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Saturday, August 15, 2020

In Monet’s Garden

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“I am good for nothing except painting and gardening. My greatest masterpiece is my garden.”
— Claude Monet


Such a statement coming from a leading artist of the Impressionism Movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s! The works of Monet the painter are well known, but to truly discover his accomplishments as a gardener takes a trip to his home in Giverny, France.

Water and Respite

A small town hugged by the Seine River in eastern Normandy, Giverny is about 45 miles west of Paris. It first caught Monet’s eye in 1883 when he traveled through the region by train one day. He was struck by the beauty of Giverny and vowed to return. Not only did he come back, but he rented a farmhouse, formerly part of a cider operation, that he eventually bought and made his home until his death in 1926.  

The house included two acres of land, which Monet eagerly began transforming into a living masterpiece of landscaping. Monet was a hands-on gardener, doing much of his own planning and planting with his family. He eventually bought even more land to expand his personal paradise.

The echoes of what Monet accomplished in his garden still remain today, and they are certainly worth a trip to Giverny to discover and enjoy. To double this pleasure, keep in mind that there are actually two distinct gardens, the Water Garden and what Monet called his Clos Normand. Clos is French for “enclosure,” much like a personal, intimate walled garden.

The Water Garden took Monet almost 20 years to complete, and the beautiful results reflect the effort. Winding paths lead visitors along the gentle brook Ru that feeds the pond, under majestically mature trees, past colorful blooms of plants that hug the shorelines and eventually, on to the famous Japanese bridge, which remains frozen in time as an iconic inspiration for some of Monet’s greatest paintings. 

Even a casual glance across the still waters in the summer reveals another artistic déjà vu view. The blooming water lilies that float in quiet loveliness on the pond were added because of Monet’s complete, joyful infatuation with them. Stirred by their beauty, he painted them no fewer than 250 times.

While bends, curves and swerves define the design of the Water Garden, in Monet’s Clos Normand, a regimen of Old World rectangular planting beds dominate. But that’s about as far as orderly discipline goes. Much as Monet intended, playful anarchy rules many of these beds with plants allowed to flop, droop and stretch into pathways. In fact, on the long lane leading up to the main house, each year, nasturtium vines planted on its flanks ever so slowly crawl, cross and reclaim the walkway until, by late September, it’s a complete carpet of living green and orange. 

Art in Bloom

And just as Monet used the effects of colors in his paintings to play with the imagination, he did likewise in his garden beds. Enjoy a soothing stroll down a long strip of cool blue, modest white and pleasing pink blooms, turn the corner, and be met with a loud row of hot yellow, screaming orange and sizzling red flowers!

Even the nose can’t escape Monet’s influence in his garden. In the same way, he wanted admirers to experience rather than just appreciate his Impressionistic paintings, a broad palette of plants uses scents to also help arouse the senses. Lilies, butterfly bushes, wisteria, lavender, basil, orchids, ginger lilies, roses — the soft, natural perfumes from these and other fragrant pretties only help to draw visitors deeper into Monet’s world.  

If done right — meaning becoming leisurely immersed — exploring the gardens can take much of a day, and for those eager to fully embrace the Monet experience, oh, what a day it will be!

Finding Monet

From Paris, it takes about 45 minutes by train or 90 minutes by car to reach Giverny. However, wanting to soak in the French countryside that Claude Monet came to love so much, I opted for a slow float down the Seine River to Giverny instead. I’m glad I did because the Viking River Cruises’ “Paris & the Heart of Normandy” trip I chose not only delivered the scenery but many bonus Monet moments as well.

For starters, in Vernon, a small town across the Seine from Giverny, just three blocks from where the ship docked, the A.G. Poulain Museum houses two Monet originals. The first captures the Normandy coast cliffs near Pourville at sunset, while the second is an unusual round painting of his water lilies.

The next stop down the Seine was Rouen, which is home to the stately Rouen Cathedral. Monet made this historic church famous in the art world by painting it over 30 times during the course of a year to show the effects of light on the ornate facade. 

Even more tangible traces of Monet can be found in Rouen about six blocks north of the Cathedral at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts). I spotted nine Monet originals in its Impressionism collection, and they were nicely complemented by several exceptional works from fellow artists Pissarro, Sisley and Pinchon.

Also, this Viking tour spends its first two days and its last day in Paris, leaving time to take a cab (which the ship’s Cruise Director can arrange) to Musée Marmottan Monet that houses around 100 of Monet’s paintings, making it the largest such collection in the world. And if you still have time, also visit the Musée de l’Orangerie to literally surround yourself with eight of Monet’s famous super-sized water lily murals. 

AAA Member benefit: Receive a $125 per person onboard spending credit with Viking River Cruises.

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