Careful restoration work returned Monet's garden at Giverny to masterpiece state


October 05, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

There is a bit of the artist in all gardeners, even those of us who are all (green) thumbs. The bold swirls of color in my flower beds are the work of a man who received a "D" in art in high school.

Imagine the landscaping skills of a true artist like Claude Monet, the renowned painter who was as adept with a spade as with a brush. His restored homestead in Giverny, France, is a testament to the gardening prowess of Monet, leader of the Impressionist movement at the turn of the century.

"More than anything, I must have flowers, always, always," said Monet, who produced hundreds of paintings of the 6-acre gardens at Giverny after landscaping the tract himself.

A three-month exhibition of 32 Monet masterpieces opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art Oct. 13.

Monet's garden was his inspiration, a living, breathing, buzzing studio of plants placed strategically for art's sake. To the west, Monet grew flowers of red and gold to trumpet his scenes of fiery sunsets. To the east, he grew blues to anchor his paintings on those frantic mornings when he sought to capture the fleeting, ethereal mist.

Sometimes Monet abandoned his good garden sense. He spaced his plants too close together, deciding they looked better on canvas that way. Yet Monet's efforts in using raised beds, cold frames and double-digging techniques were a century ahead of their time.

His gardening spirit bordered on fanaticism. Monet created a waterlily pond by diverting a nearby stream, which upset his neighbors. He demanded that each lily be dusted, and all algae removed from the pond before he would paint a water scene. The floral reflections in the pond had to be mirror-sharp for Monet.

He lived at Giverny for 43 years, puttering and painting until his death in 1926.

"Monet felt his gardens were his greatest masterpieces," says Elizabeth Murray, a garden designer and artist from Carmel, Calif. "Just before his death, he told his friend Georges Clemenceau, 'You must come back in the spring. I have ordered some Japanese lilies and they're very beautiful. I may not be here, but you must come back.' "

Giverny deteriorated thereafter. The property was being restored as a public garden in 1985 when Ms. Murray, moved by the beauty of the place, became determined to join the project. She wanted to work Monet's soil alongside the soul of the painter she admired most.

"When I first saw the gardens, I felt I had to know them," she says.

Ms. Murray, then 32 years old, quit her job, went to France and spent six months at Giverny, becoming the first American and the only woman ever to work in Monet's garden.

It was, at first, a humbling experience. Ms. Murray settled in pulling weeds in the mud on a cold, rainy April day. She knew she was being tested.

"The head gardener wanted to break me," she says.

The weather improved, but Ms. Murray's job did not. For two days, she and four other gardeners planted 10,000 annuals, back-breaking work that sent her to a French chiropractor who knew little English.

She wondered if she would ever leave her mark on Giverny.

"I wanted to give the garden something that would last, not just pull weeds," she says.

When Ms. Murray mentioned her specialty was roses, the head gardener led her to the side of the old pink farmhouse where Monet's favorite rose, the Yellow Mermaid, desperately needed pruning.

"Trim this," the gardener said.

The rose bush, an old-fashioned climber, was two stories high and 40 feet wide, with thorns the size of thumbnails. Shears in hand, Murray attacked the bush.

"I felt like I was cutting my way into Sleeping Beauty's castle," she says.

By day's end, the Yellow Mermaid was her old self. Beside her was a 12-foot pile of debris.

Hands on hips, the head gardener nodded approvingly.

"Now move this stuff," he said. "There's a tour group coming through in 10 minutes."

Gradually, Ms. Murray received respect for her work. In retrospect, she says the experience was invaluable.

"I feel closer to [Monet]," she says. "You can feel his spirit when you see things that were his motifs, or when you smell the same flowers that he smelled."

Ms. Murray, who retuned to Giverny this summer to do some painting of her own, said walking in the garden was "like seeing your old friends. I felt like embracing the irises."

As she painted, Ms. Murray talked to Monet's spirit. And when the mist cleared, and the light turned just right, she whispered, "Thank you."

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