Claude Monet's Impressionist Gardens at Giverny
See What So Inspired Claude Monet in Giverny, France
Monet's Flower Gardens: One Hot Mess Of Flowers
Nestled in the quiet village of Giverny about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Paris are Claude Monet's house and gardens. Here the master of Impressionism spent the last 43 years of his life (1883 to 1926) surrounded by vivid splashes of floral color in a garden he painstakingly designed.
At first, he welcomed sightseers in this lush outdoor studio. They came to see him paint. But then they just kept coming. Monet had to bar the doors so that they would leave him to his work.
The painter referred to his garden as his life's greatest work, and even after he was wealthy enough to hire seven gardeners, he personally oversaw its landscaping. Today tourists come by the busloads with their cameras, hoping to capture the magic that inspired Monet. Over half a million people visit each year during the seven months the site is open to the public.1
My family and I were among the Impressionist art lovers who made the pilgrimage to Monet's gardens. We took a short day trip from Paris just as the roses reached their full glory. Here's what we saw.
Undeniable attractiveness or beauty in spite of an appearance that is in a state of disarray.
The Untamed Beauty of Monet's GardensClick thumbnail to view full-size
Not Your Mother's Flower Garden
There are pebble walking paths throughout the gardens, and Monet's flowers spring up in all directions, looking wild, unkempt and very much like his Impressionist images.
Rather than being manicured in rows — neat and orderly — I found his garden to be one hot mess of roses, peonies, azaleas, day lilies and so many other flowers. They reflected natural, unrefined beauty.
Purples and oranges collided with pinks and whites, reds, and yellows in an explosion of splendid color. One type of flower climbed over another begging for attention.
It was shocking and beautiful to the senses. This is not an experience for the faint of heart, nor for one who dislikes crowds.
A Floral Explosion of ColorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Find Serenity Among the Water Lilies and Willows
Even with the busloads of other camera-clicking tourists, I found Monet's water garden to be a place of serenity — much more so than the flower garden. It featured a Japanese bridge, smaller bridges and a bamboo forest.
Weeping willows dance gracefully over the edge of the pond that Monet created by diverting a small stream. The water lilies and rowboat are reminiscent of Monet's paintings and made me feel like the painter had simply stepped away for a moment.
Impressionism: The Radical Movement Of Rejected Artists
It was Paris in the 1870s, and the only way for a young artist to succeed was to emulate the work of age-old masters. There was no room for originality, as there is in today's art.
The masters of that time used dark tones and focused heavily on realism and fine details in their paintings. There was also no tolerance for straying from the traditional path — painting important mythical, historical, or religious subjects.2
Impressionist Artists: Their Work Was Unworthy?
Acceptance into France's annual official art show, The Salon, solidified young artists' careers by deeming them worthy of recognition and financial support. But the conservative establishment repeatedly thumbed its nose at Impressionist artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and others.3
When these artists submitted paintings to The Salon, their work was typically rejected outright. Their style was considered offensive, substandard, and incomplete. It was deemed unworthy of display.
Impressionists Broke All the Rules
Impressionist art was a radical departure from Realism in that it emphasized the overall "impression" of a work rather than the detail. Impressionist artists applied paint quickly, sometimes mixing colors directly on the canvas, and their applications of paint were thick and splotchy.
Impressionists broke all the rules (see table below), and the establishment did not appreciate the trouble the young upstarts caused. Their paintings had an ethereal, almost dream-like quality.
How Impressionism Got Its Name
Impressionists got their name in 1872 from an art critic, Louis Leroy. He was reviewing an exhibition that contained a Monet painting of a sunrise. Unimpressed, Leroy remarked about Monet's work: "This painting isn't finished. It looks like an impression."4 It was meant as a disparagement.
However, the rejected artists adopted Leroy's insulting term as the name of their style of art: "Impressionism." They banded together and held their own series of art shows.
After Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III saw their works in 1863, he decreed that the French public should be permitted to view The Salon's rejected artworks in an art show called "The Salon of the Refused."
It drew larger crowds than the regular art show but did little to bolster Impressionism's acceptance into popular society and the art world. By the 1880s, however, Impressionist techniques had begun to influence the art of The Salon.
End Of An Era
Impressionists differed in their preferred subject matter and the extent to which they rejected the establishment art world that had first rejected them. Their styles, however, were unified by the changing effects of light and color.
The movement lasted roughly 20 years (between 1867 and 1886) before disagreements splintered the group of artists. Some became post-Impressionist painters.5 We will always remember Monet as one of Impressionism's founding members — and its most prolific.
How Did Impressionism Differ From Traditional Works Of Art?
everyday scenes, ordinary people
dramatized important mythical, historical, religious subjects; illustrated moral lessons
Use of Nature
real life, unidealized landscapes, nature was a social experience
nature is a mere backdrop, not a worthy topic in itself
Use Of Color
light, vibrant colors sometimes mixed directly on the canvas
darker, more somber tones
quickly applied brushstroke; thick application of paint; lacking "details" in favor of an overall "impression"
carefully finished surfaces that hid all indications of artist's brushwork; detail-oriented
the artist painted outdoors, often in one sitting
indoors studio painting
subjects were often cropped and off-center, showing life beyond the frame
the main subject commands the viewer's attention
Who Was Claude Monet?
A Born Artist
Claude Monet was born in 1840, the second son of a Parisian grocer. His father wanted him to continue in the family business, but as young as five he knew he wanted to pursue art.
French landscape painter Eugène Boudin became his mentor when Monet was a teen. Boudin taught him the value of open air painting — that is, painting in the out-of-doors rather than a studio.
Monet entered art school in Paris and instead of copying the old masters like the other young painters, he took his canvas and palette of colors and painted what he saw. Over the next several years he met Édouard Manet, Pierre-August Renoire, Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley and others. Together, they revolutionized the art world as Impressionists.
A Suicide Attempt
Monet's first wife, Camille, figured prominently in many of his early paintings. When their son, Jean Monet, was conceived, the couple was unmarried, and Monet's primary income was the support of a wealthy aunt.6
Monet's father reacted to the pregnancy angrily by making his son choose between the family and pregnant Camille. Monet chose Camille and his child, but his choice cost him dearly.
He consequently faced rising debts on top of the stress of a struggling artist. When his young family was evicted from their home, Monet became despondent and jumped into the Seine River in an attempt to drown himself. Fortunately, his swimming skills got the better of him.
That's What Friends Are For
During Monet's lengthy struggle with brutal poverty, fellow Impressionists helped in ways that they could. For example, Bazille bought Women in the Garden and Renoir stole bread so that the Monet family could eat.7 It's good to have friends.
Scandalous Living Arrangements
When Camille died of tuberculosis eight years later, Monet was grief stricken. The Monets and their two children had shared a rented house with Ernest Hoschedé and his family. Hoschedé was a wealthy art patron of Monet's who had gone bankrupt.
After Camille died, the families continued living together, moving eventually to Giverny. While Ernest stayed primarily in Paris, Alice Hoschedé raised Monet's two young sons along with the six Hoschedé children.8
The relationship was scandalous, as Monet was living with another man's estranged wife and the eight children between them. Monet proposed to Alice even before Ernest died, but she waited until her husband's death to agree.
Monet struggled with blindness from cataracts in his old age. After Alice's death, he continued to paint and was tended to by his step-daughter.
Monet's Gardens: Where Art and Life Intermingle
Tips For Making Your Trip Successful
If you're planning to visit Monet's gardens, here are some tips to make it a successful visit:
- Advance booking: Pre-book your ticket online or take a guided skip-the-line tour.
- Avoid crowds: Arrive early or late to avoid the bulk of the crowds.
- Take an umbrella.
- Understand in advance that this site is unfortunately not well accessible to people with walking disabilities (e.g., stairs, no ramps, pebble pathways).
- Monet's paintings are elsewhere: Don't expect to see Monet's works exhibited at the nearby Impressionist Museum in Giverny. Instead, they're in the Orangerie Museum, Orsay Museum, and Marmottan Museum in Paris.
- Leave some time to explore the small shops or grab a snack in Giverny.
The Town Of Giverny - A Stone's Throw From Paris
Giverny is located approximately 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Paris and is a popular tourist destination, especially in the summer.
Losing Their Gift: Great Artists Who Struggled with Disabilities
Imagine being born with a great gift then nurturing it — painting, singing, writing. Then along comes a disabling condition that threats to take away the "tools" of your craft.
Whether it is a painter robbed of his vision, a singer whose voice degrades, or a writer whose thoughts are plagued by mental illness, the struggle of losing one's gift must be devastating. How one deals with the struggle is everything. Some artists and creative have been able to flourish valiantly in spite of their disabilities.
Monet's Valiant Struggle
That is exactly what happened with Claude Monet in his later years when cataracts slowly blinded him. Known for his Impressionist colors, Monet could no longer trust his eyes so that he could paint what he saw. Some people even questioned whether he was becoming an abstract artist.
As cataracts assaulted his vision, it blurred what he saw and yellowed his lenses. His brush strokes became bolder as a result, and the images increasingly flowed into one another.9 He used more blues, browns, and oranges in the later stages of his career, a significant departure from his previous style.
Today's ophthalmologists contend that it is remarkable that Monet painted at all during his waning years, as he couldn't judge what he was seeing or painting. There were points when Monet was painting almost purely from memory.
Monet's View Of His Gardens
Other Artists and Creatives Who Struggled With Disabilities
Other artists and creatives who struggled as they lost the "tools" of their gifts included:
- Edgar Degas a French painter known particularly for his portraits of female nudes and ballet dancers. He suffered for almost half his life from retinal disease which caused blurred vision. Rather than give up what he loved to do, he did it differently, returning to pastels and taking up sculpture.
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived with rheumatoid arthritis for the last 25 years of his life. As the Impressionist painter's joints became gnarled from the painful disease, he painted from his wheelchair. A gauze bandage prevented Renoir's fingernails from growing into his flesh, and assistants had to position his paintbrush into his fingers. Yet, the painter persevered, becoming less detailed in his style. He painted until the day he died.
- Georgia O'Keefe, the Mother of American Modernism, was known for her paintings of shells and flowers that resembled female genitalia. O'Keefe lost her central vision due to macular degeneration. In response to vision challenges, O'Keefe painted with assistance and switched to other media, including charcoal drawings and clay.
- Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter infamous for cutting his ear in a mad frenzy and handing it to a prostitute. Van Gogh is suspected to have suffered from bipolar depression, and he encountered seizures from temporal lobe epilepsy.10 Unfortunately, van Gogh committed suicide at age 37.
- Virginia Woolf was a twentieth century feminist novelist famous for her lengthy essay, "A Room Of One's Own," in which she memorably declared that "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Woolf struggled with bipolar disorder her entire teenage and adult life and was institutionalized multiple times.11 During a final bout with depression, she donned an overcoat, filled her pockets with rocks and drowned herself. Her skeletonized body was found three weeks later by children.
Regardless of the outcome, these artists struggled to deal with the unexpected obstacles placed in their way. After struggling to retain the tools of their gift — whether their hands, their vision, or their mind — some overcame the obstacles placed before them, while others did not.
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1Givernet. "Claude Monet's garden at Giverny." Giverny Vernon : In the Heart of Impressionism. Accessed August 21, 2013. http://giverny.org/gardens/fcm/visitgb.htm.
2Impressionism.org. "Impressionism In the Visual Arts." Accessed August 21, 2013. http://www.impressionism.org/.
3Impressionism.info. "Impressionism." Accessed August 21, 2013. http://www.impressionism.info/info.html.
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5 Wikipedia. "Impressionism." Last modified August 14, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressionism#Post-Impressionism.
6The Huffington Post. "The Hidden History Of Claude Monet's 'L'Enfant A La Tasse, Portrait De Jean Monet'." Last modified August 2, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/02/the-backstory-to-claude-monet_n_1724503.html.
7Gifford, Katya. "Claude Monet - Biography." HumanitiesWeb.org. Accessed August 21, 2013. http://www.humanitiesweb.org/spa/rai/ID/826.
8Wikipedia. "Alice Hoschedé." Last modified May 19, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Hosched%c3%a9.
9Gugliotta, Guy. "Impressionist Painters - Style - Eyesight - New York Times." The New York Times. Last modified December 4, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/04/science/04impr.html?_r=1&.
10Blumer, Dietrich. "The Illness of Vincent van Gogh." The American Journal of Psychiatry 159 (2002): 519-526. Accessed August 21, 2013. http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=175449.
11McManamy, John. "Virginia Woolf and Her Madness." McMan's Depression and Bipolar Web. Last modified January 16, 2001. http://www.mcmanweb.com/woolf.html.
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