Claude Monet - the visionary, the painter and the gardener

Updated: May 27


In this article published by Sachs Museum at Missouri Botanical Garden, Bee Tham writes about the twin passions of Monet, painting and gardening.


Photo of Giverny Garden by Bee Tham


"Gardening and painting apart, I'm no good at anything.” – Claude Monet


Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was a French painter famously known as a pioneer of Impressionism, an avant-garde art movement in nineteenth century France. His work exemplifies Impressionist paintings that invented new concepts of composition and color, and his Water Lilies series are among the most famous artworks in the world. In the last thirty years of his life, Monet would produce over 250 paintings of the Water Lilies series, including paintings associated with the water garden such as the Japanese Bridges, the Weeping Willows, the Wisterias, and the Irises.


The story of Monet and his water lilies paintings would be incomplete without the mention of Giverny, a charming little village forty miles from Paris in the valley of the Seine. Giverny gave full expression to the twin passions of painting and gardening that shaped Monet’s life. “Composed like a palette of plants, Giverny allowed Monet to satisfy simultaneously his fondness for the vegetal and his love of color in canvases, whose luxuriance, though of another order, is that of the Water Lilies.”


Before Giverny, Monet had lived and worked in Le Havre, Sainte-Adresse, Argenteuil, Paris, Louveciennes and Vetheuil. He often left home in search of inspiration to paint, and he became increasingly tired of his wanderings. Eventually, in 1883, Monet found in Giverny a solitary retreat that he had yearned for so long. He was 43 when he moved to Giverny, and would spend the last forty three years of his life there.


At that time, Giverny had but roughly 250 inhabitants, with a hundred or so rustic cottages and larger homes set in orchards behind moss covered walls, the quintessential French scene of a magical, earthly paradise. Monet and his family settled in Le Pressoir (the Cider Press), an old pink farmhouse with grey shutters that he would purchase from the owner seven years later with the help of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.


Right after his move to Giverny in June 1883, Monet set to work immediately to enhance the property to fit his aesthetic vision — the grey shutters were promptly painted in what was later known as “Monet green” in the village. He tried to improve the flower beds and got his then companion Alice Hoschedé and their children, as well as his friends Octave Mirbeau and Tadamasa Hayashi involved in the plantings as well. For the first 15 years in Giverny, Monet would “cultivate his garden” as Voltaire exhorted in Candide, but would not paint much of it, until he perfected his two masterpiece creations: the world of flowers and the world of water.


A few years into his purchase of the farmhouse, Monet extended his horticulturist ambition with the purchase of a strip of land with a pond near his property, allowing him to build a Japanese water garden, which later became one of the subjects of the Water Lilies series. Preserving the aspens there, he filled the pond with water lilies, and bordered it with irises. The walled garden of vegetables and apple orchard that came with the farmhouse were also uprooted. They were soon replaced with flowerbeds of irises, day lilies, agapanthus, tulips and Japanese peonies; the avenues were also decorated with pergolas of roses, wisteria and other climbers. Monet was especially fond of irises, his preference being Iris Germanica, and would plant them along the paths, on the grass on his orchard, and near the water lily pond.


Video of Giverny Garden by Bee Tham


So began Monet’s great horticultural experiment in 1893. Soon after the land near his property was bought, he started lobbying for planning permission to divert part of Ru du Canal, a tributary of the Seine to create his water pond. This caused quite a stir as Ru du Canal was also a rivulet that was used by the villagers for their daily lives – The local farmers had feared Monet’s exotic plants would poison the water and kill their livestock. To the dismay of the locals, Monet prevailed and got what he wanted. By the end of the year, he created an entire pond and even had a Hiroshige-inspired Japanese bridge constructed over it. Years later, Monet would add a trellis of wisteria to the bridge and he would paint several canvases on this motif, depicting it with exceptional artistry.


Monet didn’t go about his plans in a haphazard way, but he was methodical in the execution of his dream project. Notably, he collaborated with botanist Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac to import exotic blooms for his pond. The first batch of pink and yellow water lilies from Latour-Marliac arrived in 1894, a new hybrid that resulted from cross breeding white water lilies from northern climes with more vibrant tropical varieties from the Gulf of Mexico. Along with these water lilies, Monet also ordered different species of aquatic plants such as water chestnut, bog cotton, and some Egyptian lotuses (sadly for him, the lotuses failed to survive). When the pink and yellow water lilies began to thrive and bloom, Monet ordered a batch of red varietals to balance the colors and composition. He was now set and ready to paint the pond.


During this time, Monet also bought another piece of land. He did much: he diverted the Epte (another tributary of the Seine), tripled the size of the pond, built four more bridges, added bamboo, rhododendrons, Japanese apple and cherry trees together with the weeping willows along the periphery of the pond. Over the years, he would spend a considerable sum of 40,000 francs on his garden annually, constructing greenhouses with dedicated heating systems for the water lilies, and employing a team of gardeners to tend to the gardens all year round. It was a true labor of love. His love of and obsession with his water lilies knew no bounds — so much so that when passing cars showered his water lilies with dust, Monet paid for chemin du Roy to be tarmacked.



Video of Giverny Garden by Bee Tham


Horticultural passions aside, the flower and water garden fulfilled Monet’s dream of building something “for the pleasure of the eye and also for motifs to paint.” It was part of his artistic oeuvre, and he had designed it with the passion and the eye of a painter. Critic Arsène Alexandre, who was one of the many visitors to the garden, noted the carefully orchestrated sequence of brilliant colors of flowers in beds planted like palettes of color in paint boxes. From the flower garden to the water lily pond, Monet obsessed over, and planned every aspect of them… “there is no happenstance in the arrangement of the flowerbeds, garden paths, lily pond and footbridge than there is in the many striking color juxtapositions and broad brushstrokes in the canvases that depicted them.”


Yet, gardening for Monet was no amateur pursuit. His library was filled with a plethora of gardening books and horticultural journals. Indeed, he gained much knowledge and practical experience, and became quite a professional gardener himself. Meticulous instructions sent to his chief gardener Félix Brueil in 1900 give us an insight into his knowledge, practicum and devotion to every detail of the garden: “From the 15th to the 25th, lay the dahlias down to root, plant out those with shoots before I get back… In March sow the grass seeds, plant out the little nasturtiums, keep a close eye on the gloxinia, orchids etc., in the greenhouse, as well as the plants under frames.”



“Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!” – Paul Cezanne


In 1890, Monet painted the Japanese bridge and returned to this same motif in 1892. In 1898, he embarked on the series of water lily ponds that would occupy him for the rest of his life. Monet would paint the same motif tirelessly under different lighting conditions, varying from the chillier tonalities of morning (from 4 a.m.), to the warmer tones of evening. By then, an important transformation from his experimental phase in the 1880s (marked by his series of Poplars, Haystacks, Cathedrals, Cliffs, London and Venice) was clear. Monet had begun to demonstrate his mastery in a new manner, exploring the constant changing quality of light and color in different atmospheric conditions and at various times of the day. His pictorial evolution resulted from his obsession with analyzing the web of pure color that composes light, and the flux of all that was indeterminate in nature. That led him to painting the atmosphere as perceived by sensations and appearances, where “subject, sensation and pictorial object have but become identical.”


In the waterscape paintings, we see Monet’s acuity in vision and senses, combined with his masterful technique and innovative composition. The final result is truly the magnificent work of an inspired painter who was both in awe and in love with life and nature. Edouard Manet famously described Monet as the “Raphael of water,” and it was in Giverny that Monet was able to focus on this subject, exhausting all the pictorial possibilities of the fugitive effects of light on the glassy surface and the depths of the pond.


Beginning in 1904, Monet moved away from traditional compositions. He began to ascribe a much greater role to water and the reflections of water, and finally leaving the entire canvas to water in 1905. For this series, he painted more than 200 canvases of these lilies, and the entire pond would fill the canvas; where there was no horizon, no perspective and the sky existed through reflection. It was a seismic shift. As Louis Gillet noted, these waterscapes were upside down paintings because the sky was at the bottom and the landscape (reflections of foliage) was at the top!


Working with such passion and devotion as Monet had done, it would be naïve to think his total dedication did not come with their incumbent attendants. With the ever-changing quality of outdoor light in the natural environment, he was not only chasing the impressions of fleeting visual effects, but also the vagaries of nature and his sensory perception of it. We can only imagine the challenges he faced, not to mention the laboriousness of it all as it took months and months of hard work priming, painting, scraping and reworking the canvasses. Despite his claim that he never painted his work inside his studio, it was widely known that nearly all of Monet’s water lily paintings were finished in his studio with “much teeth-gnashing labor.” A single canvas might take sixty sessions of intense work, and some were given as many as fifteen layers of paint. If anything, Monet was famous for his emotional outbursts resulting from his personal doubts about the quality of his work. Often angry, disheartened and furious, he would slash and kick his works, sometimes destroying canvases in the process.


In 1909, Monet had an inaugural exhibition titled Les Nympheas: Series de paysages d’eau par Claude Monet (The Water Lilies: Series of Waterscapes by Claude Monet) at Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris that was met with resounding acclaim and success. His “renown as France’s greatest painter – not to mention France’s most famous gardener – was complete.”



Nympheas, by Claude Monet, ca. 1897-1898; collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art



Water Lily Pond, by Claude Monet, ca. 1917/19; collection of the Art Institute of Chicago



“These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession. It is beyond my strength as an old man, yet I want to succeed in conveying what I feel.” – Claude Monet


In the last decade of his life, Monet’s oeuvre surged as he poured his entire soul and energies into chasing another dream: the Grandes Décorations (Grand Decorations). These would be the monumental canvases of his water garden which became the ultimate and Grande Finale expression of the symbiosis between his garden and his art. In the Grand Decorations, Monet had envisioned decorating a circular room with impressions of spontaneous moments of vivid blooms and reflections on the pond.


Monet only began working on the Grand Decorations in 1914 after three years of creative inactivity following the death of his wife Alice in 1911. Work on the canvases commenced concurrently with the building of another new studio in 1914. To accommodate the large five feet high by more than six and half feet wide canvases, and the space for him to assess his work with maximum possible light and luminosity, he had to build the new larger studio with top lighting.


It’s worth noting that Monet was 74 years old when he decided to embark on this ambitious project.


Needless to say, the Grand Decorations water lily pond work was also produced against the backdrop of much mental anguish: Besides enduring the terrors and inconveniences of World War I, Monet constantly worried about his family and friends while raging against old age and bad weather. Far too old to fight in the war, he found solace in his work. Even though he admitted he felt guilty and ashamed to be painting at a time when many were suffering and dying, he sensed he was expressing his utmost patriotism through his paintings. During his sunset years, Monet was also greatly affected by the losses of his dear friends Renoir and Mirbeau. Yet terror, loss and anguish had not been obstacles to his creative genius. In fact, they might have even fueled it. Two good examples are Monet’s paintings of the Japanese Bridges and the Weeping Willows. These works conveyed eloquently and viscerally the feelings of despair, grief, and suffering.



Nymphéas, Japanese Bridge, by Claude Monet, ca. 1918-26; collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art


By 1912, Monet was plagued by a crisis of another kind this time. He was already suffering from poor vision as a result of a cataract in his right eye, and a disease in his left eye. This was exacerbated with imminent old age and further affected his depth of vision and color perception. However, he managed to extricate himself from this artistic dead-end through a series of surgeries and a special corrective Katral lens. His complete obsession with and adoration for his garden and his art stoked his creative fire. Right up to 1925, before his ailing health worsened, Monet was still putting finishing touches on the Grand Decorations! True to the adage, an artist’s work is never completed.


At the end if it all, what Monet achieved was a highly remarkable opus of work “that reveal a combination of artistic experimentation, mental disturbance and defiant resolution in the face of age and death.” In these great panorama panels, one experiences Monet’s “hymn to the light.” Boundaries and forms had all but disappeared in a continuum of light, water, air and clouds. Although nature was always his starting point, Monet no longer painted directly from the motif but worked in his studio, relying on his visual knowledge of his much-loved garden. Freed from the need to depict details of nature, his art in his final years acquired a painterly freedom whose lyrical expressions had inspired the American Abstract Expressionists of the mid 20th century. In a way, he found freedom in the truest sense of the word and flirted with abstraction without trying to go there. Yet, at the same time, Monet’s passion for gardening was undiminished to the end. A journalist visiting him in the last year of his life recounted that Monet had just received water lily bulbs from Japan and was waiting for a delivery of expensive seeds that would produce brilliantly colored flowers. Truly, Monet had remained the ever avid painter-gardener to the end when he said: “My garden is my most beautiful work of art.”


Monet’s water lily paintings at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, photos by Bee Tham


In May 1927, Monet passed away with his good friend Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau by his side. A few months after Monet’s death, the public saw the Grand Decorations for the first time. Monet had donated nineteen panels that would be exhibited at the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Tuileries gardens, but only after his death. Three of the most beautiful panels from the original scheme, the Agapanthus triptych, including Water Lilies (1914-17) did not, however, appear in the Orangerie display. The triptych was eventually sold separately to three American Midwestern museums — the Saint Louis Art Museum bought the central panel in 1956; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City Art Institute acquired the right panel in 1957; and the Cleveland Museum of Art purchased the left panel in 1960.



Water Lilies, by Claude Monet, ca. 1915-16; collection of the St. Louis Art Museum


References

Jean-Dominique Rey, “Mirrors of Time,” in Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series, eds. Jean-Dominique Rey and Denis Rouart (Paris: Flammarion, 2016), 46.

Ross King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2016), 2

Marrianne Delafond and Caroline Genet-Bondeville, Monet in the time of the water lilies: The Musée Marmottan Monet Collections (Paris: Editions Scala, 2002), 64

Ann Dumas, Wartime Waterlilies: how Monet created his garden at Giverny (RA: Royal Academy of Arts, Winter 2015 issue of RA Magazine, 12 Nov 2015), https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/monet-modern-garden-ann-dumas

Philippe de Montebello, “Foreword,” in Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978), 7

Phoebe Pool, Impressionism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), 230

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