painter. (Source: “The Installation of the Water Lilies”, Musée National de l’Orangerie des Tuileries)
In addition to this installation, the Musée Marmottan Monet in the 16th arrondissement in Paris houses the single largest collection of Monet’s paintings, displaying more than 60 of his masterpieces, as well as numerous works by Impressionist painters such as Edoard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and artwork by Berthe Morisot, Manet’s wife. Another museum, the Musée d’Orsay, has a large collection of Impressionist paintings and French art.
Father of Impressionism
Impressionism emerged in France in the 19th Century and was a radical break from the conventional art practices at the time. French painters adhered to the tastes of the Paris-based Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) which favoured realistic styles and historical, mythological, or allegorical subject matters. They also emphasised painting in the studio, away from the outside world, and curated the annual Salon, a major exhibition for French and foreign painters.
A band of artists, which included Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro, got tired of the rigid rules of academic painting and decided to break from tradition by painting outdoors (en plein air) to capture nature, depicting common scenes, and focusing on light, movement, and fleeting impressions of the beautiful scenery instead of static, realistic portrayals.
The Beaux-Arts rejected their work for the Salon, and the group put up their own independent exhibitions. The first exhibition was held in 1874, in a studio of Nadar, a French photographer, and featured work from 30 artists. The first exhibition included Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (French: Impression, soleillevant, 1872) which depicts a harbour in his hometown, Le Havre. As it is an impression, the painting does not have clear silhouettes. Monet instead chose to focus on the sunrise’s reflection on the water, adding vague forms in the background.
The critics did not like it at all. Journalist Louis Leroy derisively called the group the “Impressionists” after Monet’s painting. He wrote, “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” Despite the harsh criticism, the group used the name for themselves.
The Impressionists held exhibitions until 1886, only seven exhibitions in total, but their work had a profound effect on the art world and on Monet’s career and art practice.
Return to the Salon
The independent exhibitions unfortunately did not translate to financial security for Monet. He was flat-broke in the 1870s, writing to friends to ask them if they could advance him money or buy one of his paintings. In 1879, his wife Camille died of a uterine problem after months of being confined in bed, leaving him a widower with two young children.
According to Paul Hayes Tucker’s Claude Monet: Life and Art (1995), Monet decided to submit two paintings to the Salon of 1880—one painted according to his taste (Sunset at Lavancourt), the other “more bourgeois” (The Seine at Lavancourt); that is, more accessible, “tamer”, with forms “more clearly rendered”. As Monet himself expected, the first painting was rejected but the “tamer” painting got accepted to the Salon of 1880, much to the consternation of the core Impressionist group.
After his return to the Salon, Monet stuck to the Impressionist style but began exploring other strategies to market his artwork outside of the independent exhibitions. He cultivated private collectors, joined elite exhibitions, and began painting a broader repertoire of subjects to appeal to more people.
He also began painting the same subject over and over, using smaller strokes and focusing on composition, colour, and the effects of light, which defined his series paintings in the 1890s (e.g. the Wheatstacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and the Poplars series) and was seen as a step towards 20th Century Abstract Art.
Purchasing the Garden
Monet’s garden in Giverny is his most famous and most visible, but Monet had always liked gardens. He spent time cultivating the gardens in the properties he had rented in the past (e.g. Argenteuil and Vetheuil), and always chose a house that had enough yard space for him to fill with flowers and potted plants. According to Tucker (1995), 100 of Monet’s 800 paintings completed before he moved to Giverny were paintings of gardens or flowers.
Monet was said to have first seen a glimpse of Giverny in Normandy while looking out of the train window as he travelled between Vernon and Gasny. Monet by that time had remarried, and he and his family moved to Giverny in 1883, initially renting the pink stucco house he would later purchase. At the time, Giverny was a quiet, rural town with only 279 residents, and the pink stucco house, the town’s largest structure, faced not a vibrant flower garden but a practical kitchen garden with vegetables, potatoes, and fruit trees.
Monet had saved up his earnings after the sale of his paintings, and was able to quickly meet the owner’s asking price when the property went on the market in November 1890. The first thing he did was tear up the kitchen garden and begin planting flowers, a decision ill-regarded by the residents, who saw this middle-class Parisian as a strange outsider.
Building the Pond
It wouldn’t be Monet’s last clash with the residents of Giverny. In 1893, he purchased a meadow on the other side of the railroad tracks, bordered by a stream called the Ru, a tributary of the Epte River. The meadow contained a small pond which used to be a watering hole for farm animals. He also rented a plot of land on the other side of the Ru.
He wrote the Department Prefect to request permission to install a water trough (prise d’eau) in the Epte to divert water to the pond, promising that it would not alter the level or flow of the river. He also requested to build two wooden footbridges over the Ru to connect the land he owned to the land he rented on either side of the tributary.
Local residents blocked these requests, saying Monet would drain too much water from the river and poison it with his plants, charges which infuriated the then 53-year-old artist. After two tension-filled months, numerous town hearings, and several letters sent by Monet to the Prefect, a lawyer, and a newspaper, the Prefect granted Monet’s requests, paving the way for the construction of the now famous water lily garden.
Monet’s garden design (as well as his Japanese Bridge paintings) was inspired by Japanese design and Japanese woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e) popular with European artists at the time, and which he collected over the years. His impressive Ukiyo-e print collection still hangs in his Giverny home today.
The Water Lilies Series
As his fame and wealth increased, he expanded his home and garden, hiring a construction crew and a team of gardeners in the 1890s. He bought another acre and expanded his water lily pond, and added wisteria, bamboo and Japanese apple and cherry trees.
Monet expanded his house on both sides, with it ending up very long but narrow—40 metres long but only five metres deep. Monet chose the colours and designed the house’s interior to be as colourful as his lovely garden, with a blue kitchen, yellow dining room, and vibrant purple carpets covering the floor of his studio and bedroom.
His wealth allowed him to shower luxuries on his family as well. He started purchasing automobiles and building apartments for his children and stepchildren, and went traveling with his second wife, Alice.
Monet painted his Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge series in Giverny. In May 1909, Monet exhibited 48 canvases of the Water Lilies series, the largest collection of any single series. The paintings focused on the pond and the water lilies, with no context—no bank, no bridge, no background foliage—with different hues to capture the changing light at different times of the day. Monet also experimented with canvas shapes, painting on circular or vertical canvases. The exhibition was met with critical acclaim, with one Paris correspondent breathlessly declaring, “One has never seen anything like it.”
Tragedy and World War I
Two of Monet’s family members died after a long illness. Alice died in 1911, followed by his oldest son, Jean, who died in 1914. Monet himself was starting to show signs of cataracts, and he was diagnosed two years before the death of his son. The doctors recommended him to undergo an operation right away, but his sight stabilised, thus allowing an anxious Monet to postpone the operation for several years until 1923.
War broke in 1914. His younger son Michel was sent to the front-lines as part of the French Army. Monet, already in his 70s, turned to nature to mentally survive the hostilities happening around him. He began painting another Water Lilies series but on canvases twice the size of his old series, and more exploratory in their composition.
Monet shunned politics, but this changed during the war. While he continued his series of huge paintings that would later be known as Grandes Décorations, Monet also joined several war-related committees and sold artwork for the benefit of the victims of the war. He painted a series with the wisteria as subject (Weeping Willows series), evoking loss and grief, and dedicating them to the fallen soldiers.
On 12 November 1918, a day after the armistice, Monet wrote to French Prime Minister (and his close friend) Georges Clemenceau with an offer to donate two works from his Grandes Décorations to celebrate the end of the war. (The exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie with the donated panels did not open to the public until May 1927, months after Monet’s death.)
In 1922, Monet visited an ophthalmologist and learned that he was legally blind in his right eye, with only 10 percent vision remaining in his left eye. He again opposed an operation and asked for treatment instead, but when his vision problems persisted, he finally underwent surgery to remove his cataracts in 1923.
Scientists theorise that since Monet’s condition affected his vision and the way he perceived colour, his cataracts might have led to his distinctive style of painting later in his life.
According to a study (emphases ours):
By 1914–1915, he began to struggle quite severely, complaining that ‘colours no longer had the same intensity for me’, that ‘reds had begun to look muddy’ and that ‘my painting was getting more and more darkened.’ To avoid choosing the wrong colours, Monet started to label his tubes of paint and keep a strict order on his palette. Glare from bright sunlight complicated things further forcing Monet to wear a big straw hat outside. His brush strokes became broader and his paintings, like his cataracts, more brunescent (brown).
Fondation Claude Monet
Monet was to enjoy his restored vision only for a few more years. In 1926, Monet died of a lung ailment at the age of 86. He was buried, according to his wishes, in a simple, non-religious ceremony in Giverny, alongside Alice, Alice’s first husband Ernest, their two daughters, and Monet’s son Jean.
The home and garden that Monet lavished with his care and passion were inherited by his only surviving heir, Michel, who then bequeathed it to the Académie des Beaux-Arts upon his death in 1966 (ironically the same Academy that first shunned his father’s paintings). The French Academy established Fondation Claude Monet in 1980, and the house and garden were opened to the public that same year after extensive renovation with the help of American donors. They now welcome thousands of tourists every year, offering a glimpse into the French master’s long and vibrant life.
A New Discovery
Of Monet’s wisteria paintings, only eight are known to exist, with one held by the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. In 2019, as The Sydney Morning Herald reports, the museum took down the painting for the first time since 1961 and made an astonishing discovery. Beneath the “Wisteria” was another painting of water lilies. Curator Frouke van Dijke believes the painting could have been “kind of an experiment…a bridge between the water lilies and the wisteria.” Read more here.
Odyssey Traveller’s Western Europe Treasures and Gardens tour and French History by Rail tour, especially designed for over-50s travellers, include a stop at Monet’s house and garden in Giverny. Sign up now to see the amazing garden that had inspired Monet for more than three decades.
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Odyssey’s small group tour explores some of the classic gardens of Italy and France that reflect changing fashions and garden designs throughout the ages. This fully escorted tour features an Odyssey Program Leader and a handful of local guides who will examine, discuss, compare and contrast the cultural and temporal similarities and diversities between the gardens of Italy and France and the historical influences on their design.