Giverny

The house of Monet today.

Giverny is a French hamlet 84 km from Paris, on the tiny Epte River in Normandy. It is famous for its willows and poplars but is most well known as the site where Monet lived and painted some of his finest works. Giverny is now said to be the second largest tourist attractions after Versailles attracting up to 1,000,000 visitors a year.

In Monet's day all this was very different. In 1883, there were only about 300 people in the community when Monet, Alice Hoschedé, her children, and Monet's sons, Jean and Michel, settled there.

At the beginning of May 1883, Monet rented a house and two acres from the local landowner, M. Singeot. The house was situated near the main road between the towns of Vernon and Gasny at Giverny. There was a barn that doubled as a painting studio, orchards and a small garden. The house was close enough to the local schools for the children to attend and the surrounding landscape offered an endless array of motifs for Monet's work. The family worked tirelessly to build up the gardens.

The area around the old farmhouse was taken up by a tired and untidy orchard. Ripping out all but the few healthy trees, Monet installed a new garden in which the profusion and heightened color of the plantings combined with an essential geometrical structure. From the steps of the house, the view is strictly formal, with the wide overhead hoops of the central allée adorned with climbing roses, flanked by long paths lined with bands of different flowers.

Click here to access two 360 degree panoramas
of Monet's house and garden at Giverny. (Panomoriqes.net)

Like an artist who composes his picture's design, Monet carefully framed different views. In addition to the rose-clad hoops of the central allée, the western section of the garden has seven two-tier metal pergolas – all painted dark green to match the house doors and shutters – that were made to his own design. Roses climb up the lower sections, while the higher frames are strung with Clematis montana that dangle down to create a lace-curtain effect.

The covered Japanese bridge, dripping with white and mauve wisteria, fulfils a similar role in the water garden. Even a simple wooden or metal arch, with roses and clematis trained over it, can bring this shift in dimension to our own gardens. To decide on a position, Monet made a temporary model from bamboo canes and wire experimenting with the different effects.

Monet's fortunes began to change for the better as his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel had increasing success in selling his paintings and so he was able to invest more time and money in his gardens and family living style.  

Monet's enthusiasm for his garden took second place only to his art. In the early years at Giverny, he did the gardening by himself. After even years, by November 1890 Monet was prosperous enough to buy the house, the surrounding buildings and the land for his gardens. Today, maintaining the grounds is a year-round job for nine full-time gardeners and two apprentices, and even during the dormant season they are busy replacing shrubs and trees, and preparing plantings for spring and summer. Monet often said, "Besides gardening and painting, I don’t know a thing".

As Monet's wealth grew, his garden evolved. He remained its architect, even after he hired seven gardeners. He built a greenhouse and a second studio, a spacious building, well lit with skylights. The interior of the house reveals the taste and temperament of a gentleman artist. The walls are covered with the hundreds of Japanese prints that Monet cherished and collected. Monet also loved good food and wine. He was able to support eight children by two marriages, and he lived in style. The yellow dining room and well-appointed kitchen, with its gleaming copper pots and pans, were always ready to receive the family or guests for a festive meal.

Hotel Baudy

Hôtel Baudy. 1887

While in Giverny, Monet welcomed his close friends and visitors to his home and garden even though he never could have envisioned the throngs of tourists in high season nowadays.

Monet's world-wide fame soon attracted attention. Many artists already resided in the Paris since it was (at the end of the 19th century) a major center of art study and the Parisian art world was small enough that word spread of Monet’s country estate. Young, aspiring painters to took the short trip seek out Monet personally. An artist's colony quickly established itself, despite Monet’s ultimate reluctance to play host. The vast majority of artists were American but artists also came from Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, Scotland, and Sweden. Many of the Americans who painted in an Impressionist style unashamedly indebted to the master: haystacks became their preferred motif. The idea of traveling to a non-urban site to paint en plein air and work within a community of fellow artists became popular throughout Europe in the mid to late nineteenth century.

Most inhabitants of the Giverny were unprepared for the waves of young American artists who rolled in. Considering its primarily agrarian setting—with no established guest lodgings, just a few small cafés, a single grocer, and no ready source of artists materials the place was, in fact, ill‑suited to becoming an attractive cultural retreat. All this, however, was one of the prime reasons why Monet came in the first place. The promise of a cheap, unfettered life in the country surely played a role in his selection of the property. Enterprising locals took advantageof the basic absence of hotels and materials, to say nothing of their physical distance from competitors, to create lucrative side‑businesses for themselves.

Hôtel Baudy. today.

The Hôtel Baudy is perhaps an example in this regard. The Baudy family ran the general store, which ultimately became a fine hostelry. They later built skylit studio spaces, sometimes to accommodate a single artist’s request (this was the precisely the case with Paul Cezanne’s extended stay in Giverny in 1894) and ultimately became high‑end art suppliers for this itinerant community. Tennis courts were added around the turn of the century to complete the resort lifestyle.

Although he befriended a few of the early arrivals and occasionally met with some of the later ones, Monet remained aloof from colony activities, secluding himself more and more in his own garden and studio during the later years of his life. But the camaraderie among the artists kept them togehter . Many would gather each night in the Hôtel Baudy—which served American-style food and drink—when it was too late to paint en plein air to exchange stories, discuss technique, critique each other’s work, and of course, have a good time.

The Japanese Garden & the Waterlily Series of paintings

In 1893, after many administrative difficulties, Monet managed to buy a piece of meadow near his property. He wanted to make an Oriental water garden. Importing Chinese and Japanese bamboos, exotic water lilies, and rare species of plants, the neighborhood started to fear for their health. He had to defend himself and convince the population that he would not poison the water. He eventually managed to dig the pool and have a Japanese footbridge built which he painted green to match the surrounding plants. Even this color choice was a topic of controversy.

Monet's garden today.

Monet's garden was probably one key to his success, a starting point for his fame. We know know that he was an absolutely professional gardener in his time and well admired for his skills. He wrote written daily instructions to his gardening staff, precise designs and layouts for plantings, invoices for his floral purchases and his collection of botany books. Every morning, a gardener would boat around the pond next to Claude Monet's house in Giverny, meticulously cleaning water lilies that had collected soot from passing trains. The master insisted that, when he got out in his boat in the morning, the water lilies would be pristine.

Unlike traditional landscape paintings, the water lilies present no horizon line to orient the viewer toward the ground and sky. Instead, the sky and clouds are suggested only as reflections in the water. As a result, it seems as though the flat surface of the water has been tipped up to correspond with the flat surface of the canvas, creating a two-dimensional design from a three-dimensional scene. Though in his previous works Monet's subjects were still recognizable, the water lilies in this painting have dissolved into mere splashes of paint. This abstract quality in Water Lilies may indicate the influence of modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Monet's own natural progression to a less naturalistic style, and the effect of his failing eyesight. All these factors contributed to the emphasis on atmosphere rather than solid, delineated form.

The village of Giverny, 1933.

Monet painted his last figure paintings in this period. They represent the children of the extended family boating or sitting in the orchard in springtime. Such works have analogies with Japanese prints of elegant women in boats or admiring spring blossom or autumn leaves. These paintings are more decorative and sensuous than his earlier works. They relate strongly to Japanese screens depicting flowers on a gold ground, creating vibrating and shimmering light effects similar to that seen in Monet’s Waterlilies and Japanese bridge.

Monet was a great admirer of Japanese prints and he decorated the walls of his home at Giverny with them. These two prints form part of Monet’s collection of Japanese prints, which still hang in his house at Giverny. This room contains versions of some of these prints.

His collection was comprehensive — more than 200 prints covering all the main subjects of ukiyo-e, or ‘Pictures of the Floating World’ — beautiful women, Kabuki actors and landscape. The books displayed in this room were published between 1883 and 1891. They contain a large number of reproductions of Japanese works that were in France at the time, and represent the state of European knowledge of Japanese art and its history.

The First World War brought an end to most expatriate activity here and Monet’s death on Dec. 5th 1926 surely snuffed it out. Yet, the legendary impressionist inspired subsequent artists to explore this region. Curiously, through some of the Monet's own descendants, a group of surrealist writers and artists came to Giverny in the late 1920s and 30s, and the creative reputation of the place lingered on for some time. Still, the demise of the largely American‑based art colony in Giverny marked an end to a commercially successful moment in its long history. The regeneration of the village in the 1970s and 1980s, first accomplished by the renovations of the Fondation Monet, and then continued by the Terra Foundation for the Arts in the 1990s, marks a renewal of the cultural investment in this historically significant region.

Monet's house and garden in Giverny are now among the world's most powerful tourist magnets. At any even slightly floral season of the year, visitors are obliged to form lines in order to inspect each bed of irises, or to take photographs at attractive angles of the water-lily pond. Every few minutes, a tour bus arrives from Paris. In France, only Versailles pulls more people.