Take a lesson from a master: Use nature’s palette of flowers and herbs to create a scene of ever-changing beauty.
In the French countryside, about 35 miles from Paris, grows a one-of-a-kind paradise of flowers and herbs. Here, bold strokes of bright blooms light up a landscape of simple wildflowers laced with exotic accents. The work of 19th-century artist Claude Monet, the garden Giverny was the setting for more than 500 of his paintings, including the well-known “Japanese Bridge” and “Water-Lily” series, which helped popularize the movement known as Impressionism.
“Giverny reflects Monet’s preference to be guided by nature as a partner in creation, rather than to control and manipulate nature through formal structures,” says Kipp Davis, an artist and gardener. “The Impressionists tried to capture, in their paintings, the feeling (or impression) of being outside rather than to strictly represent a scene. That’s why they chose to paint, as they called it, plein-air (open air).”
Today, Giverny receives nearly half a million visitors each year—many of them gardeners and artists who continue to find inspiration in Monet’s magical way with flowers, herbs, color, light and shape.
Born in Paris in 1840, Claude Monet believed that he owed his painting career to flowers. Having learned as a child to entertain himself with gardening, he carried his interest in plants along with him as a soldier in Algeria. There, he experienced the flavors of exotic culinary herbs and cultivated a love for those tastes.
When he returned from service, Monet resumed painting. But his unconventional art style was initially shunned and ridiculed, so he spent his early adult years in poverty. He moved from one rented cottage to another, often going hungry, yet his artwork continued to feed his soul. At many of the cottages, he planted clumps of hollyhocks, gladioli and other quick-growing plants, which he enjoyed painting.
In 1883, as a widower with two children and a future wife with six more, Monet at last found an abandoned cider farm he could afford. It would eventually become the famous Giverny. The farm already included an apple orchard and small vegetable garden. Monet’s first gardens here also were vegetable gardens, which the entire family tended to provide food for their table.
Gradually, the public began to appreciate Monet’s art, and his popularity soared. As his income rose, the artist purchased more land, and his living sanctuary of flowers and herbs began to emerge.
Monet’s unique way of seeing the world left a lasting mark on his gardens at Giverny. Among Giverny’s distinguishing characteristics are the use of large blocks of a single color, the influence of exotic cultures and a relaxed, natural style.
Blocks of color. After visiting Holland’s bulb fields—where growers plant in huge blocks of single colors for easier harvest—Monet experimented with smaller blocks of single colors in his own garden. He was especially fond of collecting blue-hued plants because this color is rare in nature. He cherished his friendship with other plant enthusiasts, including other gardeners, horticulturists and plant explorers—and these associations helped him expand his garden collections.
But Monet’s gardening methods went beyond simply choosing color combinations. As a master of light and reflection, he considered the effects of light upon color. He often planted blues in shade so that the shade’s natural blue cast would enhance the blue petals. And he planted bright yellows, oranges and reds where the sun’s longest rays at the end of the day would intensify their warm hues.
Mixed cultural styles. Monet also defied convention by mixing styles of different cultures. While he loved the single color blocks of Holland’s flower bulb fields, he also enjoyed a touch of smooth English lawn. And just past his French potager (cottage kitchen garden) and English lawn, he built his Japanese bridge, the subject of one of his best-known paintings, “The Water-Lily Pond.”
In the greenhouses that he built and maintained, he nurtured exotic plants, including orchids. Vivian Russell, author of Planting Schemes from Monet’s Garden recounts a time when a new heater had been installed in one of his greenhouses. Monet was so concerned about the treasured plants inside it that he insisted on staying up all night inside the glass building to make sure the heater worked properly.
Nature’s way. Monet was not big on formality. He preferred to follow nature’s designs instead. While formally clipped hedges and statuary were the norm for gardens of his day, Monet preferred the casual, mixed potagers typical of French peasants. He also allowed areas for what some have called a “cottagey jungle.” To encourage this naturally informal look, he added wild and native herbs of various colors as well as common flowers, such as daisies, among the exotics in his gardens.
Several of the Giverny caretakers that I spoke with said that Monet planted common mullein, a European biennial native, below his clematis arches. He reportedly planted clumps of a common willow herb throughout the gardens, too. Author Stephen Gwynn noted in 1933 that the willow had tall, colorful shafts that Monet found attractive, according to Russell in Monet’s Garden.
For visual appeal, Monet made sure that the garden displayed a diversity of heights throughout the growing season. He also planned and timed his plantings to bloom harmoniously, yet allowed nature to take over at times. Poppies and mullein, for instance, self-seeded and grew wherever the next generation of seeds sprouted.
He especially loved flowers that resembled wild ones, including the ‘Mermaid’ rose, a vigorous climber with single, fragrant bright-yellow blooms. Nasturtiums, marigolds, geraniums, poppies and evening primrose also were favored by Monet because they offered the brilliant colors and contrasts that he loved to paint, depicting the effects of “weather and light.”
The nasturtiums in his painting “The Garden, Giverny” grow today much as they did then, still lining the pathway of the Grande Allee. Some Monet enthusiasts have suggested that the artist’s inspiration for planting nasturtiums came from the first Impressionist salon held on the Boulevard des Capucines in 1874. Capucines is French for nasturtiums, so Monet’s Grande Allee could have been his own boulevard of nasturtiums!
According to several historians, Monet also tended another, lesser-known garden apart from the one that tourists flock to today. After the painter became more prosperous, he began to select the plants for his main garden only for their visual appeal—their colors and shapes had to pass his guidelines for looking good on a canvas.
Yet Monet had already acquired a taste for delicious herbs and vegetables, regardless of how they looked. So he rented a separate walled garden to grow the vegetables and herbs that he loved to taste, but that didn’t provide the brilliant colors needed for his canvases. Located in the same village but away from his main garden, this hidden plot included some of the edible plants that he learned to love during his travels, along with other herbs, spices, vegetables and mushrooms.
Monet died in December 1926, and Giverny fell into disrepair until sufficient funding allowed the full restoration of the home and grounds. After 10 years of restoration work, Monet’s garden finally opened to the public in the fall of 1980.
Today, Giverny welcomes plant enthusiasts from around the world, spring through autumn, but remains closed to the general public one day each week, allowing entry only those who want to paint. Those who visit the restored Giverny can see firsthand Monet’s unique, personal vision for his gardens, and can sense his unrelenting drive to make that vision a living reality.
Monet was undoubtedly inspired by others—he got some garden ideas from others’ plantings, as well as from Japanese prints, gardening magazines and nursery catalogs. But he did not simply copy the fashion of the day. His inspiration came mainly from within, from what his soul yearned to express.
Why not take a lesson from Monet? We too can look within when creating our own gardens. In the process, we just might see the world around us in a beautiful, new way.
For a glimpse of the world as Monet viewed it, consider:
To learn more about Giverny, read these excellent books:
For information about visiting Giverny, see www.giverny.org.
Barbara Berst Adams is a feature writer, hostess of the Center for the Micro Eco-Farming Movement, and author of Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth and The New Agritourism: Hosting Community and Tourists on your Farm. www.MicroEcoFarming.com.
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