Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a passionate lover of nature, his greatest teacher and source of inspiration.
His finest work of art was a living study in light and color, an ever-changing canvas that used his most beloved flowers as his paints and his soil as his canvas.
‘Beauty is about the divine, beauty is about something that connects us with the spirit and the heart and the spirit of place‘ *
Each plant that grew in Monet’s magnificent painters paradise was thoughtfully placed. He exquisitely organized nature for over forty years, creating both his sanctuary and the inspiration for his paintings for the second half of his life.
Monet created his garden in the golden age of plants. New plants were available from the Yokohamo nursery, shipped directly from Japan, which had recently opened up for trade. Japanese wood block prints inspired Monet and other Impressionist in a whole new Asian aesthetic. New colors and forms of flowers were being bred enabling him to select flowers in the widest nuance of colors ever before seen.
He collected and traded iris, dahlias, roses, lilies and ferns. Monet gathered wild flower seed and plants in the hills around Giverny, as well as in his travels abroad. He sent seed back home with instructions for cultivation to the gardeners- he was proud to have the first zucchini in Normandy, which he found in Algiers sending seed and recipes home.
Monet corresponded with Dutch, Japanese and American horticulturists, he studied plant catalogs, went to flower shows and read County Life magazine from England.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) wrote over 1,000 articles for it, and she is known for her loyalty to color, creating tapestries of wonder with wild and cultivated plants. Latour – Marliac nursery in the south of France cultivated aquatic plants and hybridized water lilies in every jewel color expanding Monet’s pallet.
Bamboo collections became available some perhaps from the collections at the Bambouseraie also in the south of France an essential plant for an Asian inspired garden. These plants had never been available to gardeners before.
The Bagatelle Gardens became public in 1905 and Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestiler the commissioner of Gardens for Paris created an extraordinary rose garden (now with 9000 roses), a marvelous iris collection and designed a pond to show off aquatic plants made popular by Monet’s paintings.
This romantic park in Paris helped make fashionable the very plants Monet had been cultivating and painting in his Giverny gardens.
The gardens at Giverny consist of the Clos Normand garden, featuring nearly three acres of flowers, with its Grande Allée (the flower tunnel with great arches of rambling roses above the board walk carpeted with creeping, round-leafed nasturtiums), and the two-acre water lily garden with the arching green bridge woven with wisterias.
Monet’s was a departure from the typical French garden and its highly controlled boxwood hedges, planted and sheared to create parterres and paisley-like shapes that resembled carpets and embroidery. Traditionally, flowers were used more as color fields than for their individual beauty and form. Even roses had lost favor and were planted only in rarely seen potagers along with the vegetables.
With his eye for color relationships and the effects of light and atmosphere, Monet naturally employed the same principles in his gardens that he used to create his canvases, carefully arranging pure colors in the ever-changing form of flowering plants to create richly patterned textures, moods and contrasting or harmonizing color relationships. Monet was indeed experimenting with living color that changed with every nuance of the day, weather, and season.
The first nine years, he planned, planted and weeded the garden, himself and in the evening the children watered it, hauling buckets form the well. Gradually the property, with the old apple orchard, the allée overburdened with dark evergreen spruce and cypress trees, and the formal clipped boxwood, was transformed.
In 1890, seven years after moving to Giverny, Monet was able to buy the house and garden. Two years later he hired his first professional gardener, M. Felix Bruil, who would remain at Giverny for nearly 30 years, this was the turning point in the garden.
With the family settled, gardens flourishing, and his new paintings selling well, Monet was also able to buy the land across a railroad track from the Clos Normand, to make his water garden diverting water from the Ru, a year-round stream that empties into the Epte, a tributary to the Seine.
In designing his water garden, Monet created a completely different world from his geometrically laid out flower garden which brought flowering color up into the sky with flowering trees, arbors of roses and layered plantings.
Moist, green, winding paths, curved bridges, Asian plants.
This garden was a flowering mirror reflecting each nuance of atmospheric change – a moving cloud, a ripple of wind, a coming storm.
It held inverted images of surrounding landscape while simultaneously supporting hundreds of floating, water lilies in shimmering jewel colors over the water’s surface.
Inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, Monet built four wooden bridges crossing the Ru. The largest of them became the main accent of the water garden; it created an elliptical reflection in the pond and continued the axis of the Grand Allee across the road to his front door.
He filled the pond with rare aquatic plants, nearly covering the entire surface with carefully placed water lilies of every color from the Latour-Marliac nursery and bamboo from the Bambouseraie Nursery both in the south of France.
The surrounding gardens were planted with rare, ginkgo trees that were pure yellow in fall, and pink flowering Japanese cherry and plum trees, ordered from the Yokohamo Plant Nursery in Japan. Exporting directly to Europe were Japanese daylilies, tree peonies, azaleas, and graceful lavender and white wisterias.
Monet cultivated exotics alongside common native plants, like the yellow flag irises that grew in great, tall clumps, beside the newest cultivars of blue agapanthus. Blue was Monet’s favorite flower color – so rare in nature – he made a little collection of blue flowers and found them lovely in shadows, mixed with violet or set off with some yellow like he did in his home and many paintings.
This garden was the inspiration for the artist’s Les Nympeas, his water lily series first exhibited in Paris in 1909. As Monet told art critic Roger Marx, “looking at it, you thought of infinity; you were able to discern in it, as in a microcosm, the presence of the elements and the instability of a universe that changes constantly under our very eyes.”
Monet eventually hired five more gardeners to maintain his ever-expanding horticultural vision. Florimond, was in charge of the new kitchen garden and the water gardener was assigned specifically to maintain the pond and keep the water lilies in pristine condition. In the Clos Normand garden, Monet kept only some of the old fruit trees, replacing them over the years with the Japanese flowering cherries, plus, crab apples, and apricots that provided height, blooms and structure
Monet did not like plants with variegated foliage in his garden, as he was bothered by their busyness and their hybridized look. He preferred solid shades of green for foliage, with the exception of autumn reds and his stunning copper beech by the pond. This beautiful, mature tree was perhaps 100 years old when Monet began his water garden, and he carefully designed around it, creating an island between the Ru and the pond. Although he generally preferred the simple, single – pedaled flowers to the more hybridized fancy doubles, Monet used bicolor flowers – such as burgundy cactus dahlias with gold-tipped petals and pale cream peonies tinged with pink in the center – to introduce varied nuances of color in an otherwise monochromatic flower bed.
The artist continually experimented with color and texture to convey the nuances of natural light in his painting as well as in his living garden canvases. “I am following nature without being able to grasp her,” Monet once said. “I perhaps own having become a painter to flowers.”
Monet organized different areas of the gardens utilizing various color schemes – he experimented with layers of color with bulbs over planted with annuals of specific colors small rectangular flowerbeds like swatches of paint on his palette. Monet fully understood the complexities of color, and in a sophisticated manner he sought to simplify color relationships to create a diverse yet integrated result. In some areas he planted monochromatic masses, color zones like multiple three-foot-wide flowerbeds of solid lavender purple Irises germanica.
In another area, monochromatic flowers would range in value from pure white to soft pink, or vibrant red to the deepest shades of crimson, all placed together to create a tonal structure. He also contrasted primary colors, like intense red tulips set against cool blue forget-me-nots, which seen from a distant became a violet color zone, as in a pointillist painting. Blue with clear yellow was one of Monet’s favorite color combinations – he would plant reflex yellow tulips to emerge from a carpet of sky-colored bluebells or forget-me-nots. He even designed china in yellow, blue and white to be used for special occasions in his blue-accented yellow dining room.
The Clos Normand garden, which served primarily as Monet’s experiment with living color, required a structural framework to support such a complicated color palette, and he used a grid like layout of rectangular beds together with iron trellises, arches, and tuterurs to fashion the higher plane of the garden, bringing color upward.
To unite the whole composition, Monet chose a dominant color that he would interweave throughout the garden. Large masses or sweeps of the same color family gave more impact and provided the drama he desired. This also made it possible to weave many colors together and have them complement one another when viewed from different parts of the garden.
Sequences of small accents of blue, lavender, or gold were interknit within the flower scheme as highlights of color to catch the light.
Color sequences varied with the progression of each season, accentuating the changes in light and weather. The interplay of delicate to strong color contrasts keynoted the floral compositions, breaking the uniformity of the garden grid, while the abundant informal edging plants, like aubrietia, saxifrage, and nasturtium, crept out into the gravel paths, softening the straight lines of the flower beds.
Luminosity was as important in Monet’s gardens as it was in his painting. He was as keenly observant of the effects of the light shining through the petals of an iris or poppy and the reflections of the sky and surrounding landscape in his water lily pond.
Monet coordinated floral compositions to complement the blooming of the pink or white blossoms of apple, cherry and plum trees. Golden chain trees brought sunshine into the mist-filled garden, and the mauve colors of standard wisteria and lilacs blended with the pinks and whites of flowering trees and bulbs.
All contributed to the enchantments of Monet’s flora world, and many visitors remarked it was like a fairyland, with blossoms above, below and completely surrounding them in the delightfully scented soft light and subtly blended color schemes.
By May and June there was no holding back the rampage of late spring color. New varieties of lilacs, trained as standards were planted down the centers of the beds, bring the same color upward.
Huge, crinkled Oriental poppies in bright vermilion, soft coral pink, and dusty mauve, with large, velvety black splotches in their centers, bloomed profusely in splashy clumps throughout the lawns, prized herbaceous and tree peonies grew in the large mixed perennial borders and along the banks of the water lily pond.
With both varieties, Monet preferred the less common single-flowered Japanese variety that produced flowers up to twelve inches across. The silky colors ranged from pure white to creamy yellow and pink to red, with the tree peonies adding shades of lavender and purple.
During the decades Monet spent studying light, he developed an intimate relationship with nature and her laws, which imbued him with faith and fortitude as well as a deep knowledge of the healing power of beauty.
Years spent as a gardener and painter cultivated his passion and courage to render what he witnessed onto canvas – images he hoped would open the hearts and transform the lives of countless viewers for centuries to come.
Monet’s gardens continue to flourish and inspire us to this day as a living reminder of the power of nature, beauty, and creativity.
Millions of people have visited his gardens, since they were restored and opened to the public in 1978; more have read about them in books and seen photographs as well as exhibitions of Monet’s cherished garden paintings.
The gardens have survived war, abandonment, freezes, droughts, a muskrat invasion, restoration and becoming public.
The rapture of flowers, the romance of such abundance, the knowing it was a living creation of Monet- one of the most popular painters of all times, the feeling of his spirit still there in his home and surroundings has made Monet’s garden the most popular of all gardens in France.
Some of the influences of Monet’s garden on today’s gardeners are clearly that gardens are works of art using design, color, light, movement, time, and seasonal change as sanctuaries sources of inspiration. That gardens can become a portal to intimacy with nature and spirit in the land.
That mixing the wild and cultivated in an orderly but not over controlled way provides vision and spontaneity. That light is not only something all plants need but can illuminate color as well as being a spiritual metaphor.
Monet walked his garden several times a day noticing everything. He sat by the pond for hours watching the changing light, passing clouds, inverted landscape and blooming water lilies. This was a meditation, a time of healing and connection to place as well as personal reflection and inspiration.
Monet taught us to love our gardens and be present in them. That over time our relationship with place, plants and the light can change us forever.
Elizabeth Murray, Guest Author, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014
Quote: * Elizabeth Murray 2012
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She produced the article for the catalogue of their show Monet’s Garden showing at New York from May 19 to October 21 2012
She has also just released her new book Living Life in Full Bloom
All images reproduced courtesy of Elizabeth Murray
Elizabeth Murray is an author, artist and keynote speaker passionate for nature and creativity.