I still remember the first time I saw Monet’s water lily paintings in Paris. Standing in the middle of the circular room at the Musee de l’Orangerie, the walls awash in color, I felt transported to the gardens of Giverny where Claude Monet lived and painted for 43 years.
Monet once said, “I perhaps owe it to the flowers for becoming a painter.” As a gardener and an artist myself, this sentiment rings true. For many years, until Polaroid discontinued the film, I was an avid SX-70 photographer. I dreamed about visiting and photographing Giverny after seeing Elizabeth Murray’s painterly photographs.
Ever since I caught my first glimpse of Monet’s ‘Nympheas’, some thirty years ago, I’ve wanted to visit Giverny and be able to see the garden that inspired Monet’s passion. And finally, at long last, I did.
During our recent trip to Paris, Big Papa and I took the 45-minute train ride west to the lovely town of Vernon. From Vernon, we traveled by bus to Giverny, a tiny village a few miles away. I wish, as I’m sure many people do who visit the gardens, that we could have had even ten minutes there alone, in peace. Even in September, throngs of tourists filled the little streets that ran between the museum in Giverny and Monet’s house and gardens. At times, it was a bit much, dodging a group on Monet’s famous curved bridge and jostling with the hordes packed into his electrically-hued home.
No matter the crowds, the gardens are as spectacularly beautiful as I imagined they would be. A river of Nasturtiums flowed beneath a metal canopy. Rows of burgundy Dahlias rivaled brilliant golden Sunflowers while hundreds of lucky birds flew from flower to flower singing loudly about their good fortune and enormous bumblebees made themselves dizzy with pollen.
We wandered between Monet’s water gardens and flower beds, stopping to ooh and ah at the profusion of colors and shapes that surrounded us. Trees reflected in the ponds and it was hard to tell which was direction was up and which was down. Our sense of smell and sight were on red alert from all the stimulation.
Inside Monet’s house a riot of color awaited us. An entry room painted floor to ceiling in sky blue, even including the grandfather clock. The kitchen was an acid yellow. I felt like had been dropped into a scene from Alice in Wonderland.
One surprise during our visit was Monet’s obsession with Japanese art. I hadn’t known how greatly Asian art influenced his work. Intricate paintings he’d collected adorned the walls, some 231 prints in all. Japanese bamboo furniture and porcelain dinnerware were also tucked into corners throughout the house. I had mused aloud as we walked through his water gardens that I felt like I was in a park in Beijing…now I know that Monet did indeed draw inspiration from far eastern art and design. The curve to the wooden bridge, a bamboo garden, water lilies, and the way the weeping willows draped themselves over the water’s edge. All were reminiscent of the scenes in the Japanese paintings hung carefully around his home.
What moved me the most during our time at Giverny was the connection between this man, his garden and his art. Gardening is an art form and a way to be close to nature. Monet watched his garden moment by moment and season by season. He captured the nuances of light and color. Monet and Giverny spoke to me for many years. And seeing it now in living, blooming color, it spoke to me still.