Gardens of Giverny
We drive up from Paris
through enchanting little towns with streets so narrow the car just
manages between old stone walls, and pass alongside meticulously trimmed
hedges so tall they hide the stately country houses that stand behind.
Wide open fields are ablaze this day in early June with red and orange
poppies; they remind us of an English poem from the First World War we
once could recite by heart.
The River Seine accompanies us all the way to
Bennecourt. There we cross a bridge with a rough lean-to kind of
structure beneath -- the remnant of a primitive laundry, wend down a
few more country lanes, and arrive at Giverny where Claude Monet lived
and painted for some 43 years.
Our timing couldn’t be better. The roses are in bloom! A band of
ramblers sweeps beneath green shuttered-windows across the crushed
brick façade of the house like a fuchsia, green and white ribbon round
a pale pink bandbox. Cascading down trellises, roses frame the doorway
where people are lined up awaiting entry. There is a sizeable crowd;
yet the mood is almost reverential. Even teenagers on a school outing
seem respectful of the site and other visitors.
Jan Huntley in the
gardens of Giverny
|“As a rule, we get three
types of visitors: art lovers, garden lovers, and those who are interested
in seeing the home of a famous painter,” the graceful and winsome Jan
Huntley tells us. Jan, who looks like a young Charlotte Rampling, was born
and grew up in Wales, but today she lives on the premises in a storybook
two-story cottage with its own rambling roses. She teaches English to
French park keepers and gardeners, and French to American workers and
young volunteers who are in residence, about 40 in all.
The day is blessedly cool
though cloudy. When every so often the sun breaks through illuminating the
profusion of flowers is like a small miracle. “There’s been a week of
nearly steady rain so everything is overgrown. But these beds are actually
very orderly,” she says, and we see the rows of iris: purple, lilac,
bronze, and gold grouped according to color.
“Monet first saw the little
hillside village of Giverny from the doorway of a railroad train that went
from Vernon to Gasny,” Jan continues. “He moved here in April 1883
together with Alice Hoschede, who would become his second wife, and their
children (two of his, six of hers), first to an inn and then to this house
with its two and a half acres that sloped down to the chemin du Roy where
the railroad ran.
“The house was
much smaller then, and the garden was full of trees. Monet cut down all
the trees and began planting flowers. People were not used to his way of
thinking. This was a deeply agricultural area. If you had a garden, you
grew vegetables. But Monet wanted flowers to have something permanent to
paint throughout the changing light of the day, and he enjoyed mixing
ordinary kinds of flowers from the fields like poppies with more expensive
flowers. That was very atypical for a French garden.”
Yet “Le Clos Normand” is a
very typical French garden in its strict arrangement of long rectangular
flower beds intersected by straight gravel paths. Among them are the
“paint box” beds, each devoted to a different color. A yellow rectangle,
for example, begins with blooms of the most delicate shade of lemon and
gradually progresses to those of a vivid sunshine gold. The combination of
predictable perennials and well-placed annuals assure a continuation of
the color parade, in this case from the daffodils of early spring to the
marigolds of midsummer on to the asters of September. This floral
organization formed Monet’s inspirational palette; they were models of the
shades he would re-create on canvas.
Accompanied by Jan, we
strolled the gravel paths beneath flower-covered trellises. Bright orange
nasturtiums littered the walkways, willfully creeping out beyond their
flower beds. At the bottom of the garden, she led us to an underground
passage that crosses the chemin du Roy. When the railroad ceased
operating, Monet had paid to have the road paved so the dust would not mar
his flowers. Ultimately he bought the property on the other side and in
1893 and transformed it into the famed Japanese Water Garden.
“Monet obtained permission
to divert water from a small stream that feeds the River Epte, a tributary
which runs to the Seine. By regulating the flow, he created the pond in
the Water Garden which he planted with every known variety of water lily,”
Jan told us.
“The connection between
Monet and Japanese art is well known,” she added. “His collection of
Japanese prints, which are hung throughout the house, inspired him to
create these gardens. Today there is a copy of Monet’s garden in Japan,
and our head gardener maintains links with it.”
We emerged from the darkness
of the tunnel into a realm of a different order that was as asymmetrical
as the Clos Normand was ordered, as ethereal as the Clos Normand was
substantial. A large, luminous pond was spanned by an arched and canopied
pedestrian bridge painted sky blue and entwined with wisteria that, sadly,
had finished blooming, as had the massive plantings of azalea and
rhododendron. Still the scene remained one of breath-taking beauty as
patterns of a shifting sky, weeping willows whose branches skimmed the
water, and burgeoning bank-side plantings of laurel, heather, ferns and
tall grasses were mirrored in the pond, their reflection providing an
ever-changing backdrop to the miniature islands of water lilies that swam
along its glassy surface.
With the gardens of Giverny
serving as muse and model, Monet created some of his greatest masterpieces
culminating in the series of water lily panels “Decorations des Nympheas.”
These represent the apotheosis of an artistic process that sought not to
paint the subject but its appearance in light, “what exists between the
subject and me,” as Monet had remarked. By breaking the line between the
objective reality out there and the subjective perception within, he in
effect set the stage for 20th century non-representational art.
Along with the gardens, the
studio Monet built to paint the enormous water lily panels and the house
where he lived together with his large family have been admirably
restored. “When Monet’s second son died in the 1960’s, the estate was
completely abandoned,” Jan told us. “Nobody had lived here for 20 years.
There was a tree growing through the house. The gardens were in ruins and
the water lily pond was covered with vegetation.”
The son had left the
property to the Academy des Beaux Arts who in 1977 appointed Gerald Van
der Kemp curator. Under his stewardship and with the financial assistance
of a long list of American and French benefactors including Lila Acheson
Wallace and the Reader’s Digest Fund, Walter Annenberg, and Lawrence
Rockefeller, the estate has been returned to its former glory. Monet’s
enormous output may be dispersed among museums and private collections,
but the setting that inspired his greatest work is intact. “At Giverny,
Monet created the world he wished to reproduce,” Jan had told us. And in
this lovely little town in Normandy, that world exists for all to see.
Jardins de Claude Monet
Phone: 02 32 51 28 21
Open April 1 to November 1
daily except Monday from 10 am to 6pm
(Photos by Harvey
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights