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The Art of Monet’s Garden

THE ART OF MONET’S GARDEN

By Derek Fell

“If ever I should set eyes on the garden of Claude Monet, I imagine I would find a place of tints and hues more than blossoms; not so much a garden of flowers in the old sense, as a garden of colors laid out in a manner different from nature.” – Marcel Proust, art critic 1907

 Claude Monet (1840-1926) said that he was good for two things in life, “Painting and gardening,” and declared his garden “My one and only masterpiece.” We often fail to think of gardens as works of art since their beauty can be so fleeting. Leave a painting in the attic and it will often increase in value with no effort on the part of the owner; but neglect a garden for even a few weeks and it starts to revert to wilderness.

COLOR HARMONIES. Monet used the earth and sky as his canvas and plants like paint, and planted his garden to create effects that he learned as one of the great French Impressionist painters. For example, as you wander the paths you will notice certain color harmonies that he liked. These harmonies can be classified as hot colors (such as combinations of yellow, orange and red) and cool colors (for example, blue, purple and mauve.) He often introduced into the garden color harmonies he discovered in nature. For example, the colors blue, pink and white he encountered on a visit to the Mediterranean, along the Cote d’Azure, where the blue sea, white limestone mountains and pink-hued evening skies, often dominate the landscape. Another color harmony from nature you will see in the garden is red, pink and silver, especially in the island beds in front of the house. In summer the red  comes from geraniums, pink from tree-form roses and silver from a silvery-leafed dianthus.

More unusual color combinations you will see in the garden are orange and black and black and white. Although Monet avoided the use of black because he wanted his paintings to be bright, he nevertheless used black as a stipple effect to indicate pin-pricks of shadow, and recognized the value of black in snow scenes he painted (such as The Magpie.) This painting shows a black-and-white bird sitting on a garden gate in a snow-covered garden, where branches, tree trunks and a wattle fence help to heighten the black and white contrast. ‘Queen of the Night’ tulip is an example of a black flower that is often used to contrast with white violas. Although there are few black flowers in nature, many flowers (like pansies) have a black patch at the petal center, and this touch of black is often sufficient to produce the ‘stipple’ effect that Monet admired. Also there are many maroon flowers that can be substituted as black.

THE IMPRESSIONIST SHIMMER. In his paintings Monet often used a dab of white to enhance a solid color, helping to make his paintings exceedingly bright. In nature certain flowers like delphinium and lupins have a splash of white at the center of the flower to brighten a solid color, like red and blue. Monet was expert at painting water, and he especially liked to see a body of water rippled by the wind to create pinpricks of light, called shimmer. He introduced this shimmering sensation to his garden by planting airy white flowers liberally, such as white forget-me-not, and white dame’s rocket.

          Another way Monet introduced shimmer to his garden was from bi-colored flowers, especially when one of the bi-colors is white, such as in bearded irises where the lower petal can be white and the upper petals can be a solid color, like blue. Single flowers, like cosmos, also help to produce the Impressionist shimmer because when backlit by the sun they become transparent and shine like a Chinese lantern.

          Monet liked lace. All the windows of his house have lace curtains and he wore shirts with lace cuffs. He especially liked to drape vines with white blossoms from a great height to produce a ‘lace curtain’ effect and also enhance the sensation of shimmer. These include white clematis, white rambler roses, white silver fleece vine and white wisteria.

THE CLOS NORMAND. Monet’s flower garden (called the Clos Normand) is different in its design from his water garden. You will notice that the layout when viewed from the house is quite formal, with long, straight paths and borders called plant bands. These extend from the house to the bottom of the garden. When viewed from one end they produce an exaggerated sense of perspective, which Monet liked, because on a misty morning it would appear as if his paths extend into infinity. The formality of the design becomes obscured as the season advances and plants expand into the paths. Viewed from the side, the paths become hidden and the borders then blend together to create a more informal floral meadow effect.

In the flower garden you will notice numerous metal trellises extend color above eye level from flowering vines, because when he walked around his garden (as he did several times a day, looking for motifs to paint in different qualities of light), Monet wanted his entire field of vision filled with color. The best example of this is the Grand Allée, a series of six arches that extend from the front of the house to the bottom of the garden, planted with climbing roses. In summer, annual nasturtiums creeping across the path beneath the arches, and tall perennials, such as asters and perennial sunflowers, form the sides, to complete a ‘floral tunnel.’

          You will also notice several curved green benches with slatted backrests in the flower garden. These Monet designed from an original that he saw at Le Petit Hameau, in the grounds of Versailles Palace, where he went to paint with his friend, Renoir. Three form a circle, or exhedera, which in Greek and Roman times was a place for people to meet and conduct intimate discussions. All the garden structures – benches, trellises, the bridges, echo the distinctive apple-green color of the shutters of his house.

          Many plants in the garden today are varieties that Monet himself planted, such as orange wayside daylilies, Oriental lilies, the Texas perennial sunflower (Helianthus maximilliani), tall, single-flowered hollyhocks, ‘American Pillar’ climbing rose, ‘Mermaid’ climbing rose, and ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias, with crimson red flowers and bronze foliage. In general he disliked flowers with variegated foliage as he thought these looked anemic, compared to the strong greens and bronze foliage that helped make his flowers shine more brightly.

          Monet liked to rise early and paint the Seine shrouded in mist. He introduced a similar effect into his garden by using flowers with a ‘misty’ appearance, such as blue lavender, blue forget-me-nots, pink meadow rue, pink tamarix and the purple smoke tree.

THE WATER GARDEN. Whereas Monet’s flower garden is composed of long, straight paths that lead the eye to the bottom of the garden and even out into the surrounding countryside, the water garden is designed for introspection. In Japan this design concept is called a cup garden, the pond forming the bottom of the cup, and its pond-side plantings the sides.

This garden area features other elements of Japanese garden design. For example, the high arched bridge was inspired by a similar bridge Monet saw in a Japanese woodblock print, and there are a number of Japanese plants, such as bamboo, Japanese tree peonies, Japanese wisteria, Japanese maples, Japanese water irises, and the giant coltsfoot, with its massive heart-shaped, velvety leaves.

The Japanese bridge marks the beginning of a winding trail that follows the edge of the pond like those seen in Japanese stroll gardens. Willows and water lilies also add a Japanese aura to this informal space. However, it is not a slavish copy of a Japanese garden. Rather, Monet used the Japanese aesthetic for inspiration, so the design is a Monet original, a blending of two cultures – Japanese and European. There are no severely pruned trees or shrubs, no Japanese stone lanterns or other Japanese structures like ornamental gateways or stone towers. Most important, are the expanses of reflective water between the islands of water lilies. In Monet’s later years the water reflections became Monet’s favorite motif and the subject of his famous water lily panels, housed today in the L’Orangerie Museum, in Paris.

The water lilies came from a remarkable breeding program by Bory Latour Marliac, a nurseryman whose aquatic nursery still exists near Bordeaux. These are all hybrids, resulting from the crossing of hardy species from Europe, North America and Central America. Although Monet used a lot of hybrids in his garden, including the flower garden, and visited breeders in France, Holland and England in his quest for distinctive colors, he tempered their dominance by planting common wayside wildflowers among them, particularly red corn poppies, white ox-eye daisies and purple foxgloves.

VISITING TIMES. Please give this brochure to a friend and encourage them to visit Monet’s Garden, a creation he considered to be his greatest work of art.

Giverny is 32 miles (50 km) from Paris off the A13 motorway, north towards Rouen. The closest rail station is Vernon, a short train ride from the Gare Saint Lazarre, Paris. There are also tour buses that run day trips from Paris to Giverny. The garden is open from April 1 through November 1, 9.30 am to 6.00 pm, daily.

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