Walking the grounds of Monet’s home gave the Master Impressionist inspiration and gives the visitor appreciation
Claude Monet loved travel. Trains were a passion and he adored cars, although he didn’t drive. Most of his trips — or “campaigns”, as the father of impressionism described them — were undertaken to escape the bleak light of winter or when he needed to seek fresh inspiration.
“He was fascinated by travel and also the means of travel,” says Sophie Matthiesson, curator of international art at the National Gallery of Victoria, which is staging a blockbuster exhibition until September 8, Monet’s Garden, a fitting celebration for the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, designed to lure the masses to Melbourne during those cosy, colder months Monet eschewed.
Monet’s light-infused impressions of Normandy, Le Havre, Etretat, Norway and the Fleury coast are hung in the second of the six galleries housing the exhibition. Monet also spent at least six months at the Savoy Hotel in London. According to Matthiesson, the sixth floor was the artist’s preferred choice but he would settle for a room on the fifth at a pinch.
From that vantage point, high above the Thames, a river he loved, Monet completed numerous works of London. The Houses of Parliament, two paintings of Charing Cross Bridge and one of Waterloo Bridge — on loan from Kerry Stokes’ private collection — are in the exhibition.
Eventually, Monet felt no need to wander abroad for inspiration. Once his Giverny garden grew, it provided all he needed to fuel his creative spirit. Giverny, he famously said, was his greatest masterpiece.
It doesn’t matter how many posters, prints or photographs of Monet’s paintings you’ve seen, nothing comes close to the real thing. No reproduction, however skillful, can go anywhere near replicating the incandescent beauty that makes up the contents of Monet’s Garden.
Go to any exhibition, which you must if your heart is beating, and be prepared to tear down your Monet posters and toss out your prints. Your perception of art, beauty and light will never be quite the same again. You won’t be disappointed with Monet’s Garden, unless you fail to allocate enough time to do it properly.
All the icons, the paintings that have been reproduced endlessly over the past century — the waterlilies, the irises, the Japanese footbridge, the pond, the alleys of roses and the wisteria — are present.
Most of the 62 paintings have come from the Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, which was bequeathed Monet’s personal collection in the 1960s, and rarely travel en masse. The NGV has the only Australian showing, a huge coup. The exhibition finishes with an interactive timeline of Monet’s life and a six-minute panoramic film showing Giverny from dawn to dusk on the final day of last year’s tourist season. Schedule time for at least three viewings of it.
The perfect Paris day trip for art and garden lovers alike
Claude Monet once said his garden was his most beautiful masterpiece. Standing in his garden in Giverny, it’s difficult to disagree.
A spring shower has just drenched the garden, scattering a carpet of pink cherry blossoms across the path and throwing the scent of fresh nectar into the air. Rowdy tulips dominate the flower beds — trumpets of yellow and red interspersed with bursts of poppies, pansies and white irises.
Despite the crowds, the garden seems to offer reflection, meditation and inspiration. A woman with a cane dips down to touch a tulip, cupping it with the tenderness she would a grandchild’s cheek, while nearby a budding artist scribbles away discreetly in a small sketchbook.
But the garden also offers a sense of familiarity — this landscape is what hangs in the great museums around the world. Open from April to November, Monet’s garden is one of the most popular day trips from Paris. In the Normandy village of Giverny, Monet arrived at the property in 1883 and set about planting his interpretation of a Normandy garden, intending to grow a few flowers he could pick and paint stills of on a rainy day. From there his passion grew, and until his death 43 years later, his garden was the inspiration for many of his impressionist works.
Along with his Clos Normand flower garden, his house, filled with Japanese woodcut prints, is open to the public. Monet’s fascination with Japan led to the establishment of his second garden across the road.
Accessible today by underground walkway, Monet’s water lily garden is often referred to as a Japanese garden. But, according to artist Marie Theres Berger, who leads tours of the garden, it is closer to “a beautiful fantasy of a Japanese garden, inspired by someone who has never been to Japan”. Around the oval pond, weeping willows tickle the water, dancing with the wind. Mauve wisteria buds begin to unfurl on the bright-green bridge, oblivious to the tourists queuing for photographs beneath them. Nearby, a bamboo thicket dapples the light. Two boats are tied to the bank, lined with green Petasites leaves dotted with tiny pearls of water.
And then there are the water lilies, planted in clusters and the colour of red bruises. They are the flower Monet made famous, but on our visit they provide an excellent throne for a well-camouflaged frog.
Monet’s growing success made Giverny fashionable, and young artists flocked to the quiet rural village in search of tutelage. At first Monet welcomed their company, but with daughters of an eligible age, he later shut the door to the distraction.
Instead, they congregated in the Hotel Baudy, a hotel and studio that became the centre of an artists’ colony. A short walk from Monet’s house, it is one of 20 points of interest along a four-kilometre cultural walking tour of Giverny, established two years ago.
The walk offers the opportunity to soak up the feel of a traditional French village. Planted with spring flowers and lined with sun-soaked restaurants offering dishes such as camembert and cider soft cake, the walk passes the Musee des Impressionismes Giverny, which runs exhibitions that complement the garden, and includes the village’s mediaeval houses and the churchyard where Monet is buried.
It’s usually my final destination in my visit to Giverny.
Monet’s family grave is an unexpected explosion of spring color, filled with blooms and greenery reaching for the light. It’s so unruly I almost miss it — a single paintbrush left by an admirer, sticking up among the blooms in salute. It’s a fitting tribute to the artist who gave the world so many masterpieces.
Monet’s garden is accessible by a 45-minute train ride from Paris’ Gare Saint-Lazare. Shuttle buses meet the train. Be sure to check train and shuttle timetables carefully, as there are limited (but reliable) connections.voyages-sncf.com/billet-train/horaires.
Monet’s house and garden are at 84 Rue Claude Monet, Giverny. The garden is open from March 29 until November 1, from 9.30am until 6pm, and costs €9.50 ($12.50) for adults (€7 children 7-12 years and under-sevens free), including entry to the house and gardens. Prebook your ticket online or expect to queue. fondation-monet.com/en.
On the Web: Normandie Office of Tourism cape-tourisme.fr.