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