Exploring Claude Monet’s Giverny, now celebrating its 30th year of being open to the public.
By Jen Karetnick
You don’t need to be an art buff to have heard of Claude Monet, or even to know something of his groundbreaking Impressionistic style and well-ordered, plein-air subjects. Nor are you required to be a flower aficionado to visit his house and celebrated, self-planted gardens in Giverny, where he painted many of his most famous works, including the light-infused Haystack and reflective Water Lilies series. This September, the property, which is hung with Monet’s own paintings as well as his collection of antique Japanese prints, celebrates its 30th anniversary of being open to the public—a relatively short time when you consider that Monet and his family settled on what was originally a hectare of land in 1883.
About 75 kilometers west from Paris, an easy day trip via the train’s main line, Giverny village (itself about four kilometers by bus from the larger town of Vernon), became home to Monet when he was in his mid-40s and just gaining a reputation as an important painter. Initially a renter, he saw increasing demand for his work, which enabled him to buy not only this piece of land but also a neighboring plot across Chemin du Roy, one of the main roads. These two disparate parts eventually comprised what are now known as the Clos Normand, or the front garden, and the Water Garden with a Japanese bridge crossing the Ru Brook, where the artist dug a pond and planted the water lilies that would secure his renown.
The front of the house, painted a dusty pink with green accents and overlaid with a thick crust of ivy, used to harbor an orchard along with a stand of pine trees. But shortly after Monet’s occupation, most of the trees were removed to make way for what would become the painter’s obsession: free-growing botany. Climbing roses and Japanese cherry trees alike were trained to trellises, while workaday carnations bloomed next to the showiest of dahlias.
In his desire to liberate nature and yet still design set-pieces for his paintings, Monet worked against the formal gardening strictures of his time, allowing color and contrast to rule over symmetry. By doing so, he created first one masterpiece, then many. And the seedlings he planted, both common and singular, which he acquired by trading with like-minded friends, became riotous rows of sensory overload. Unfortunately, the house and gardens fell into disrepair after Monet’s death. Though he left everything to his son Michel, Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche was actually the one living on the property, and she failed to maintain it. Michel eventually bequeathed the whole of it to the Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1966. Beginning in 1977, after donations (mostly from art lovers abroad) were secured, the gardens were replanted with the original species—difficult and exacting work—and the pond was re-dug under the auspices of Gérald van der Kemp, Curator. Master gardeners and confidantes from Monet’s time, such as André Devillers and Georges Truffaut, had to be consulted as much as possible. In the end, it took more than a decade to properly restore the Clos Normand and the Water Garden.
Today, a hen coop, complete with a bilingual sign that says, “Please do not disturb the fowl,” reminds you that this was a place where Monet’s family lived while he worked. You can picture the children running the Japanese bridge, which had rotted and needed to be completely replicated. Wandering the fragrant alleyways, absorbing the drone of pollinating bees and the hammering of spikes from maintenance workers, it’s possible to find at least some of the vantage points from which Monet must have once painted. You can circle the pond, gazing all the while at the famed water lilies. Though you must stick to designed pathways and can’t set up an easel, if you’re an artist, you might even take sketchbook in hand; if a poet, you can jot some verses; and if a gardener yourself, well, every flower species is distinctly labeled for your edification. You can then tour his home, examining the Japanese prints that inspired the Water Garden, and marveling at the paintings, some of which hang in the house (on loan from private collections) and in the Musée des Impressionnismes, just a short walk away down rue Claude Monet, the other main street in Giverny, which the house and gardens abut.
Naturally, such art attracts other artists, who have set up shop—or, rather, studio—in Giverny. It’s lovely to spend an afternoon wandering rue Claude Monet, where (among others) Petite Galerie de l’Ancien Hôtel Baudy displays scènes de vie miniatures made, in perfect dimensions, from found objects such as corks, plastics and bits of metal, and Galerie Véronique Auzannet hangs her mosaics. Monet’s grave and the church behind which he is buried are also located along this route.
If you are interested in staying the night, you can sleep sumptuously at the famed Hotel de la Chaine d’Or, built in 1751. Other regional hotels include the imposing 18th-century Chateau Corneille; Moulin de Connelles, the 19th-century, half-timbered manor house loved by the Impressionists; and the more modest Les Bords de Seine in the village of La Roche-Guyon, which has the advantage of being located on the banks of the Seine, near to the grave of Monet’s wife as well as the castles of Chateau de la Roche-Guyon and Chateau de Bizy.
However you choose to visit the gardens—by rail from Paris or car from a local chateau—take note of the one thing that enchanted Monet and his generation of painters above all else: the light. It is this incandescence that drew Monet to the Seine Valley and inspired him to plant the gardens, and it is this quality that he captured over and over again in his work. Without it, his roses might be as ordinary as your neighbor’s, and his water lilies simply homes for frogs.