To understand Claude Monet, go see his garden
Best known for his unique vision and unconventional technique, painter Claude Monet gave the world a new way of seeing. Today his work adorns everything from coffee mugs to calendars to silk scarves, but success was not immediate for the father of Impressionism.
In fact, the term “Impressionism” was first introduced in a scathing review of one of Monet’s early works, Impression, Sunrise (1872). Likening the painting to an unfinished sketch, the critic said, “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” The critic went on to disparage not only Monet but other like-minded artists whom he dubbed “Impressionists.”
If Monet’s paintings were nontraditional, so too was his approach. While his contemporaries were sequestered inside sterile studios, Monet was hauling his easel out en plein air into the real world. He connected with the pastoral and had a seemingly endless fascination with the ever-changing play of light and color he found in nature.
Monet was prolific, with over 2,500 works attributed to him—none more celebrated that his gigantic water lily series. Those massive paintings hang in oval galleries specially created for them at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Although it is a small museum, any fan of Monet won’t want to miss it.
However, to fully appreciate the genius of this singular artist, you must travel beyond Paris. Take a 45-minute train ride to the small town of Vernon. Three miles from the station, atop a steep hill, stands a large pink house with vivid green shutters. Here, you will discover another side of Monet’s brilliance—his home in Giverny.
Monet once said, “I am good at two things…gardening and painting.” A visit to Giverny proves that “good,” in both cases, is an irrefutable understatement.
The first 43 years of Monet’s life were rather nomadic. Born in Paris in 1840, raised in Le Havre, he did military service in Algiers. In 1870, he took his wife and son to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War. Later, he called Amsterdam and Zaandam, Netherlands home.
Monet moved from place to place until a train journey in 1883 inspired him to plant roots. By this time, his career was going well and he earned enough money to provide for his wife and their eight children.
As the story goes, he glanced out the train window and saw his muse, the picturesque town of Giverny, located on the edge of France’s Normandy region.
In Giverny, he found a charming farmhouse situated on two acres of land. It included a barn that could be used as a painting studio and a small orchard.
Thanks to the work of his heirs, both the home and the gardens are as they were when Monet lived there. Upon entering the house, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of masterpieces by other Impressionists adoring the walls. Cézanne, Renoir, Pissarro—clearly, the Impressionists were a close-knit group who freely shared their works with one another.
Beyond that, the home is infused with bright, bold colors. The dining room glows yellow. The kitchen is a burst of blue—as if each room was another canvas for the artist to fill.
Outside, visitors can wander through the Clos Normand garden that Monet designed and planted with his children. Gardening was his passion, and he enjoyed mixing common plants like daisies with rare and expensive specimens. “All my money goes into my garden,” he said.
The water lilies
At the end of the garden path is a stairwell leading to a tiled tunnel. The tunnel allows visitors to bypass a road, but this practical solution to a traffic problem also adds a level of theatricality to the tour. When you emerge from the tunnel, the scene before you is instantly familiar even if you have never been there before.
While beauty abounds throughout his property, Monet’s living masterwork will take your breath away. As you move around Monet’s water garden, you can’t help but feel as though you have literally entered one of his paintings. The experience is magical, giving visitors an altogether different impression of the Impressionist.
Monet created the water garden simply because he loved gardening. He employed seven gardeners to help him, and only after it was complete did he realize that not only did he have a beautiful garden, he had a perfect subject.
“It took me a long time to understand my water lilies,” he said. “I planted them for pleasure and grew them without thinking of painting them...You don’t absorb a landscape in a day...And then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond. I took up my palette.”
Monet spent twenty years painting his water garden. He died of lung cancer in 1926. He was 86.
Monet’s home in Giverny is open daily from March 24 to November 1. For more information, visit giverny.org.