GIVERNY, France June 6 2014 – Outside of Paris is Giverny, a small town that would be unnoticed but for the thousands of visitors in search of the lily ponds in Monet’s Gardens.
For some it is no more than a guidebook curiosity. To others to sit and look upon Monet’s water lilies, not in oil, but floating serenely in still water that reflects back upon this place, a two-and-a-half acre immortalized in the light captured by Claude Monet.
Born November 14, 1840 (d. December 5, 1926) Monet is recognized as the founder of French impressionism and no journey to Paris to visit the great museums of art can be complete without a visit to Giverny. Today Monet’s Gardens are just as they were at the time of the artist’s death.
It is the images of his gardens, the still surface of the water lily pond, the haystacks in the fields surrounding the town, the seascapes of the Normandy Coast of the English Channel that we associate with Claude Monet.
At the Gardens Giverny we see his home, gardens and ponds as he left them. The property was bequeathed to the French Academy of Fine Arts in 1966, restored, finally opening to visitors beginning in 1980.
One walks in to the property and enters into a forest glen, crossing over the quickly moving stream, beneath towering trees and past brilliant bursts of wild flower colors, to see the pond and Monet’s green flat bottomed boat… sitting still as if waiting for the artist to give it purpose.
A sharp intake of breath is the realization that here I stand. Seeing in three dimensions that which I marveled over in two. Now, I can see what Monet saw, and hear what he heard, smell what he smelt. Feel the cool fall air, earthy with the fragrance of the surrounding fields basking in the midday sun.
Walking around the tourists, I sit down in the middle of the bridge, leaning forward, looking down into the water, memorizing every shadow, every reflection, every bright blast of color buried in the many shades of green and brown that surround the pond’s banks.
Circling the water lily pond should be done quietly and slowly. As the mid-day progresses, the light changes quickly and the colors change and new shapes, colors, emerge.
From the pond with its overhanging willows and towering oaks, walk into the bright sunshine of Monet’s garden.
The garden provides a view of blooming flowers, climbing vines and every shade of green.
The house is as brilliant, and still, seemingly captured in time, as the garden and ponds are. The study is iconic, and overwhelming, as faithful reproductions of Monet’s work hang from wires just as they did when the artist was in residence.
While Monet is famous for his art, he was also a collector of the Japanese woodcut prints, called Ukiyo-E (“paintings of the Floating World”) and the home is filled with them. They are fabulous.
Impressionist artists of the mid-late 19th Century included Monet, Renoir and Degas as well as Pierre_Auguste Renoir, Alred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille all who rejected the traditionally accepted art of the time and all who studied under Charles Gleyre.
These artists were devoted to the work of Edouard Manet and their ranks grew to include Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro and Armand Guillaumin.
And these artists rejected the more traditional art of the time, with the most popular of artists of this time painting historical reproductions, portraits, religious themes. The governing body of French art, The Academie des Beaux-Arts, rejected the young group of artists who believed in painting outside, en plein air, or outside, where they could capture the changing light, seeking to not provide an exact picture, instead the free use of color dominated landscapes, brush strokes were short, the colors pure, saturated and vibrant.
Looking closely at a painting look for the blocks and streaks of color that, when you step back create a realistic impression of what the artist saw, versus a photographic like reproduction of what may actually be there.
It was in 1872 that Monet painted a landscape of Le Havre Sunrise (Impression: soleil levant) and Impressionism was defined.
Impressionism’s name comes from a very public disdain for the art form and was coined by art critic Louis Leroy who wrote a scathing review of Monet’s ImpressionSunrise. Leroy’s article, The Exhibition of the Impressionists, stated that Monet’s masterpiece was little more than an unfinished sketch.
Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape. – Leroy
(Read: The History of Impressionism Hardcover – June 1, 1973 by John Rewald ).
The artists readily adopted this definition of their work and one of the most important bodies of work was born.
Monet’s most famous model was his wife Camille (The Woman in the Green Dress (La Femme à la Robe Verte), 1866) and Monet captured her time and again, the most famous (at least to me) being her walking through the poppy fields, cypress tress pointing to the skys, son Jean just beyond her. Their life was fraught with Monet’s financial failure, and in 1868, the artist attempted suicide. Then in 1879 Camille died of tuberculosis, which Monet attributed, at least in part, to the poverty in which they lived.
Moving to Giverny and his beloved gardens in May of 1883, it was not until 1890that Monet’s work was in such demand that he was able to buy the house, exterior buildings and lands on which he constructed his pond and gardens. Monet’s success came from his being able to create large numbers of canvases for NY art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.
It was at this time that Monet began to create painting images in series like the fifteen paintings of the Haystacks series, each showing the same view only at different times of the day, each showing how light could change the painting even as the subject stayed the same.
He also did a series of paintings based on his beloved water lilies.
With success came the ability to travel, and Monet traveled the Mediterranean, seeking new views to capture. He also married Alice, while his son Jean married Alice’s oldest daughter Blanche, who is the one that took care of Monet in the last years of his life.
Monet was able recreate moments on canvas. Not a photographic moment, but that split second of time and light. His paintings, even those of the very still waters of the pond and the floating lilies, are alive.
All the more now that I have stood where Monet stood. Saw what Monet saw. And felt the light as Monet surely did as well.
Giverny is open daily from March 29th to November 1st in 2013. Hours are 9:30 am to 6:00 pm with the last admission at 5:30 pm. Regular admission for adults and seniors is about $12.50, children under seven are free and tickets for disabled visitors are approximately $6.50. There are also rates for groups of 20 or more.
Traveling to Giverny from Paris can be done by train, private car, or by tour.
For this visit, the choice was Paris City Vision tours, which provide you with a knowledgeable driver, a comfortable mini-bus, lunch at the picturesque restaurant Moulin de Fourges where a three course meal becomes a feast.
Once at Giverny, you are given time to explore the gardens and home before walking the short distance to the Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny where curators stage remarkable exhibit. During my visit, the museum exhibited words from the collection of James T. Dyke:
This exhibition brings together a hundred major works selected from the drawings from Dyke’s private collection and the donation he made to the National Gallery of Art. This selection focuses on artists active between 1830 and 1930, from Delacroix to Bonnard, Vuillard and Signac. With a great wealth of subjects, styles and techniques, the exhibition offers a wonderful example of the general evolution of modern design in France, romanticism and the Nabis Neo-Impressionists. (reference Musee des Impressionismes)