09 March 2013

Monet's garden in Giverny - in real life and in art

The Melbourne Winter Masterpiece exhibition called Monet’s Garden: The Musee Marmottan Monet Paris will open for business in May 2013. In light of this upcoming blockbuster, which will attract viewers from across the state and the nation, there are three questions I would like to ask
1. What did the gardens look like in Monet’s time?
2. How accurately did Monet represent his gardens in his art? and
3. How well have the gardens been maintained today?

Claude Monet (1840–1926) lived for 43 long years in Giverny, 75 ks NW of Paris, from 1883 until his death. In the early years in Giverney he planned the house, adapt­ing it to the needs of his large family. Monet’s two sons with his first wife were born in 1867 and 1878 but once Camille died from TB, life was a mess. His friend and most active patron, Ernest Hoschede, had fled the country, bankrupt, and the fire sale of Hoschede's collection had depressed prices for Monet's work.

Despite being broke, Monet had taken responsibility for Hoschede's wife Alice and her six children. So there 10 mouths to feed. When Hoschede died, Monet married Alice! Giverny was the turning point.

Claude Monet
The Japanese Bridge, 1899
89 x 93 cm
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Giverny Garden’s own history notes that it wasn’t until 1893, ten years after his arrival at Giverny, that Monet bought the piece of land adjoining his property. It was crossed by a section of the Epte, itself a tributary of the Seine River. With the support of the prefecture, Monet had the first small pond dug, even though his neighbours were not happy about his strange plants. Eventually there were two parts in Monet's garden: a flower garden called Clos Normand in front of the house and a Japanese inspired water garden on the other side of the road. The two parts of Monet's garden provided perfect landscapes for the artist to paint.

The land was divided into flowerbeds where flower clumps of different heights bulked up to create a strong impression. Fruit trees were everywhere and Monet mixed the simplest flowers with the more exotic flowers. Monet did not trim and clip his plants within a cm of their life. In fact the central alley was covered over by iron arches on which climbing roses grew seemingly at will. Other rose trees covered the balustrade beside the house.

Later on, the pond was enlarged to its present day size. The irregularly designed water garden was inspired by the Japanese gardens that Monet knew from the wave of Japanese taste that swept across Europe in the late C19th. In this water garden was the famous Japanese bridge covered with wisterias, some smaller bridges, weeping willows and a bamboo wood.

Claude Monet
Garden in Giverny, 1902
89 x 92 cm
Belvedere Museum Vienna

This was definitely life copying art! The artist selected and replanted, according to how he wanted the paintings to look. He must have loved the results because there are 272 paintings done around the water garden, plus the Grandes Decorations panels that can be seen at l’Orangerie Museum in Paris (Giverny Impression).  And it didn’t matter how accurately Monet depicted the plants since he was not a professional botanist; he was more interested in colours, light and moving water-based reflections.

Monet died in 1926, aged 86, the last of the original Impressionists. His son wasn’t interested in the gardens so the neglected property was bequeathed to the French Academie des Beaux Arts. From there, the paintings were rebequeathed to Musee Marmottan. But noone put money into the house and garden. Only in 1977 did Gerald van der Kemp and Gilbert Vahe examine and repair 50 years of neglect in the house. They opened the estate to the public in 1980, but the bridge was still severely damaged and the pond was disappointingly covered with green muck.

James Priest took over in 2011, focusing on the gardens. Because the Monet estate is closed in Giverny’s wet and nippy winter, Priest has concentrated on flowers that bloom during spring and summer. I didn’t know how accurately they reflect Monet’s taste but Sophie Matthiesson noted that the densely packed flower boxes, filled with riotous colour, recreated what Monet called his paint boxes. In their sloping bed, laid out in parallel rows, they would have appeared very familiar to Monet, staring out from the upstairs windows of the house.

Monet walking in his garden. 1921
Photo credit: The Sunday Times


Andrew said...

There was some fascination with Japan in 19th century but I am surprised how knowledgeable Europeans were about Japanese gardens. He was certainly a fine artist.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Considering the popularity of Monet's garden paintings, I'm surprised there wasn't more of a movement to restore the gardens--I imagine they would be quite a tourist attraction.

I have seen many photos of American and English gardens which often at that time featured formalized carpet-bedding. I don't know about France, but since Monet's neighbors objected, I imagine the fashion was about the same.

I'm sure the catalog of the exhibition features documentary evidence. You are lucky to be able to attend.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


I made the point that Monet created a complex garden to be a better artist, not to be a professional botanist. Which was quite true. But he took so much time seeking out the most interesting specimens and paid so much money, it suggests that he must have taken his passion seriously.

Endless letters about gardens survive between Monet and his patrons.

Hels said...


The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne has its permanent collection and special exhibitions, plus one huge blockbuster every winter. I can't wait to see the Monets and to buy the catalogue.

Do you ever get to Melbourne?

the foto fanatic said...

How lush is "Garden in Giverny"?

Well worth a trip to Melbourne, I reckon!

Hels said...

foto fanatic

have a look at the modern images in http://tiny.cc/dqoptw . They are very lush indeed!

Mandy Southgate said...

Wow, that exhibition is going to be incredible! And imagine the logistics that must go into getting the collection to Melbourne.

I had no idea that Monet created his scenes, how fascinating. I didn't realise he did so many paintings of his own garden too.

Hels said...


I knew how many paintings Monet created of his own garden but I also had no idea that he created the garden for his paintings, not vice versa. Love it!

Hels said...

I have added a reference to Miriam Cosic's valuable article.

How did Monet intend to support his own two orphan sons, his penniless patron's wife Alice and six children with no job? When his second wife Alice died in 1911, Monet's son married Alice's daughter Blanche *sigh*. Monet's son died in 1914 and from then on, daughter in law Blanche looked after the entire Monet household *longer sigh*.

What a mess.

fran Perth West Aust. said...

Can anyone please advise me of the
dimensions of the home & garden area and the area of the water garden? Can't find this info anywhere, but have enjoyed the research. Also very much enjoyed the visit to the garden this previous summer. A dream realised.

Hels said...


It is a lovely site.. Glad your dream came true.

Re the specific information, drop a line to the Fondation Claude Monet in Giverny. You will find the email address in the blog post above, under Giverny Gardens.