An old book by Marc Elder gives a remarkable insight into the creation of Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, as he wrote it after visiting Giverny and interviewing the great man himself. Their meeting was in 1924, just two years before Monet died age 86, on 5 December 1926.
In our extract today we hear about the creation of Monet’s famous Waterlily ponds.
L‘étang, the pond
The master looks at his watch.
“Half past ten” he says “let’s go and see them. They’re open.”
We descend into the great alley, between spruces laden with shade. To the right and to the left the irises extend by broad aerial layers which make like a lilac mist in the sun. Everywhere the earth is hidden under carnations, azaleas, bellflowers, larkspurs, and the air is set on fire by roses which assail the trunks of the trees, metal arches and fall with the convoluted grace of appoggiatura.
You have to cross the road and a railway (as Clemenceau says “Claude money has a railway in his garden!”). The waterlilies have their enclosure on the threshold of the meadows of the Seine.
The beautiful ones
Like beautiful people, waterlilies rise late; the sun must come and pray to them. They open under the golden fingers of the magician, refusing to open in the shade. And in the evening, it is he who closes them, one by one, as he sinks behind the forest. What a subject for a poet – a poet of yesterday, for today the bus has replaced the flower – these virgins of water whose chaste veils are only divulged before the burning glances of the sun!
A hand in his pocket, a cigarette in his beard, Claude Monet walks with that firm tranquillity which is peculiar to a perfect equilibrium and perfect health. He is clothed in light fabrics, never wearing dark colours. In winter a large beige coat and a taupe waistcoat of soft, silky moleskins from the garden, naturally. In any season rustic hats, felt or straw, are well clamped onto his head. His is the silhouette of the good gardener; stocky, straight, evoking both Silvestre force and the vitality of April. But if he turns around you see his sharp, deliberate eye in the apparent bonhomie.
A random choice
“Where did it come from, my dear master, this taste for water lilies?”
“Well, I don’t not know. Wait for me to think. There was a brook, the Epte, which descends from Gisors, on the edge of my property. I opened a channel from it to fill a small pond dug in my garden. I love water, but I also love flowers. That is why, with the pond filled, I thought of planting it. I took a catalogue and I made a choice at random, that’s all…
By a hump back bridge, covered with Wisteria, that one enters the aquatic garden. In June, it seems that one crosses through a cloud of vanilla, the perfume so thick. White, purple, clusters of a light mauve, as if painted in watercolour, tumble like fantastic grapes into the watery verdure. A breeze carries their aroma. The sound of the footsteps attract the fish who gather in the shade below the loiterer. One leans and discovers in one’s own image the mouth of a chub suddenly bursts through like a finger a film.
Around the pond grows masses of willows, bamboos, rose bushes, and rhododendrons. He imbues the greater part of the garden and the paths that surround it with so much art. Here the lime tree, dear to bees; the chestnut tree which bears a plume like an imperial Shako; the poplars resembling musical masts that swing in the wind with such a beautiful rhythm they seem rocked by the sea.
There are wild roses with the simple charm of rose hips; cherry trees from Japan powdered with iridescent flowers in April. The water lilies make wheels on the water, like peacock tails. Suddenly, a gap reveals the placid refreshing meadows and the hills of Rolleboise to close the horizon under the mist.
Building a garden
“I have restarted three times, and three times enlarged my ponds by displacing the course of the Epte. My garden is a slow job, pursued with love. And I do not hide that I am proud of it! … Forty years ago, when I came to settle here, there was nothing but a peasant’s house and a poor orchard…
“Fruit trees grow badly in this country. We have a layer of clay on the ground; the water does not drain. The plum trees rotted on the spot without giving fruit… I bought the house and, little by little, I enlarged it, organised it. My living room was the barn.
“We all went into the garden; I dug, planted, and even weeded myself; in the evening the children watered. As the situation improved, I expanded. One day, I was able to cross the road and start this garden… I still painted in the surrounding s at the time; Vetheuil, in Limetz…
Trouble with Poplars
“Where you made the Poplar series?”
“Yes and it was a funny story! I had to buy the poplars to finish painting them.”
“Did they want to kill them?”
“The municipality of Limetz had put them up for sale. I went to see the mayor. He understood my reasons, but could not delay the sale. I had only the means of presenting myself at the auction, a prospect without pleasure, for I said to myself ‘we are going to make you pay dearly for your fancy, my good fellow!’ then I had the idea of addressing myself to a wood-merchant who wanted the wood.
“I asked him what price he was going for and he agreed to (Monet paying) the surplus if the auction exceeded his figure, on condition that he bought in my place and agreed to leave the standing trees a few months longer. So it was done, not without damage for my purse!”
A love affair with flowers
A man works on the pond, mowing the weeds, tidying the lentils, utricularia and rushes, which abound in the warm silt. The shallow water simmer gently in the sun. Water lilies like to have warm feet and leaves with space. They occupy a healer all year around, as well as a boxing champion.
With little steps, Claude Monet bypasses the pond, stops at each tuft, call each flowers with a word;
“Hein! This one! … and he is beautiful!… and the other with his reflections…”
There are all immaculate; white, others blue, others pink, others yellow and red like a motionless flame. But these are only essential notes around a nuanced story. Bright, they start from a heart and spread by melting to the point of their petals. All around them a mirror of water; azure, silver and gold. They seem to be floating, fickle, airborne. Without the willows whose melancholy creepers hang in the pond, the water lilies would seem to float in the sky.
Understanding water lilies
The sun rises. Perfume puffs escape from sweaty rose bushes. The leaves of the poplars gap at the breeze at the end of their long peduncle. In the great rustic silence, the dull swarming of the earth, the distance rolling of the trains disturbs at intervals. Characteristic noises in Giverny and all along the valley of the Seine, this tumult of metallic times that oppresses the planet. The roar rolls between the cliffs of the Isle de Grâce and the plateau du Vexin like a marble in a tube. By contrast, the garden seems more calm, more closed, more solitary.
“It took some time to understand my water lilies” Claude Money said. “I painted them for pleasure; I cultivated them without thinking of painting them … A landscape does not permeate you in one day.
“ … And then, all of a sudden, I had a revelation, of faeries in my pond. I took my palette … since then I have had no other model.”
A few notes
Text translated from À Giverny, chez Claude Monet, published in Paris 1924 by Bernheim-Jeune. If you find a 1924 copy in a brocante snap it up, they are worth quite a bit!
There are many marvelous books about Monet’s garden at Giverny. We particularly enjoyed Monet at Giverny, by Caroline Holmes, for its history, art and fascinating detail.
Plan your visit via Giverny.org (Eng).
Monet ordered many of his water lilies from Latour-Marliac in the Lot region. The company is still in business and online if you fancy a look.
Unlike Marc’s visit with Monet all those years ago, you are unlikely to be alone… But Giverny still retains it’s magic, even if you have to share it.
The Monet in the wardrobe, or How Robert stole the beach at Pourville