I once read that artists who sketch or paint in public often find that people who glance over their shoulder spend more time looking at the subject than the work of the artist. It seems that we are first interested in what inspires the artistic eye, and only afterwards by the results of that inspiration. Maybe that’s what the long line of visitors outside Monet’s Giverny garden hope to get – a glimpse over the master’s shoulder at the source of his inspiration.
Monet’s garden is one that most of us already feel some sense of familiarity with, thanks to his many paintings of it. In real life, it’s almost exactly as I imagined it to be. The first section close to the house is a very domestic, traditional flower garden, divided into simple rectangular beds devoted to flowers. Monet spent a lot of time devising colour and plant combinations, and fortunately left behind a lot of material – notes, photographs (mainly by visitors), and of course paintings – that can be used to plan and maintain today’s gardens. And even though ‘traditional’ comes to mind when describing this area, the design and plantings are certainly unique – even a small corner photographed can instantly be recognized as Monet’s garden. The house itself is also really lovely by the way, and features his large painting studio, a cozy kitchen and yellow dining room, and a huge collection of Japanese prints that fill every square inch of wall.
But across the road (now reached through an underground tunnel), is the magical spot everyone is most keen to see – the lily pond. And yes, it is just as magical and inspiring as one could hope. It’s an enclosed garden, completely surrounded by an envelope of tall trees. It’s hard to tell exactly where Monet’s paintings of it, lodged somewhere in our subconscious, stop and where reality begins. The light shimmers off the water and willows, the colours blend into each other, and everywhere you turn you can imagine a perfect little tableau. We have a ridiculous number of photographs from this garden because almost every angle seemed perfect.
Monet described his two main occupations as painting and gardening, and it’s hard to tell which came first. He started gardening when young and said that flowers inspired him to become a painter. As an adult, he created gardens at all the properties he rented, but most extensively at Giverny because he was able to buy it. He used his gardens as subjects for paintings, and used his paintings to learn which compositions and colour combinations work best. In the end, he declared the garden as “his most beautiful work of art”, a gratifying thing for us gardeners.