The Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas is hosting an exhibition of Monet’s Later Years. Most of these works are from Monet’s botanical gardens that he painted in his final years in Giverny, France, northwest of Paris in Normandie. I recently visited this incredible exhibit by Kimbell Museum and was reminded of my own experience in Monet’s gardens which was otherworldly.
Claude Monet and his family moved to Giverny in 1883 and subsequently planted and cultivated botanical gardens unlike any in the world. As a painter, Monet found inspiration in these gardens and water lily pond that shaped his works of art over the next twenty years. The largest canvases are housed in the Museé L’Orangerie in Paris, but most of his works from this time period are scattered all over the world in museums and private collections. Fortunately, you can view 52 of his paintings from Giverny in the Kimbell exhibit.
Back to Giverny! I visited Giverny towards the end of the season. I was a grad student studying in Paris at the time and took my backpack full of books and notes and made a day of it. I found a quiet little bench under a willow tree with an exquisite view of the Japanese bridge and spent much time in quiet meditation. The pictures that I am posting are from that visit so the colors are not as vibrant as they are in the Spring and Summer, but nonetheless, quite ethereal.
Monet divided his gardens into two distinct genres: the first are flowerbeds with fruit and ornamental trees which surround his family home and the second, and most popular, contains a waterlily pond. In both of these gardens, Monet, who had a passion for botany, mixed wild flowers with the rarest varieties and organized them by colour and “let them marry and grow freely.” You will find roses and hollyhocks next to nasturtiums. A true botanist just needs to view Monet’s canvases to identify the distinct varieties.
The second part of the Giverny paradise is my favorite: The Water Lily Garden. After having been inspired by Japanese art of the 19th century, which most of the Impressionists had been emulating, Monet had a Japanese bridge installed over his water lily pond. In the spring, this bridge is covered with purple wisterias. There are other smaller bridges over the water lily pond and weeping willows which are highlighted in his works.
Sitting on this bench and looking into the water lily pond, I viewed this subject as an art lover. Before visiting Giverny, I had spent many years admiring Impressionist’s tableaux and reading art books and studying techniques, themes, and background of their subjects. I was drawn to Monet and Renoir’s landscapes especially. So I tried to see the beauty of this subject as Monet did and imagine how I would interpret this in a painting: in other words, my impressions! How did he look at this pond and see yellow, ochre, lavender? The weeping willow in these same tones? Was it early in the morning at sunrise? En plein air or in the studio?
Of course, I imagine Monet painted mostly in the spring and summer months to capture the vibrant colors and blooms. Here I was in October, at the end of the season in muted, fading colors and wilting blooms. In the Kimbell exhibit, you can actually watch a short film of Monet standing at his easel, nearly 100 years ago, palette in one hand, paintbrush in the other. I loved how he mixed some of the colors directly on the canvas, bypassing his palette.
Before my trip to Giverny, I had never attempted to put a paint brush to a canvas. It was always intimidating. Since that time, I have taken art lessons and have attempted to copy Monet’s Nympheas, or Water Lilies. It is very daunting, to say the least. For one thing, as I am not currently there in the gardens; I am using a small photograph to go by. This is really not my “impression” of this garden, the sunlight reflecting off the water, or streaming through the willows onto the pond. I don’t have the advantage of the early morning mist which gives the blurry and lavender effects that are evident in Monet’s works. I have also tried to copy one of Monet’s paintings of the water lilies and this is not any easier. As I am not trained in his style of brush strokes, mixing of his palette, nor have the years of experience and, let’s just be honest here, his genius, my attempts wane. Nevertheless, I will continue to try to recreate his vision of this paradise as it soothes my soul!
I found my next Monet to recreate at this exhibit; it is a canvas of his roses, which is not as familiar as the nympheas, or water lilies. One thing that compels me towards this painting is that it appears unfinished: there are many spots between the roses which were not filled in. The yellowed canvas shows through the roses as if it were intended. The pink edges of the canvas are also exposed and not covered by its frame. This also seems an intention of Monet’s. Typically, I cover the canvas with a background colour from my palette before I paint the theme. It appears that Monet did not do this. Perhaps this was a sketching or practice piece.
One last gem that must be included in a trip to Giverny is a visit to Monet’s house. This charming Normadie home with green shutters has been recently reconstituted. The blue sitting room, the pantry, and the studio sitting room, which includes reproductions of his original paintings displayed around the room give one a great sense of his life here, from Alice’s bedroom with Damasked wall coverings to Blanche’s bedroom at the end of the hall.
Giverny is an easy trip from Paris. It is a short train ride (45 minutes from Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris) to Vernon and then a commuter bus ride to Monet’s home. It is only open for 7 months, but half a million people visit every year so off season provides a more serene setting! In the meantime, a trip to the Kimbell gives a great impression of this paradise!
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)