Monet's mansion

I had wanted to visit Chartres for its glorious stained glass windows, but I heard that they had been taken down for cleaning and restoration. My daughter, looking at my disappointed face, suggested Giverny instead, and I ungraciously agreed. It turned out to be a glorious visit.

Monet’s house in Giverny. Photo by Spedona/Wikimedia Commons

The gardens at Giverny village, which sits on the right bank of the Seine, about 80 km from Paris to the west and slightly north in the old province of Normandy, where Claude Monet spent the last years of his life (1883-1926) and painted some of his most stunning masterpieces, is a riotous scramble of colours. Tourists and fans wander round the winding pathways and cross the arched bridge, which forms a tranquil backdrop to the graceful drooping willows and the famous water lily lake. They exclaim over the bright basic colours interspersed in seemingly willy nilly fashion but, in fact, are carefully and subtly orchestrated to display various species of flora. They photograph from afar and from up close, peering into the heart of a rich passion flower bloom, entranced by its vivid centre. They wander through his house, now a museum where reproductions of all his paintings are displayed, a vivid collage of colour and light.

It is said that Monet glimpsed the village of Giverny while looking out of a train window. Such are the serendipitous coincidences that occur to us in our journey through life. Monet is buried in a little church in the village.

Originally, the painter had rented the house, which had a barn which doubled up as studio, orchards and a small garden. When Monet’s paintings started selling, he bought the house and some surrounding lands to develop his garden. Monet decided that the marvellous light in Giverny would be his muse and he worked on a “series of paintings in which a subject — the haystacks, the poplar trees and lilies — was painted in varying light and weather conditions. He lavished plans and money on his gardens. Inspired by Japanese gardens, which he saw in the numerous Japanese etchings he had collected, he diverted the river to form a new pond, planted willows and bamboo on its shores, filled the pond with water lilies, and then crossed it with a wooden bridge. In time, the bridge became overgrown with wisteria. He delighted in all this and painted the same scenes in different perspectives and seasons.

Inside the house are reproductions of every one of his paintings and it is an amazing sight. His collection of Japanese etchings is also there. Outside in the gardens, benches are positioned at strategic places for visitors to revel in the light on the flowers, just as Monet had done. Children ran up and down the narrow paths, a daughter wheeled her old mother who looked on with entranced eyes. Others consulted their brochures while still some more debated the names and provenance of the variety of flowers — a botanist’s dream.

It is he who envisaged this garden, taking an almost obsessive interest in its upkeep. It is said that he wrote daily instructions to his gardener and formulated precise and controlled layouts and designs for flower beds and for plantings. He kept invoices for his purchases for the garden and had a huge collection of botany books. His garden grew to such an extent that he had to have a fleet of seven gardeners, but he still retained the controlling power.

It is interesting to note that his cataract operations may have had some influence on the depth of colours that are normally excluded by the lens of the eye. His paintings after the operations had bluer water lilies than before!

The play of light and shadow that characterised his paintings is seen to full measure in Giverney, where he painted the water lilies in every conceivable mood, time, light, colour and space. His impressions are eternal and eye catching. He and many of his family members are interred in the peaceful village cemetery.

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