Whilst his train clattered gently along the countryside, leaving the city of Paris behind and heading into the great Norman landscape, Oscar-Claude Monet spied the small village of Giverny from upon his seat and was taken aback by the beauty of the region. It was there, some 80kms north west of the capital, he decided to rent, and eventually purchase a modest house and the surrounding lands. The father of Impressionism created some of his most famous paintings en plein-air at Giverny.
The estate, where Monet lived from 1883 until his death in 1926, is divided into three principal areas: his house with its pink crushed brick façade, the rectangular Clos Normand lined with neat rows of colourful flowers and climbing plants roped around arches, and the Etang des Nymphéas (Water Lily Pond) where a tributary of the Epte River floods a lily pond crossed by a Japanese bridge.
The house was renovated under the direction of Monet himself who liberally splashed colour around. The exterior walls were given vibrant pink coats of paint complemented by green trim. The interior was given bold bright colours and rooms were decorated in colourful themes: yellow for the dining room, and blue for the kitchen. Walking though the studios and bedrooms of the artist really helps to give context to those passions which inspired him and how colour dominated his life.
Monet never visited Japan but was fascinated with Japanese woodcut prints. They contained a completely different aesthetic style to European painting convention and he, not unlike his contemporaries, gained a deep admiration for such works. So much so that he had collected over 200 of them from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of these prints are dotted around the interior of the house. His passion for this style and culture led him to install a Japanese bridge in the water gardens.
The Clos Normand
The Clos Normand was Monet’s first artistic vision upon settling in Giverny. He sought to create a living painting with his gardens and planted flowers in straight lined patterns. Archways cross pathways and flowers bloom in series as the seasons turn. The garden is bursting with flowers; 100,000 plants are replaced each year and another 100,000 perennials lie in the Clos Normand.
Monet wrote daily instructions to his gardener and with the help of gardening books detailed specifically how he wanted the gardens to look. As Monet’s wealth grew so too did his gardening team, which totalled at one point seven gardeners. Monet himself was always the architect though.
Etang des Nympheas
Ten years after settling in Giverny, Monet acquired some land across the road from the Clos Normand which was to become the Etang des Nymphéas (Water Lily Pond). He had water diverted from the Ru stream, a tributary of the Epte River, so that it might fill a series of pools and gullies on the property. Here he planted white water lilies local to France, along with imported cultivars from South America and Egypt that would give the gardens glorious yellows, and blue and white lilies that turn pink with age.
The Japanese bridge would become a focal point for many of his paintings from 1899. His appetite grew as did his canvases and for the following 20 years he would be consumed with large-scale painting of the water gardens creating, in the words of art historian Gary Tinterow, “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”
Visiting the gardens is not only a springtime event. The gardens are open from March until November and change constantly throughout the year. Monet dedicated himself to documenting the French countryside and would continually paint the same scenes at various times of the year, focusing on the shifting light and the passing of the seasons.
The Village of Giverny
The village of Giverny is today mostly like it was in Monet’s time. The population of this Upper Normandy village has remained between 300-500 people for the past two centuries. A number of other Impressionist artists moved to the village inspired by Monet, the landscapes and overall atmosphere. The Ancien Hôtel Baudy remains the centre of village life as it was in the artistic heyday. At the rear is located a studio that was offered to guests and its register once included Renoir, Rodin, Pissarro and a number of American Impressionists such as Metcalf, Sargent and Robinson. The small gardens surrounding the hotel and studio are quite worthy of a stroll.
Claude Monet’s first son, Jean, who had married his wife’s daughter Blanche Monet-Hosched, died before Monet in 1914. At the time of Claude's death in 1926 left his property to his only surviving son, Michael. Michael never lived in Giverny, instead letting the widow Blanche Monet-Hosched remain in the house, where she tended the gardens until her death in 1947. After this point it was left in a desolate state. Michael, who was heirless, bequeathed the property to the Académie des Beaux-Arts upon his untimely death in 1966. Finally it was placed under the direction of the curator of the Château de Versailles who raised the funds needed to restore the property and declare the estate public in the 1980s. Since then it has served as a great place of inspiration and wonder to all who visit. The colours and the form of this great impressionist are kept alive for those who have enough time to visit, pause, and smell the flowers.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours and hosts photography tours in Monet’s Garden, Giverny. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.