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I first became interested in Monet’s water lilies when I was teaching black-and-white photography in Virginia, over 40 years ago. Of course, I had always loved the paintings; I grew up with his long panel at the Museum of Modern Art, which was a kind of second home as a teenager. 

But while I loved them, I hadn’t really thought about them. 

Because the photo lab where I taught back then was set up entirely for black-and-white, I thought in black-and-white. Seeing that way is different from seeing in color. A bright red might grab your eye in a scene you look at, but in the monochrome print you make, it is the same gray as a green or a blue. So, you learn to see in lights and darks, highlights and shadows. The world becomes translated to patches of charcoal and blasts of ivory. 

Such seeing — and thinking — leads to seeing your frame as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of those highlights and shadows, and you use them to make designs. Patterns. It is what is taught as “composition.” Rule of thirds; foreground-background. The frame edge becomes a kind of corral fence inside of which you deploy the monochrome elements of your design. 

But, looking at Monet’s nymphéas, I realized there was very little careful design, the way I was taught to see. Especially in the long ribbon-like murals of water lilies. I wondered if there were a way to make a successful black-and-white version of them. 

Back then, there was no digital photography; it was all Tri-X, Dektol and Kodabromide. I couldn’t easily drain an image of a Monet painting of its color to see what it looked like in black-and-white. But there were old art books that had black-and-white illustrations, and I found a few of those books and attempted to study them. There didn’t seem to be any good reason to look at such a painting; without the color, the image was vague, inchoate and pointless. 

At first, I put it all down to poor reproduction. Perhaps if I made my own photographs. So I dragged out my 4-by-5-inch field camera and tripod and drove down to Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge on Back Bay, at the north end of the Outer Banks, where there was a rich crop of Nymphaeaceae (the scientific name of the water lily family, a name richer in vowels than the plant is in chlorophyll). 

Now, I had photographed water lilies before. I made some images I was happy with at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. But there, I was photographing individual water lilies, or small pairs or trios, which allow for easy disposition into designs. Or I could use a single blossom as a point of focus.

What I was now interested in was the mass of lily pads floating on a larger body of water, a deracinated version of Monet’s luscious color images. Was there something of value that could be extracted from the subject? 

It isn’t as though Monet has not had imitators. Since his first water lilies in the 1860s, there have been knock-offs. The 20th century is especially full of epigones. Most all have managed to attempt some variation not on water lilies, per se, but variations on Monet’s take on water lilies. 

They’ve been done in water colors

In thick impasto

in pen and ink

colored pencil

in silk screen or other print forms

and my favorite: wallpaper

Even Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein has had his go at the subject

The impact of Monet’s flurry of flowers has been enormous. I got on the queue and tried my luck. 

I carried my bulky view camera out to the wildlife refuge and set it up looking down on a clutch of lily pads and tried to find a way to frame them that made sense. 

The initial problem was how to make a black-and-white design with so chaotic a subject matter. Should I angle the camera out to exaggerate the near-far relationship? Should I attempt the “overall” design and find them roughly equal size in the frame?

Should I use massed pads as individual subjects and pair groups rather than individual pads?

Or use clear sections of water as negative space?

Should I get close and single out an individual? I could put bits of others agains the frame edge to irregularize the rectangle.

I tried many different approaches. 

The results look best shown as 20”-24” prints, large for photographs — almost the size of paintings. (The physicality of prints, the rich black of the silver image, and the impact of the size is impossible to show on a digital screen. You have to imagine.)

After all this, what was my conclusion? Well, I never really came to one. My photographs were interesting enough, but I’m not sure they told me that much about Monet’s sense of design. 

That had to wait until I managed to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny, some 30 miles northwest of Paris. I have now been there four times, and each time attempting to make images. The first visit, I attempted to make black and white images, primarily. The second, I gave in completely to color and by the third visit, I had found my own way into making images of this famous garden. 

But the water lilies were still an issue. They really don’t make that interesting a photograph. They are largely a dull green against a greenish, brownish water. 

A few years before, I had made a photograph of water lilies in a pond in Mississippi that I later noticed looked very like vintage photographs made at Monet’s water garden, where the water and its plants was just one element in an otherwise traditional landscape design. 

Monet, however, was not making traditional landscapes. He was interested in something completely other. On a flat canvas, he was seeing into layers of distances: the water surface, the water underneath the surface and the reflection in the water of the sky, the clouds, and the trees surrounding the pond. 

This, then, became my intent as I came back to Giverny and photographed once again the lily pond that Monet had created. 

I found I could recreate a passable Monet imitation, but I’m not happy with doing that. 

There were images that looked under the surface to find the tangle of roots underneath and bits of tree reflection and sky on the mirror interface of the water.

I made wider and wider images, like the cinemascope panels made by the painter.

And I found ways to mix the water lilies with the weeping willows.

But this was all pastiche. I enjoyed them, but they weren’t me. They were apprentice lessons. Do it his way first and then wander off on your own.

My own inclination is to find other ways of “complexifying” an image. I like a good tangle, I enjoy looking through one tangle at another. 

So, I sought to mix the water lilies of Giverny with the plants, reflections and trees to show, not the mere patterns of lily pads

which would never approximate Monet’s luxurious colors, but rather to see what I could find for myself in the garden. Nature is prolific and extravagant, it seeks to fill the world in a green horror vacui.   

I love seeing vegetable growth, the vines, the twigs, leaves, panicles, stalks and roots. And the gardens at Giverny overflow with sprouting, stretching and swelling. 

In my several visits to Giverny, I have amassed a couple of thousand photographs. Many are duplicates or in poor focus, but there must be at least 1500 images that are printable and showable. Most are of the upper garden and the flowers there, not the lower garden with the water lilies. 

But walking through Monet’s vision in the fall is a kind a paradise. I think of Milton’s Eve or Marvell’s “Garden,” or Wordsworth’s daffodils. A world alive; a world happy and bright; a world we can sometimes enter. 

 

Click on any image to enlarge

house
The Seine  river loops northwest out of Paris into the rich, green French countryside of Normandy. The river is contained by low parallel ridges of hills on either side that form a kind of geologic sluice guiding the flow of the river toward Le Havre  and the ocean.

Some 50  miles from Paris, near the provincial town of Vernon,  the River Epte joins the Seine, although to call the Epte a river is to exaggerate.

It is hardly more than a creek.

Nothing would make one notice this tiny riverine junction, if it were not that Claude Monet chose this area to live, to paint, and to create one of the most celebrated gardens in the world.path

The great Impressionist painter moved to the hamlet of Giverny (Zhee-vair-nee) in 1883, and from then until his death in 1926,  he cultivated the kind of garden that made his home a modern Eden. Even now it is as much pilgrimage destination as tourist attraction.giverny village street

“Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces,” Monet wrote his dealer when he first came to Giverny, “because I like the countryside very much.”

Monet settled on a two-acre parcel of land that sloped from the center of the village down toward the small branch of the Epte that runs parallel to the road. There he set up house with his second wife, Alice Hoschedé, and their combined brood. It was a bustling bourgeois home, full of bustles and lace, children and cakes.flower 1

The house still exists: an odd old farmhouse, it is only one room wide and long as a barn, made of pink stucco, with forest green shutters and doors.

Each room is painted in its special color – the kitchen is blue and the dining room is brilliant yellow. Monet had little use for beige.clos normande from window

Outside is the “clos Normand,”  or the Norman enclosure, where Monet immediately began planting his garden, “so that there would be flowers to paint on rainy days,” he wrote.

But the garden took over. By the time he set to work on the great waterlily paintings that he gave to the nation as a gift, he had six gardeners on his staff.flower 2

Thousands each year make the pilgrimage to Giverny. They want to see where Monet worked; they want to see the waterlilies that he made into icons of art. But the gardens still retain their independence: There are those who visit not because of the painter, but because of the flowers themselves.

Monet’s property has become one of the greatest gardens in the world.

In the summer, the place is crowded, but in the spring and fall, the tourists fade away and you can have the grounds to yourself, or nearly so.flowers against wall

One would think that in the middle of October, when the rains are already cold on your skin, the flowers would have died away, but it is not true.

Even then, the clos Normand is riot with the yellows of sunflowers, the reds of dahlias, the blues of asters and the pinks of cosmos. The garden paths are choked with flowers.clos normande

It was an effect that Monet sought: that weedy nature should take over the place, luxuriant in growth.

The formal French garden, as you find it in Versailles or the Tuileries, is orderly and tamed. Square and round plots, with a grid of garden path between. Every flower marches in rank and file, as if their gardeners were drill sergeants.clutter

In distinction, the English garden gives us a different vision of nature.

There, the meandering forest paths take us past informally planted shrubbery and flower beds, to provide the illusion that we are not in a garden at all, but rather walking through some especially lush bit of wildness.flower 3

Monet’s garden is a hybrid of these: The paths are rectilinear and formal, but the plants have taken over, spreading out over the footways, up into the air and intertwined with each other. There is a formal layout, but a rich chaos of growth defeating the formality. It creates the illusion of a patch of garden left untended so the flowers grow rampant.

The effect is still overpowering. Instead of looking down at patches of roses or dahlia, they instead grow up to nose-height, so they force their aroma into your nostrils. They rise to eye level as you walk the paths.

They hang overhead and dangle down at you.greenhouse

One cannot help but recall the stanza by Andrew Marvell:

“What wondrous life is this I lead!

Ripe apples drop about my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach;

Stumbling on melons as I pass,

Insnared  with flowers, I fall on grass.”flower 4

The present gardens are a miracle. After Monet’s death, his family dispersed and eventually left the old homestead to ruin. The gardens fell untended, the house sprung leaks.

As the great art critic John Rewald  wrote, “Rodents – as undernourished as the local inhabitants (at the end of World War II) – had gnawed away the roots of the plants in and around the pond. The waters had stopped flowing – it was a dried-out, devastated, heartbreaking site. Nothing was left but the memory of past glories and the paintings of Monet, of which quite a few were still in the house and others in the studios, where some of the skylights were broken.”house 2

The artist’s son, Michel,  hadn’t lived there for decades and showed little interest in keeping the place up. When he died, in 1966,  he bequeathed both estate and paintings to the French Academy of Fine Arts.  The grounds were slowly restored and the gardens replanted, taking as their guides the many paintings and photographs that had documented the place.flower 5

And in 1980,  the gardens were opened to the public, nearly 100 years after Monet first started planting bulbs.

Modern visitors find a large parking lot south of the gardens, within easy walking distance. The entrance to the garden takes them first through the large studio Monet had built to paint his large waterlilies in. It is now also the gift shop. Through that and into the clos Normand, you get your first view of the long shotgun house, covered in vines and flowers.red flowers

The clos is gridded with pathways, skied-in with trellises and arches and splattered with the petal-dots of color.bridge 2

As Monet himself wrote of them, “The overall effect is endlessly varied.

Not just from one season to the next, but from one minute to the next, for rather than making up the whole spectacle, the flowers are only the accompaniment to it.”waterlilies

In the water garden across the road, he noted, “the heart of everything is the reflecting mirror of the water, whose appearance fluctuates endlessly according as it catches the teeming life and movement of the every-changing sky. A passing cloud, a freshening breeze, a squall that looms then strikes, the gale that comes without warning, the light that fades then intensifies anew – all these things transform the color and texture.”Bingo

“How could such sweet and wholesome hours/Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers?”

Waterlily pond at Giverny

Waterlily pond at Giverny

When Claude Oscar Monet arrived at his new home in the spring of 1883, he had to borrow money to pay the rent.

The sturdy burger with the black Babylonian beard, smoker of strong cigarettes and painter of soft paintings was broke. He was one of many Frenchmen still suffering from the economic depression that had hit 10 years earlier and reduced the demand for paintings — among other things. Unable to sell his work, Monet had trouble feeding the mouths that depended on him.

For when he moved into the great barn of a house in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris, he didn’t come alone. He came equipped with his two sons, his companion, Alice Hoschede, and her six children. The youngest was only 5. They soon added a half-dozen servants.

The painter lived in his pink and green house in Giverny, along with his alternately growing and shrinking family, for the next 43 years, producing the body of work for which he is best known, a body of work that cannot be separated from the home he lived in.

That home served not only to shelter him, but to inspire him. The house and its surrounding gardens became, as he got older, the only thing he painted.

 

House at Giverny

House at Giverny

COMFORTABLY MIDDLE CLASS

Monet was born in 1840 in Paris and moved to Le Havre when he was 5 years old, and grew up there in comfortable middle-class surroundings. When he was a teenager, he decided he wanted to be an artist, began his studies and finally set up as a painter along with a ”brat pack” of his buddies, all of whom challenged the status quo in the French art world of the 1860s.

They later were called Impressionists and among their number was Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley and Berthe Morisot.

They were beginning to achieve success when a double-headed ax fell on their careers. First, there was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and then the bank crash in 1873.

By 1880, things had improved, but Monet had to start from scratch building his career. He was lucky in that he had Paul Durand-Ruel as his dealer. Durand-Ruel was a saint among dealers and regularly advanced Monet money on paintings he hadn’t painted yet.

That is how he managed to pay the annual rent on the 2 acres of land with the house and outbuildings.

The bank crash had brought him Alice, too. Originally the wife of one of his benefactors, Ernest Hoschede, who had commissioned paintings and decorations from Monet, she gravitated to the painter when her husband fell bankrupt and abandoned his family.

At first, Alice and her six children lived with Monet and his wife, Camille, and their two boys in the town of Vetheuil. But Camille died in 1879 and Monet and Alice set up house together quickly after that.

It was one of the great partnerships in art, a perfect match between people, one intemperate and moody, the other steady and gracious, with all the tact the painter himself lacked.

 

Punt at waterlily pond

Punt at waterlily pond

ON THE BANKS OF THE SEINE 

Giverny was not more than a village, with fewer than 300 residents, when they moved there. It sat on the north bank of the Seine River in the angle where the Epte joins it, on a slightly rising bank above the river and below the wooded hills that rose behind.

Monet’s new home sat near the edge of town between the two main roads. The house itself was a monster of an old farmhouse, looking something more like a warehouse than a home. On one end was a barn that Monet turned into his studio. The building was covered in a pinkish stucco that Monet made pinker, with gray shutters that Monet painted green.

The yard that came with the house had an old orchard in it and room for the gardens that Monet planned. Within a few years, the grounds were overgrown with the many flowers and trees Monet planted.

And life began slowly to improve for the Monet-Hoschede family. At a time when a common laborer made about 10,000 francs a year, Monet was selling his canvases for 12,000 francs each. By 1888, Monet was making 100,000 francs a year.

He spent it lavishly, building studios and greenhouses, adding to the house, improving the garden.

”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he wrote.

And when his lease ran out in 1890, he had no trouble buying the house and grounds for 22,000 francs, payable over four years.

In 1893, he bought an adjacent lot, on the other side of the railroad tracks that bordered his property, and began making a pond to grow waterlilies.

 

Japanese bridge at Giverny

Japanese bridge at Giverny

AN EARLY RISER 

Monet’s life in Giverny turned into an ordered process of days, not only as the seasons progressed through the year, but even as the day progressed.

He got up early, between 5 and 6 in the morning, took a cold bath and ate a big breakfast, often an ”English” breakfast of bacon and eggs. From then until midday dinner, held promptly at 11:30 a.m. every day, he painted. He carried his canvases with him, often working on more than one, passing from canvas to canvas as the light changed with the hour.

He would sit out in the sun in his tweed suit and pleated shirt wearing a broad-brimmed old hat and smoking his stinky Caporal Rose cigarettes.

Monet had begun working in series, attempting to catch the evanescent effects of light as they flew by. A series of haystacks was followed by a series of poplar trees, each showing what their subject looked like at dawn, early morning, late morning, midday, afternoon and evening. As the sun changed, he changed canvases.

Monet poplars series

His critics complained that he was just trying to sell the same painting many times over. But Monet showed a dogged determination to make these series.

When the land with the poplars was sold, Monet paid the new owner not to cut down the trees until he was finished painting them.

Lunch was the major social event of the day. When Monet had visitors — which was often, more often than he sometimes wanted — they did their visiting at midday.

The afternoon was given over to painting once again, followed by a small supper at 7, and for Monet, bed by 9:30. He was notoriously bearish if this schedule wasn’t kept precisely.

So that, when his son-in-law, who was a slow eater, visited, Monet gave orders to the servants that no seconds should be offered.

And the painter could get out in the field with his canvases and brushes on time.

 

Dining room at Giverny

Dining room at Giverny

THE GOLDEN YEARS 

The 20 years after he moved to Giverny were the best of his life. His prices kept rising, he painted happily and productively through the year, taking time most years for an extended trip. One year, he went to Venice, another to Norway.

In 1892, after Ernest Hoschede’s death, Monet and Alice got married. The following year, he built his first water garden. In 1897, his son, Jean, married Alice’s daughter Blanche. Monet’s solo exhibitions regularly sold out.

The only troubles he had were in getting the municipal cooperation on improving his pond. Local residents were concerned that Monet’s plan to divert water from the Ru River, actually little more than a brook, would affect their crops and cattle grazing, but some help from the mayor swayed them and the permits were issued.

Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler and another daughter, Germaine, married a businessman from Monaco. The marriages soon brought four grandchildren to the family.

Meanwhile, Monet added more acreage to his holdings, including the ”Maison bleu” — the ”Blue House” — in the middle of town, where he installed a gardener named Florimond to cultivate his kitchen garden, which supplied the family with vegetables for their elaborate menus.

At one point, he employed six gardeners alone, along with a cook named Marguerite, a butler and valet named Paul, who was Marguerite’s husband, a maid named Delphine and a combination chauffeur and wine steward named Sylvain.

He needed the chauffeur because, although he owned automobile after fancy automobile — fast cars were a passion, along with watching auto racing — he never learned to drive.

The family also owned four boats, which they moored on the Seine, including the one boat Monet had fitted out as a floating studio. Monet often was accompanied on his painting forays by his step-daughter Blanche, also a painter, and they shared space on the boat.

Once a month, Monet retreated to Paris to have dinner with his circle of artist friends. He and Alice would take in the latest theater, see the gallery shows, and attend concerts.

Or watch wrestling — a particular favorite of the otherwise demure Alice.

 

Clos Normand

Clos Normand

A DISTRESSING UNDERTOW

Yet underneath the comfortable bourgeois existence of the increasingly wealthy painter was a distressing undertow. If Monet made paintings that soothed — he once called them a ”refuge for a peaceful meditation” — perhaps it was because he had a better than passing acquaintance with death and loss.

His mother had died when he was 18. Friends had died in the war. His wife, Camille, had died in 1879 after three years of lingering illness. The very month he moved into Giverny, his mentor, Edouard Manet, had died and Monet had served as pallbearer.

The early years at Giverny had proved a reprieve, but as Monet’s once black beard turned into a vast white haystack on his chest, time caught up with him.

Monet in the garden

In 1894, Suzanne developed a paralysis and five years later, she died. Alice went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

”Our beloved Suzanne died last night,” Monet wrote Durand-Ruel, ”while her poor mother was in bed with a bad case of bronchitis which she caught the other day at Moret. One sorrow after another.”

Around him, his colleagues began dying, too. Caillebotte — a particular friend — had died in 1894. Alfred Sisley died only a week before Suzanne.

Pissarro died in 1903; Cezanne in 1906. By 1917, Rodin and Degas were dead, along with Monet’s friend, the playwright Mirbeau. And in 1919, Renoir died.

Part of this was the natural result of living a very long life. But there were special sorrows for Monet.

A flood destroyed his lily pond and large portions of his gardens in 1910. It took several years to rebuild.

In 1911, Alice died after a long illness. Monet entered a deep depression that prevented his painting for some time.

In 1914, his son, Jean, died. Jean’s widow, Blanche, returned to Giverny and served Monet as hostess and housekeeper.

And the outbreak of World War I weighed heavily on the painter.

”I’m back at work,” he wrote. ”It is still the best way of not thinking about present sorrows, although I’m rather ashamed of thinking about little researches into forms and colors while so many suffer and die for us.”

 

Pond edge, Giverny

Pond edge, Giverny

 

FAILING EYESIGHT

There was another sorrow for Monet, one that threatened his very identity as a painter.

Beginning at the turn of the century, Monet’s eyes, which had bothered him since his youth, began to develop thick cataracts that interfered with his vision.

He painted through them, but friends and critics noticed a change in the paintings, which sometimes seemed oddly colored.

”I’m working very hard and I would like to paint everything before I cannot see anymore,” he wrote Durand-Ruel.

The condition worsened and relented over the years, but by 1922, his eye doctor reported that Monet’s vision was reduced to ”one-tenth in the left eye and to perception of light with good projection in the right eye.”

Monet continued painting, sometimes knowing what color he used only by reading the label on the tube of paint.

”I could paint almost blind,” he told a visiting journalist, ”as Beethoven composed completely deaf.”

The operation his doctor recommended on his right eye helped things in 1923, but resulted in a peculiar condition called ”xanthopsia,” which caused him to see everything too yellow. When this condition abated, it resulted in its opposite, in which Monet saw everything as too blue.

”It’s disgusting, I see everything in blue,” Monet complained to a visiting professor.

”How do you know it’s blue?” the visitor asked.

”By the tubes of paint I choose.”

His ophthalmologist finally found a pair of tinted glasses that brought his vision back to something approaching normal, and Monet painted like a demon.

In 1925, he wrote, ”My vision has improved tremendously. I am working harder than ever, I am pleased with what I do, and if the new glasses are better still, I would like to live to be a hundred.”

 

Orangerie, Paris

Orangerie, Paris

A FINAL GIFT

He didn’t make it to a hundred, but the final years were spent on a vast project of painting the waterlilies in his water garden.

Conceived as a gift to France, he worked in increasingly larger formats, finally building a new studio to house the 8-foot-tall, 12-foot-long segments of the murals he was painting.

”These ‘water and reflection’ landscapes have become an obsession,” he wrote the journalist Gustave Geffroy in 1908. ”They’re too much for an old man’s strength, yet I should like to be able to reproduce what I feel.”

He destroyed paintings he didn’t think up to his standards. At one point, he wrote Durand-Ruel, ”I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least 30.”

The large waterlilies marked a significant change in Monet’s approach. In the past, he had been rigorous in painting outdoors, directly from life. But for these ”decorations,” as he called them, he worked inside, in his studio, from his imagination.

Monet at canvas

That underlined not just a change in technique, but in the basic purpose of his painting. What had been an attempt to reproduce an accurate record of what his eye saw became an involvement in what paint can do and mean.

Pablo Picasso had painted his first Cubist painting in 1906 and the winds of Modernism were blowing the old smoke out of the room. Monet caught the fresh air and enthusiastically took part in the change. The late waterlilies are no longer Impressionism; they are modern art.

”I am looking for something I have not done before, a shiver my painting has not yet given,” he wrote.

In 1926, a lifetime of smoking cigarettes caught up with Monet. By late summer, he was bedridden with pulmonary sclerosis. His eyesight had deteriorated; he no longer could paint. He died on Dec. 5 with his family around him.

The following year, his waterlily decorations were installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

As for his beloved home, it stayed in the family, eventually abandoned in World War II. But in 1957, Monet’s surviving son, Michel, donated the deteriorating property to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, along with the paintings left behind by the painter at his death.

The Giverny site, now renovated with gardens replanted in the 1970s, draws about a half-million visitors a year.

On Michel’s death in 1966, the paintings reverted to the Musee Marmottan in Paris.

It is hard to calculate how much this one small piece of provincial property has given to art. Monet painted what he loved, and what he loved for the final four decades of his life was his home in Giverny.

”My heart is to Giverny for ever and ever,” Monet wrote.