Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
He inspired the name of the whole movement that revolutionized art. From Tokyo to New York City via Paris, he remains one of the most celebrated painters honoured in the most prestigious museums. Still, there is no better place than Giverny where the master spent 43 years of his life and shaped his beloved garden to get inspired by Claude Monet (1840-1926) and dive into his universe.
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Feeling disconnected from the classic approach to painting, Monet has always been intrigued by the effect of light on outdoor scenes. While visiting Le Louvre, when most apprentice painters used to sit in front of a reference canvas to learn by reproducing it, he would sit at the window and paint what he could see outside. As many forerunners, he was not quite understood. In 1874, after more rejections from the prestigious Académie des Beaux Arts (the French Academy of Fine Arts) that refused to hang any of his canvases at its respected official show, the Salon de Paris, Claude Monet decided to hold an independent exhibit with his friends Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley. He shook the world with Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) and the term Impressionism was born.
Initially, the term was a pun by a conservative art critic, and the sales were not reflective of today’s enthusiasm for these artists. Monet kept painting landscapes and seascapes. One day, as he was riding the train from the Saint Lazare station in Paris to Rouen where many impressionists were taking their canvases to be inspired by nature, Monet discovered the village of Giverny in Normandy. In 1883, the 43-year-old-rather-broke artist started by renting the house we can visit today, with a small garden in the front. He moved in with his second wife Alice and her six children (on top of the two sons he had with his late first wife Camille). The village, about an hour from Paris by train (about the same today by car) was peaceful and easy to get to for his friends, painters, benefactors, or art dealers. He could work from the barn, being inspired by the surrounding hilly countryside traversed by the Seine River. The kids could go to the nearby school. Local farmers thought of him as a nutcase growing a garden for non-edible flowers, and himself did not think much of them…
It took him fame and about 10 years to buy and shape the two hectares we are visiting today. As success grew, Monet’s garden evolved. A passionate gardener, always on the lookout for new varieties of flower, he discovered waterlilies at the Paris Universal Exhibit of 1889 and fell in love with them. He decided to transform his garden: the river got diverted to change the water meadow into the waterlily pond for his own pleasure. Bits by bits, pleasure turned into inspiration, and soon, he started painting the famous-to-be waterlily series. Today, the pond looks the same with its green Japanese footbridge, and the waterlilies are still purchased from the same supplier, Latour Mariac, that has been providing the bulbs to the Giverny estate for about a century.
As he used to do for the Cathedral of Rouen, the Saint Lazare Train Station, or the House of Parliament in London, he captured the same scene many times to showcase the change of light and seasons. He reached such a level of accuracy that the way he painted the air in his painting of Westminster in the fog is used by scientists today to study the climate patterns of London at the end of the industrial revolution! It is not only in the colours, but also in the brush strokes, the energy, the layering and texturing that the light and reflections are beautifully blended. The waterlilies became his favourite motif for the last 30 years of his life: he executed no less than 250 oil paintings, trying to capture the movement of light with time, on canvases that would get larger and larger. He built a second workshop and then a third one during the first World War to be able to host his monumental canvases.
As Monet got older, his vision got affected by cataract. His perception of colours changed and he painted with pure pigments. Even if he was very precise in the way he would lay out his colours on his palette in order to deal with his disability, his waterlilies paintings turned red and remain a witness of the evolution of his condition. As he was seeing less and less, his good friend and Prime Minister of France Georges Clémenceau insisted on him getting the surgery he was so scared of. He eventually did and his vision recovered afterwards, his paintings getting back to a more usual colour palette with time.
To celebrate the end of the first World War, Georges Clémenceau wanted to offer a gift to the people: the French government commissioned the last waterlily series that Monet painted. This is the larger-than-life waterlilies that have been exhibited in L’Orangerie Museum in Paris. Monet died at 86 in 1926, only a few months after completing the series, having spent half of his life in Giverny.
Today, visiting Giverny is a way of being immersed in the universe of Claude Monet: the waterlily pond of course, but also the beautiful garden with almost a hundred different types of flowers, the house with all of its paintings including Monet’s collection of Japanese woodcut prints hung the way they were during Monet’s time, and its modern colours on the walls (a rarity at the time when the Napoleon III style was trendy) reflecting the modernity of the artist. Upon his death, his real paintings were transferred to the Musée Marmotant in Paris and Giverny houses only reproductions.
Further in the village, the Ancien Hôtel Baudy where Georges Clémenceau would have drinks with some of the artists who stayed there still welcomes visitors. In its garden, a small studio reminiscent of these days is conserved. Close to the church stands the tomb of Claude Monet, by which the day of his funerals, Clémenceau ripped off the traditional black linen covering the coffin to replace it with a floral motif, exclaiming: “No black for Monet!”
For anyone even remotely interested in the artist, Paris showcases some of his most famous paintings: Impression, Soleil Levant (1872, Impression, Sunrise) at Musée Marmott Monet that hosts the most extensive collection of his works with about a hundred paintings, Les Nymphéas (1926, 8 monumental of the water lily series) at L’Orangerie Museum, and some of his most famous paintings – such as Femme à l’ombrelle (1886, Women with umbrella) and Le bassin aux nymphéas (1899, The Water Lily Pond) – in the lovely Orsay Museum that hosts one of world’s best Impressionist collection, if not world’s best. However, as Monet said it himself, “my finest masterpiece is my garden”, so isn’t visiting Giverny simply a must?
- The Giverny Estate was donated to the French Academy of Fine Arts by Michel Monet, Monet’s last surviving son upon his death in 1966. It is now run by the Claude Monet Foundation and welcomes about half a million visitors a year.
- The estate is a historical monument and the garden a remarkable garden of France. This would not have been possible without the many American benefactors who contributed in giving the estate its former glory after years of abandonment.
- The Giverny Estate is closed during the winter: it closes on November 1 to reopen on April 1. Whichever month, the visit of the garden is always enchanting. The blooming schedule is available online.
- Favour weekdays and avoid long weekends to visit as the gardens can get very busy then.
- Check out our interactive map to plan your trip more efficiently: