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The 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.

The Gardens of Giverny - click to enlarge

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 - click to enlarge
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.”

The Gardens of Giverny - click to enlarge The Gardens of Giverny - click to enlarge

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.

The Gardens of Giverny - click to enlarge The Gardens of Giverny - click to enlarge
The Gardens of Giverny - click to enlarge The Gardens of Giverny - click to enlarge

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
27620  Giverny

Phone: 02 32 51 28 21

Open April 1 to November 1 daily except Monday from 10 am to 6pm

(Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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