Discovery in Monet's muse

The famous pond. Photos: JULIE ORR-WILSON
The famous pond. Photos: JULIE ORR-WILSON

Julie Orr-Wilson shares impressions of Claude Monet’s garden.
You should be impressed if anyone tells you they have made it to Claude Monet's garden. From Paris it is no mean feat. I still have the scrap of paper plotting the Metro route from our expensive Airbnb "luxury loft apartment'' (akin to a student flat) in Marais.

There had been several manoeuvres just to get to Gare Saint-Lazare station to take the train to Vernon-Giverny. Not to mention that all this was done in reverse the day before, to book the tickets that had been impossible to access online. Miffed by the dawn start, we were yet to realise how fortunate we were that the only available garden ticket time was for 9.30am.

It is a relief to see countryside after the streets of Paris. The calm. The green. The 45-minute train ride delivering us to Vernon. There was an air of measured stampede as everyone made for awaiting buses for the 15-minute ride to Giverny and Monet's garden.

The head gardener does his early morning rounds.
The head gardener does his early morning rounds.

We had entertained the romantic idea of hiring bikes to ride the route, but forged on, sadly.

I wished I had taken a map to be a little more familiar with the village of Giverny but, amid a throng of mostly American and Chinese visitors, we drifted along, taking a secondary uncongested entrance into Monet's garden off ruelle Leroy. Our first view, uninterrupted, was of the main path's rose arches and, beyond, the salmon pink stucco and unifying green of the original "Le Pressior'' house.

There were no illusions that this garden took care of itself. Staff were already out tending the perennial beds while the head gardener made his rounds. As we stood on the Japanese footbridge - beneath the Epte River diverted by Monet to create his pond - we exchanged smiles with one staff member, wobbling about in a boat, weeding the lilies.

Originally the creation and labour of Monet's own hands, the garden is now an interpretation from past photos, paintings and plant lists, after both house and garden fell into disrepair following Allied bombing in 1944. The pond reverted to a bog. An injection of American donations led to restoration between 1977-80, under curator Gerald Van der Kemp.

I must confess, although struck by the garden, I favoured the house, to see the blue and yellow colour scheme Monet loved in the ground floor rooms; the Japanese print collection, he was so proud of; mostly landscapes and flowers, often procured from a Japanese art dealer based in Paris.

I wanted to linger in Monet's drawing room, the original studio, which seemed so personal with its comfortable seagrass chairs and chaise. Monet described the salon style of the room, with its pictures hanging: "These are old memories for me in this room. They matter to me.'' There is a painting from every era of his life, including the sobering image of Camille, his wife, on her deathbed.

Then there is the oriental-style spice room. The convenient kitchen with its striking blue and white Rouen tiles. The intimate chrome-yellow dining room. The glazed Vallauris vases on the mantel, my stand-out pick.

Above, the bedrooms have been recreated to reflect daily life at Giverny, and filled with the art works of friends. The story of impressionism unfolds on the walls: Renoir, Cezanne, Boudin, Manet, Morisot, to name a few. Surrounded by beautiful, 18th-century commodes and bureaus, it's not morbid to think of Monet dying here, comforted by his best friend Georges Clemenceau.

Monet’s favoured oriental pictures and a collection of exquisite Vallauris vases set against the...
Monet’s favoured oriental pictures and a collection of exquisite Vallauris vases set against the dining room’s luminous yellow walls.

There is much writing and analysis around Monet's paintings. The connection between his watery images, Narcissus, and self-reflection. From the beginning of his career, Monet has been associated with painting water. Early on, seascapes and estuary images at Le Havre.

Critics reproached Monet for not having varied the angle of the Japanese bridge that features in his works, but contemporary Julien LeClercq said in his defence: "It is the light, always the light, which play he pursues, he does not wish to distract us through variations in composition.'' French art historian Louis Gillet in response to Monet's, Water Lilies, described the works, "Never, in the face of the evidence of things and of form, has one more boldly substituted the law of an imagination intoxicated with colours, with poetry, and with beauty.''

After viewing the "Monet's Garden'' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, I felt slightly altered and in light of not wanting to take away from this special experience, I had decided not to visit the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Instead, the origins of Monet's muse made my list.

Tortured and tormented, often in a black mood, faced with the agony of self-doubt in his canvases, Monet wrote in 1905, "... more and more I have difficulty satisfying myself and this grieves me at moments''. For Monet, confident and competent within his safe-haven, the garden provided an escape from such questions.

The garden is compact and intense and in late May, although the signature purple-toned edging irises had faded, we were rewarded with profuse burgundy roses, alliums, peonies and poppies. The rather ordinary Clematis montana "Rubens,'' draped the pergola, in early flower.

By 10.30am, most of the garden vistas had gone, replaced by a gaggle of selfie-taking tourists. We felt so fortunate we'd had an hour to savour. We knew we could not take in or take much more. Forced to exit through what was once Monet's painting studio, now a shop housing Monet merchandise, we encountered a shopping frenzy. As I queued for my ubiquitous reference book, I overheard one visitor exclaim that while she, "didn't need another tea-towel'', she was purchasing two.

A view of the garden from the terrace of Monet’s house.
A view of the garden from the terrace of Monet’s house.

There is more to Giverny than Monet, in it's own right a pretty town. I wish we'd stayed.

Shops, galleries and cafes capitalise on the daily influx of visitors. As we wandered along Rue Claude Monet, a group of Montmartre artists was setting up their gallery for summer.

A striking Parisian street scene, in the window, led to an engaging conversation with the artist, while further along at Sebastian Duquesne's atelier we were taken with familiar Monet images executed in collage. Much more inspiring than tea towels to take home.

It seemed important to pay our respects at Monet's grave in Sainte-Radegonde church grounds. A simple memorial. A white floribunda rose wrapping around the marble cross, dry, brown earth, scrappy cistus and dianthus at the foot. Here I resolved to plant a border of purple irises in Monet's memory when I returned home. And I did.

I cannot help you find your way to Monet's garden, but I will impress on you, go early, and there's no need to take anything away, just leave a little of yourself.

Julie Orr-Wilson is a Dunedin-based writer.




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