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Understanding Monet's Garden at Giverny

Giverny is a small town in Normandy, in northwestern France where Claude Monet spent the last years of his life. His garden is open for visits. The head of this garden, Gilbert Vahé, provided an interview to www.fluentfrench.com. To get the original French interview, go here.

CONTENTS

(Click on blue questions to go directly to that part of the interview.)

Is the garden that we can see currently more or less the same as the one which Claude Monet had created?

How is it composed, this garden? How did he design it?

Did he create this garden all by himself?

Claude Monet was a painter, he was not a horticulturist. How did he proceed to get the various seeds?

We are going to go into the second part of the garden, the one where there is, in particular, the Japanese bridge. How was the terrain at the time when Monet arrived?

Could the population of the area visit this garden or was it closed?

In this garden, there is the famed Japanese bridge. Do you know what appealed so much to Monet about Japan?

In the pond of that second garden, there are water lilies, the famous “nympheas” which inspired Monet. What appealed so much to him about those water lilies?

That is to say that, when he saw plants and when he bought them, he already intended to paint them.

This is astounding!

How long have you been here at the Giverny garden?

Is the garden that we can see currently more or less the same as the one which Claude Monet had created?

It is in the same spirit. We take the same elements. We do as Claude Monet did in his time, that is to say that there is very little mechanization, everything is manual, pesticides are limited and the growing techniques are the same.

The plants differ slightly because there is some evolution in this area. When we are able to find the (original ones), we plant them in the garden of Monet. Otherwise, we are led to replace them with modern hybrids, (which are) much more hardy, much stronger, and more beautiful, too.

How is it composed, this garden? How did he design it?

He designed it little by little. This is not very well known, but to me, the turning point was Bordighera. In 1883, Monet rents Giverny – he only bought it in 1890 – and he sets up house with Alice Hoschedé. It was she who wanted to fix up the place in order to be able to accommodate the whole family. She sent Monet with Renoir to paint in the South of France, to Bordighera.

I think this was a turning point in the life of Monet. In the exchange of correspondence on his first visit to the South, we see that he wanted to return north, he had enough of it, he wasn't able to capture the colors of the South. The light is completely different from that of Normandy and he couldn't succeed in rendering it.

He wanted to return home, but Alice Hoschedé wrote to him: “No, no, stay there.” Of course, she preferred to be alone to fix up Giverny.

So he stayed. And his art dealer, Durand-Ruel, urged him to stay also, to produce new paintings, and he suggested to him, “Check with Renoir, try to visit the garden of the ambassador of France in Italy in Bordighera, because there, there will undoubtedly be beautiful subjects for paintings.” They are invited by the ambassador and they visit that garden.

From that moment on, something clicked, because Monet writes to Alice and to Durand-Ruel: “Ah! It has happened. It’s wonderful. Now, I am in the right place. I am able to capture color. I understand. This garden I visited is magnificent and so natural and yet, everything was planted.” He is astonished that they are slices of nature, but planted.

And he says to Durand-Ruel: “I am returning north with Renoir, but in a few months, I will go back down again, because I have ideas.” And he adds in his post-script: “Above all, don’t say anything to Renoir.”

He returned to Giverny and he saw an untouched property: one hectare of land, two cider-apple trees with an orchard, and he began to imagine what his garden could be. To me that was the "ah-ha" moment. When you see the works he painted in Bordighera, you understand the idea he had for his garden at Giverny.

Did he create this garden all by himself?

Yes. In the beginning, when he arrived at Giverny, he had very few means. He used what he had, that is to say his two sons, plus the children of his second wife, to garden. Some liked it, but others did not like that!

Claude Monet was a painter, he was not a horticulturist. How did he proceed to get the various seeds?

He had a passion for flowers. And when you have a passion, you surround yourself with friends who have the same (passion), both professionals and painters. For example, he saw a lot of Caillebotte, who had a very big garden with several gardeners. He saw the most important figures in the trade: Truffaut, Vilmorin.

And they got together all the time. In 1922, there was the great international contest on irises. Monet gave 500 gold francs for a prize.

He used his gardeners to create new plants. Because we always go beyond our passion. We begin by planting what we have, what friends give us.

Then, we want also to offer something special, so we create by observation, by hybridization. And we offer what we have created. Monet had created a dahlia which he called La Digoinaise from a Mignon dahlia which is the star of Digoin. He created varieties of irises, he created a poppy he called Moneti.

He is believed to have created roses, but for this I do not have any written document, I only have the words of the gardeners of the time. But I have not found anything on the varieties of roses he is said to have created.

We are going to go into the second part of the garden, the one where there is, in particular, the Japanese bridge. How was the terrain at the time when Monet arrived?

First of all, there was a lane – not the current road – with a railroad track, slightly elevated. And on the other side of the track, it was a swamp, that is to say a meadow, a grazing area. Monet had the idea to buy a piece of land adjacent to his property and to create a pond there.

And to create that pond, he was forced to ask for special authorizations, which we would not be able to obtain today. But friends like Clemenceau and others helped him. He paid a lot for the authorization to divert this brook that fed one or two mills a bit farther down, after which he dug his pond.

He dug it in several stages. He first dug a small (pond) and he found that it was not big enough for his painting studies. He extended it, I believe, twice. Then he wanted to have exotic water lilies, bulbous water lilies, thus blue water lilies, among others. They have, as a distinctive feature, a flower that sits a bit above the surface of the water. And they have extraordinary colors, the most beautiful colors for water lilies. But it is necessary for them to have warm water.

In Monet’s time, it was the first hybrids of Latour-Mariac which could grow in cold water, thus in Monet’s garden. But the bulbous water lilies came among others from Japan and from much warmer countries. So he had created a small pond within the pond with a small wall to warm the water and to have these bulbous water lilies. Since he did not succeed, he got rid of this pond within the pond.

Could the population of the area visit this garden or was it closed?

In the beginning, he was alone, but, when he began to be known, he sold his paintings in the United States. The young American painters discovered Monet’s style and the special light of Normandy, the frameworks, the viewpoints. And they showed up in large numbers.

In the beginning, there were not many of them, he received them, they worked together. But in the end, there were so many of them that it became a little – pardon the expression – a little chaotic!

In addition, he had many daughters with his second wife. He did not like to see them in this environment, artistic but rather dissolute. So he had closed his door. He received only those who were affiliated. Okay, Butler married a Hoschedé, so some American painters courted Monet’s daughters. Those were part of the family, but the others were not.

He sent them to his vegetable garden, that is to say to what is still called the blue house, in the middle of the village. All the sections of perennials that he grew in his garden, he planted them in his vegetable garden. And when an artist wanted to come and paint, he told him: "Oh, it is just as beautiful at the blue house," and he sent him to the vegetable garden.

In this garden, there is the famed Japanese bridge. Do you know what appealed so much to Monet about Japan?

We must place Monet in his own time. It is the time when Japan opened its commercial markets. Previously, that country was closed. Then it underwent its revolution : some samurais were for tradition; the emperor, for his part, was facing a blockade and wanted to open his country. In the end, both sides killed one another and the emperor and the samurais who supported him had the upper hand. The movie, The Last Samurai depicts the atmosphere of that era.

Japan opening to the West, that worked to the benefit of the young painters who painted differently, the impressionists. At the time, the hyperrealists, who spent four hundred hours on a painting, found it very strange that a young (painter) who spent four or five hours on a painting could hope to sell it for the same price as theirs! That could not do! The hyperrealists said: “We, that is what we do, actually, it is the first draft of our painting. They, they have paintings (that are) not finished.” So they refused them.

When the impressionists saw Japanese art, and particularly Japanese prints – Monet and other impressionists collected them, by the way – they found in that art the proof that what they claimed was true. For example, that it is from the simplicity, from elements (that are) completely refined that we can draw the best aesthetics.

In addition, they found ideas for subjects to which they were not accustomed. They re-used those subjects. There are many subjects on water, on reflection. In some prints, we see a person in profile in the foreground and the vanishing point is in the reflection, for example in a container of water!

The notion of movement, simplified, they also found it in the prints. The impressionists re-used those print subjects, and each time we look at a print, we think we know it by heart, but we rediscover a small detail. Because Japanese art, it is beauty in indispensable elements. There is nothing superfluous. Here (in the West), we put in a lot of things and we seek beauty in this profusion of colors and shapes. In Japan, it is the opposite.

This is why we have difficulty understanding one another. They have reproduced a Monet garden in Japan. And I did not understand why they did not follow what we had established. Every time I went there, I said: “Why, that’s not right! This is not what we decided…!"

And they didn't understand until the day when they came to work here, in France, with us. Then they went back home. When I returned there later, everything had changed. It was really like here (in France). We sometimes have difficulty understanding each other because we are completely different.

In the pond of that second garden, there are water lilies, the famous “nympheas” which inspired Monet. What appealed so much to him about those water lilies?

At the World’s Fair of 1889, Latour-Mariac presented the first hybrid of a hardy, colored water lilly. Water lilies, little yellow flowers, and white water lilies grew in the Seine. But colored water lilies, there were none. So it was Latour-Mariac who was the first to succeed in creating a hybrid and obtaining a flower. Then (came) other colors, yellow and others.

Monet got in touch with Latour-Mariac to buy aquatic plants. And he used them, at first, I think, as a surface marker (in paintings). Because the white water lily had almost no reflection. It floats on the water. On the other hand, there was the reflection of the trees and the environment in the water. The "breaking point" is the white water lily. So it is a matter of creating a vanishing point and a horizontal line between the subject and the reflection. That was the starting point.

Afterwards, he went further. He wanted to capture the movement and the colors under water. The movement of the stems of the water lilies that bend proves that there is movement under water, even if there is none above ground. So it is his quest for perfection, his desire to always go further.

That is to say that, when he saw plants and when he bought them, he already intended to paint them.

Yes, he intended to paint them. He painted what he saw.

Another thing: this garden is very well oriented. It is oriented with the back facing north, the front facing south, with a big valley to the east, the valley of the Seine and the valley of the Epte, and to the west, the valley of the Seine.

So the most beautiful colors of the atmosphere are in the morning, early, or late in the evening, but above all in the morning, very early, because it is clear in the valley and then we have pink effects. And the spectrum changes. At noon, it is overwhelmingly yellow and red. Whereas in the morning, it is pink, very pastel, very beautiful.

Monet rose very early in the morning to capture those colors.

And his water garden was designed to have one pool in the sun and one pool in the shade and the Japanese bridge between the two, in the narrowing. Which makes it so that at sunrise the rays passed under the Japanese bridge – by the way, that is why he installed a Japanese bridge, this arched bridge. The rays of the sun pass beneath it and light up the shaded area with the water lilies in the shade, creating a shade-and-light effect. And all that, it was observation and studies to reproduce in his paintings.

This is astounding!

This is normal, it was his job, it was his passion. I am convinced that he discovered, while painting, some lighting effects. For example, we are at the level of the Seine. So at certain times, water evaporates. And there is a phenomenon that we call iridescence. It is very ephemeral. It lasts ten minutes at the most. And it doesn't happen all of the time. It depends on the moisture content of the atmosphere and the radiation of the sun. And that creates an ambiance… for example, everything is pink. The air is pink and we have the impression that it is our eyes that are deceiving us. The first time that I observed this phenomenon, I asked one of my fellow gardeners: "Do I have a problem? Do you see everything pink?" And he told me: "Yes, yes, everything is pink, yes." So everything was pink, but that does not last very long.

How long have you been here at the Giverny garden?

It has been thirty years now. We began the restoration in 1976 and we opened (the garden) to the public in 1980. It was, actually the goodwill of Mr. Van der Kemp, who was the curator. Previously, he had been curator at the chateau of Versailles, where he retired. And then, for pleasure, being an academician and since the property belonged to the Academy of Fine Arts, he took charge of it to restore it.

But he did not expect, and neither did I, to see so many visitors. Simply, Mr. Van de Kemp was a little like Monet: he was a painter and a lover of flowers and nature. So it was somewhat the same spirit as Monet. And we worked along those lines. Additionally, we had projects, ideas for related activities in order to pay the people who worked on the site, since we had anticipated only seven thousand visitors.

In 1980, we opened and we received seventy thousand persons the first year! And we had to rethink everything, all that was of a practical nature, restrooms, access. So we put aside the other projects and we focused on improving the site to accommodate all those people.

Gilbert Vahé, thank you.

Don’t mention it. It is I who thank you.



Get the original French interview.