One of my favourite experiences during our time in Paris was the day trip Neil and I took out to Giverny to see the famed home and garden of Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926). If you are interested in learning more about Monet’s life and work, I covered him extensively here. In this post, I’m going to focus mostly on how the artist developed the property, and what Neil and I saw on our visit.
Giverny is located 75 km northwest of Paris in the region of Normandy, along the river Seine. In 1883, Monet spotted the small village (then numbering only 300 residents) from a train window. He was particularly interested in a property that contained an old cider mill. By May of that same year, Monet had successfully rented the house and its two acres of land, and moved in with his family.
The old mill, known as the “House of the Cider-Press”, was a long building that had a barn attached at one end. A previous owner had tried to give the structure a more refined 18th century appearance by adding a triangular pediment with an oeil-de-boeuf (known in English as ox-eye) window. (You can see them both in the pictures below). This added flourish was typical of the mid-to-late 19th century, which saw rustic countryside dwellings coming into fashion just as France began to undergo major industrialization. Nostalgia for pre-Revolutionary France was echoed in architectural designs that took cues from buildings such as Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon and her Petit Hameau at Versailles.
Due to the layout of the garden, it’s a little hard to get a good straight-on shot of Monet’s house, especially from further back.
This photo from the Fondation Monet website is a little wider.
It was considered good taste at this time to own a beautiful home in a pristine rural landscape, just as aspects of industrialization (such as railway lines) would soon change these places forever. Monet was certainly charmed by the appearance of the Cider-Press House—triangular pediment, ox-eye window, and all. As a landscape painter, he had been long dedicated to the task of documenting the French countryside in many of his pieces. His artistic sensibilities were well-aligned with living in this old cider house and the small rural town of Giverny. At the same time, I think it’s interesting that Monet also really liked trains, those harbingers of modernity. It was through a train window that he had first seen the property, after all. He also spent days happily painting the trains at Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, as transfixed by the smoke billowing out of the giant steel engines as he would later be by the reflection of water lilies on his pond.
Monet converted the old cider mill into a manor house, enlarging it on both sides to 40 metres (131 feet) wide by 5 metres (16.4 feet) long. Two wings were added to flank the original building. The windows of these two wings are wider than the windows of the central, original structure. You might be able to notice this if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself standing in front of the building or to find a picture that shows it face-on, instead of on an angle. He converted the barn into a studio, but soon it became a reception room where he could hang and display his canvases. Monet preferred to paint outside rather than stuck inside a studio, anyway. He painted the exterior of the house using his favourite colour combination, pink with green shutters.
Neil and I only had a couple of hours to spend at Giverny and the line-up to see inside the house was long. I decided that I would rather spend the whole time we had there in the gardens. As a result, I don’t have any pictures of the interior. Hopefully I’ll get to go back there sometime in the future, maybe when the gardens aren’t as busy. (We were there in the beginning of July, and it was a little insane). For now, you can see some pictures of the interior at the Giverny website. The house is just as colourful on the inside as you would expect with bright blues, yellows, and lots of copper kitchenware.
By 1890, Monet was prosperous enough to purchase the house, the surrounding buildings, and more land. Now that the property was his to do with entirely as he pleased, he completely transformed what had essentially been a farming plot with an orchard into a floral wonderland. He started with hiring two full-time gardeners and gradually increased this number to six. He built a greenhouse to house his expanding botanical collection as well as a second studio¹. He swapped seeds, cuttings, and advice with fellow Impressionist and avid gardener Gustave Caillebot. He planted primrose, daffodils, willowherbs, nasturtiums, peonies, asters, Oriental poppies, delphiniums, irises, and many species of sunflowers. He planned the planting of the flower beds so that just as some blooms began to wilt and die, they would be replaced by more just coming into bud.He ripped out trees that cast shadows in the wrong places. He mixed primary and contrasting colours together according to his own artistic satisfaction.
The Clos Normand is the name of the main garden beside Monet’s home, and occupies nearly 2.5 acres (10,000 square metres) of land. The garden was bordered by the railway line at the bottom of the property; the line has since been replaced by the Chemin du Roy/Highway D5.
Here are some pictures from around the Clos Normand. There’s going to be a lot of pictures of flowers but, hey, I’ve been preparing for this day my whole life… at least, certainly in the last fifteen years since I got my first digital camera. (It’s like my Superbowl).
There has never been a more appropriate place for me to wear this dress.
Monet had plans to expand his garden beyond the border of the railway line at the bottom of his property. In February 1893, he had the opportunity to purchase the first parcel of land that he was planning to develop into a floating Japanese-style water garden. The project was not without its difficulty; in addition to the railway line dividing these two pieces of land², the new property contained a small pond which local farmers had used to water their cattle. The locals vehemently opposed Monet’s plans believing that his exotic plants would contaminate their water supply. But in spite of this heated opposition, Monet received the authorization he needed in July to acquire the rest of the land that he wanted for his ambitious plans. He proceeded to build the garden that would later serve as the inspiration for some of his most famous work. By 1895 he had built two Japanese bridges. He stocked the ponds with local French water lilies as well as varieties that he had imported from South America and Egypt. He couldn’t resist as new species of water lilies in shades of red, magenta, lavender, and purple were developed. Irises and bamboo flanked the shorelines³. Finally, in 1899 Monet began painting his beloved water lilies set amidst the serene surface of his pond and its ever-changing reflections. It would become a beautiful obsession whose content he would depict over 250 times.
Pictures from around the Water Lily Garden.
I really liked these leaves with the pink speckles on them! They’re not as much in focus as I would like, but maybe I can just pretend they’re taking a cue from Impressionism?
Here is the brook that helps feed the pond.
After his death, Monet’s entire estate was inherited by his son Michel. Michel entrusted the care of the house and gardens to Blanche, as he no longer spent time there, preferring to focus instead on his love of African safaris. Louis Lebret, Monet’s head gardener, stayed on to assist her. Blanche remained a faithful caretaker of the property until she passed away in 1947.
Following Blanche’s death, the gardens fell into a state of neglect. When Michel died in 1966, he bequeathed Giverny to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, with the idea that the place would become a museum. Instead, the place deteriorated further, remaining untouched for a decade. In 1977 Gérald Van der Kemp, the curator at the Chateau de Versailles, spearheaded the restoration of the famous French palace. He set up the Versailles foundation in New York, seeking funds from generous American patrons, and decided to restore the house and gardens at Giverny at the same time. Van der Kemp hired Gilbert Vahé, a skilled horticulturist and landscaper, amidst a team of other gardeners to assist with the four-year restoration. Vahé remains head gardener at Giverny to this day.
At the beginning of the project, knowledge of Monet’s incredible gardens had faded from view and were unknown to most people in France. Even the residents of Vernon, were no longer aware that Monet had once lived only six kilometres from them. The land was completely overgrown with grass and weeds, and sadly none of the plants from Monet’s time had survived. Photographs, paintings, Monet’s letters, records from seed merchants, and oral accounts from relatives were all used to rebuild what had been lost.
The gardens today strive to remain as faithful to Monet’s vision as they can, but they are not a perfect recreation of what existed during his time. This would be an impossible feat; Monet’s garden was continually evolving, and some of the flower varieties he used are no longer available. The gardens today also need to meet different challenges, natural and otherwise, than the original ones had to face. For example, more than half a million visitors visit the grounds over the course of the six months they are open.
Visiting the gardens are an incredible experience. Hopefully we can return in the future, perhaps in the spring, and we’ll be able to see the inside of the house as well!
For now, here is a video I found form YouTube of Claude Monet painting in his gardens.
¹ The second studio is used today for administrative purposes by the Fondation Monet; a third studio built during World War I now houses the gift shop and book store. The third studio is where he painted the Water Lilies series (seen in the photo below), now housed in the Musée de l’Orangerie.
² Today, a small pedestrian tunnel runs underneath the Chemin du Roy/Highway 5, allowing for easy access between the Clos Normand and the water garden.
³ If you want a good website that tracks the development of the water garden in great detail, go here. The Fondation Monet linked to it from its own site, and there are some incredible pictures not only of the garden from Monet’s time, but also of some correspondence he exchanged while working on it.