Giverny; A visit to Monet's waterlilies

It was one of those days at Giverny that would have driven Claude Monet to distraction. The sky over the Normandy countryside an hour northwest from Paris was full of storm and sun at the same time. Soft wet light spilled across the fields and rolling hills along the little River Epte, and washed over the pink stucco of Monet's house. Then came a wave of shadow which extinguished the brilliance of the sunflowers and hollyhocks, the asters and Japanese anemones in his gardens; it wavered, the sun almost burst out again, but failed. The light stayed harsh and flat for a few more minutes.

If Monet were now standing again near his Japanese bridge and the water gardens, which he created in 1895, he would have seen much the same light ripple into its depths and across the clusters of waterlilies he had painted so often. One could almost see him dashing between the several canvases he had in progress at the same time. The painting begun on one easel would show the garden in bright sun; another, the same scene in shadow or at dusk; a third, the same, in the delicate tint of dawn.

Monet never painted from memory, only what he saw before him, and in this mercurial atmosphere, which took the proportion of an incandescent vision, here an instant and gone. His ferocious moods when work was not going well were all too well known to his family and friends. They left him alone in his gardens or studio, poised between exultation and despair as he tried to capture the ineffable moment of sunlight mingling with leaf and water, or crimson petal with shadow and air, before it vanished.

Today, as we walked through the straight paths of the "Clos Normand," the orderly flower garden and orchard between the house and the Water Garden, a brief flurry of raindrops spattered us through the willows. We paused in the shelter of the short tunnel that runs underneath a small local commuter-train railbed and leads to the lily pond. The train was there in Monet's day. In fact, it was from this train, which meandered along the river valley between Vernon and Vetheuil, that he first saw the tiny village of Giverny and fell instantly in love with the place.

In less than a minute, as we stood there, the sprinkling of drops ceased; the sun had been shining mistily all the while. Yet as we approached the Japanese bridge over the pond, the light went gray and flat again. The famous pools, which we expected to find full of Monet's shimmering color and light, were opaque, monotone; they gave up none of their secrets.

A whimsical thought occurred to this viewer: Monet had drained them of that color; all their mystery is captured on his canvases. But then the sun broke through again; a breeze over the water pulled at the long willow branches trailing in the pond and tugged the lily pads a ripple farther downwind. Sky and willow and the arched bridge were reflected in the water and for one instant , it seemed, his canvas came to life.

We could imagine Monet diving for his "sunny canvas," exhilarated, only to throw down his brush a few minutes later when the sunlight flickered out again and the clouds made the water look chill and hard.

Monet agreed with his contemporary, Courbet, who said, "I paint only what I can see. I have never seen an angel so I shall never paint one." Yet even Courbet could not match Monet's purist approach. Once Monet's painting master, Courbet followed his pupil's development with great interest and watched Monet outstrip him, finally. When Monet painted his famous "Picnic Lunch" in the forest of Fontainebleau, Courbet was there to watch and discuss Monet's techniques. Working on another painting in 1867, a scene of four women in light dresses among the leaves, Monet was discovered by Courbet just sitting, doing nothing, the models restless.

"What are you doing sitting there -- why not work rather than twiddle your thumbs? There is a lot to do to the picture yet." But Monet didn't budge.

"No," he answered firmly. "I am waiting for the sun."

A cloud passing over the sun had subtly altered the patterns of light and shade, draining the scene of its vitality. An arbitrary daub of paint to simulate the remembered warmth of sun would have been anathema to Monet.

Yet, though Clemenceau called him "the painter of light," Monet pointed out an important difference in his own perception of his art. "The subject is of secondary importance to me," he said. "What I want to reproduce is what exists betweenm the subject and me." Thus, the subject actually disappears from his painting toward the end of his life. Much has been made, critically, of what did appear --worlds beyond our visible world, capturing moods and a hint of reality beyond the literal surface of things, a fleeting glimpse, perhaps, of those "angels" Courbet had never seen.

Monet's home and gardens at Giverny are as much a personal creation by this master, and the culmination of his complex life, as his paintings were. After a childhood spent in Le Havre on the Normandy coast, and studying in Paris, where he met Renoir, Sisley, and others, Monet worked with Courbet at Trouville. He settled in Argenteuil in 1872 when he was 32 and remained there until 1878. During this period he had married Camille, who bore him two sons, and he exhibited his works -- to increasing recognition, if not exactly unanimous praise. The term "Impressionist" was the most sarcastic term reviewers could apply to the band of painters emerging with that technique; and Monet, of course , was the "cause" of that new term, with his 1872 canvas called "Impression, Sunrise" (now in the Marmatta Museum in Paris). The "impression" -- a tangerine ball floating up out of blue mist and over vague stretches of shadow and water -- sent distraught critics scrambling for their worst epithets.

Monet had always been fascinated by water and light. Raised in Le Havre, a city that was near both the sea and the mouth of the Seine, he actually made a small riverboat his studio at Argenteuil and would paint from another riverboat at Giverny, even when he had two land-studios and his whole water garden in which to work.

Despite critics' disdain and general hardship during his early years as an artist, Monet had one strong supporter, a businessman and collector, Ernest Hoschede. . . . At his home, Monet met Manet, Mirbeau, and many other artists; unfortunately, Hoschede went bankrupt and fled to Belgium in 1877. Mme. Hoschede and Mme. Monet decided to spend the summer of 1878 together, renting a house in Vetheuil; upon Camille Monet's death in 1879, Alice Hoschede stayed to help raise Monet's children, along with her own.

After living in another rented house in Poissy, which Monet disliked even more than Vetheuil, he finally discovered "home" from the doorway of the little train running between Vetheuil and Vernon; no doubt he'd also been watching the sun and shadow playing in the ripples of the River Epte which meandered along the same route.

He rented a comfortable house called Le Pressoir and settled there with Alice and their children in April of 1883 -- a good month to begin a new garden.

At first, Monet could not financially afford to do much more than live and work there. But as his reputation and sales of his paintings rose, he was able to buy the house and develop the gardens, eventually employing a small army of gardeners for the necessary work. Lying in front of the house is what he called the "Clos Normand," designed in the French manner, with straight paths intersecting an orchard. For all the dazzling tumble and brilliance of the flowers, vines, and flowering trees, and for all the kaleidoscope of colors which change with every season, it is still an orderly place. Its wide central passageway, flanked by rectangular spring beds of poppies, iris, and azaleas, leads from the house to the passage by which one enters the Water Garden.

Here is another world completely. The gravel paths all curve and wander, following the meandering lip of the lily pond. There are no formal flower beds, just the wild charm of the waterlily clusters and more clumps of iris and poppies and banks of azaleas at the water's edge. The powerful colors of rhododendron and azaleas give the garden drama and added movement. Twined through the Japanese bridge and hanging from other trellises is the rich profusion of mauve wisteria. The pure white wisteria bloom there later in the spring. Ferns, heather, delicate laurel, and plain long grasses add softness and subtle texture.

Totally unlike the "Clos Normand," the Water Garden is Japanese in style and mood. It invites one to wander for hours, in the philosophical contemplation of nature. Monet surely did; rising at 5 o'clock every morning, he would walk and muse along the garden paths, out to the fields and out to the banks of the Epte, whose waters he had diverted to create his lily pond.

And though he often wandered farther on the banks of the Seine, he always came back to his Water Garden to dream and work as he watched water, earth, and light coalesce into what, for him, finally became an inseparable whole.Toward the end of his life this Water Garden became an exalted obsession and his only subject. His magnificent series of 19 panels, "The Water Lilies," has been called "the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism."

Yet even in the throes of his work -- or at least after the day's artistic crises were over -- Monet was also a gregarious man. He was fond of convivial luncheons, surrounded by his family -- his second wife, Alice, and their children -- and friends, among whom were some of the greatest artists of the era. He liked nothing better than to show off his own paintings in his drawing room studio, and he also collected the work of his friends.

He had 12 Cezannes, several by Renoir, Delacroix, Pissaro, and Berthe Morisot , and others by Manet, Degas, and Vuillard. These were hung throughout his house, along with the superb Japanese engravings he had been collecting since 1871. With extraordinary foresight and unerring taste, he acquired masterworks by Utamaro, Hiroshige, Hokusai, and others and later created great interest in things Japanese among other artists of the time.

After Monet's death in 1926, Blanche, his devoted sister-in-law, looked after his property; but after her death and that of the head gardener, Lebret, the garden and house gradually fell into neglect and most of the paintings were sold by Monet's son Michel. Sadly, floors rotted, a staircase collapsed, grass grew through the floors, and the priceless Japanese engravings were threatened by dampness and dust.

Dilapidated as the house and gardens were, Michel Monet left the entire property to the Academie des Beaux-Arts and in 1977, Gerald van der Kemp, the director of the National Museum at Versailles, was appointed curator of Giverny. Mr. van der Kemp began restoration work immediately, with friends from French cultural foundations. Mrs. van der Kemp, an American and the president of the Versailles Foundations, was effective in raising funds in the United States.

Now the house sparkles again, re-created exactly as if Monet and his family were living there today, including Limoges on the dining table and Japanese engravings on the walls.

Monet's fascination with photography was a great boon to present-day researchers. An extensive collection of photographs of each room, many with Claude Monet in the foreground, enabled van der Kemp and his staff to reproduce the rooms down to the exact placement of a vase on a mantel-piece. Even in his work studios and sitting room, where Monet's originals used to hang, large modern photographic reproductions of his paintings now re-create the atmosphere of his life and work.

And the gardens, too, are coming back to life after long research and planning and several years of intensive preparation and replanting. It will be another few years before they reach the lush perfection of Monet's day, but they are a delight even now, and perhaps have a more vulnerable charm when one imagines them slowly regaining their vitality, season by season.

For getting to Giverny, Air France has several good vacation packages at this time of year, connected with Paris hotels in various price ranges. To get from Paris to Giverny, check current train schedules from the Gare Montparnasse, but a rental car is still the best bet. No organized bus tours have been announced at this date. The museum is open daily except Mondays from April 1 to Oct. 31, from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 6 p.m. Admission is about $3 for the museum (Monet's house and studio) and $3 for the gardens.

Sunlight, shadows, and reflections on the water are absolutely free.

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