Monet's Giverny Arrives Just in Time For Gardening Season

It's possible for artists to fall in love as they grow older - and not always with a person. Consider the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who became enamored of his gardens at Giverny.

For Monet, the passion for the flowers, spreading trees, Japanese footbridge, and lily ponds of his country estate of Giverny paralleled anything he felt for the fairer sex in his younger days. He moved to to the small Normandy farming village of Giverny, 40 miles northwest of Paris, in 1883. There, he lovingly made his gardens what he called his "living palette" for the next 43 years. At one time, after becoming successful, he employed seven gardeners.

Now Americans can see these little-shown images of this vibrant flora and fauna in the exhibit "Monet: Paintings of Giverny From the Muse Marmottan." They're at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore through May 31. Then they travel to the San Diego Museum of Art (June 27-Aug. 30) and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon (Sept. 20-Jan. 1, 1999.)

Monet was skilled both as a gardener and painter, as is revealed in this small but diverse group of paintings. After purchasing the three-acre Giverny property in 1890, he began transforming what was a simple kitchen garden into a brilliantly hued one of flowers.

In 1893, he bought an additional two acres, where he diverted a stream to create his first waterlily garden. It would be the subject of Monet's last great cycle of waterlily paintings, including the curved, wall-sized ones he did for Paris's Muse de l'Orangerie.

The two gardens, seen in the exhibit as the "Japanese Footbridge" series, the "Water Lilies," and "The House From the Rose Garden" paintings, perfectly complement one another. The flower garden is the more traditional and Western, inspired by formal designs for 18th-century country house gardens. By contrast, the one of the lilies expressed Monet's love of Japanese art, with its asymmetric layout, reflective waters, and exotic plantings.

The artist's approach to the earlier lily gardens ("Nympheas") in this exhibit, seen in two of 1903, show how profoundly he had been affected by Japanese woodblock prints. The water and lilies spread to the painting's edges, with no horizon lines and indications of the pond's banks. The surrounding branches and foliage, and the clouds and sky above, are now seen solely as reflections in the water.

Moreover, Monet also adheres to the Japanese stylistic convention of multiple perspectives, in that the viewer looks both down at the water and flowers from the bird's-eye view and from the side.

In the early 1900s, unbridled intensities of color and light are still Monet's main preoccupations, but works from this time reveal something deeper in feeling.

There's a big change in the "Water Lilies" he created in 1907. It's a tall, thrusting vertical work, with unusually acrid shades of reds, oranges, and mauves. Almost completely abstract, it is actually a depiction of the pond's surface at sunset, replete with deepening shadows and fiery sky.

These dislocations and strange colors predict some of the radical changes in later 20th-century art, such as Cubism and nonobjective painting. In another "Water Lilies" (1917-1919), unfinished and roughly sketched, Monet anticipates the rapid brush and gestural marks of the 1950s Abstract Expressionists.

In viewing these images, and comparing them with his light-filled, joyful early paintings, one wonders about the artist's darker, more intensified approach. It's not clear if this is a result of his difficulty with distinguishing color in his later years.

The "Japanese Footbridge" (1918-1924) paintings, with their muddy colors and obsessively worked-over surfaces, do not serve Monet's reputation well.

Despite some poor curatorial choices, this is a show to be savored and pondered. It may raise more questions about Monet's style than it answers, but it's crucial to an understanding of this great Impressionist.

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