The artist's gardens at Giverny leave lasting impressions Monet's Magical Oasis

April 10, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF WRITER

It is the familiarity of the place that is so startling to the first-time visitor. The guidebooks had prepared me for the beauty of Monet's restored home and gardens at Giverny: for the limpid beauty of the water garden with its lush peonies blooming beneath trailing weeping willows and for the flower garden crisscrossed with paths leading through a meadow of trellised roses, irises, dahlias, orchids, delphiniums. What I was not prepared for was the deja vu quality of it all.

After all, here I was, plunked down in a tiny village about an hour's drive from Paris and a world away from my home in Baltimore. So why, I asked myself, do I feel so at home here in Giverny? Why do I feel as though I have been here before?

The answer came a few minutes later as I looked through the lens of my camera. There, framed like a painting, was the vision of lily pads floating under a bright-green Japanese bridge, their passage marked by long slants of sunlight and shade on the shimmering water. Again, I had this strange feeling that I had seen this before.

And, of course, I had.

Claude Monet, the great impressionist artist, had painted precisely that scene over and over again. In fact, the gardens at Giverny had preoccupied Monet for almost the last 40 years of his life. He bought the property in 1883 and died there in 1926.

"I am enraptured," said Monet of his gardens. Enraptured and, perhaps, a bit obsessed too: He devoted the last decade of his life to painting only the water lilies and the pond, capturing it in every season, every kind of light and even every hour of the day.

What resulted from that decade of intense, narrow scrutiny of his water garden was the monumental "Water Lilies" series. These masterworks reside now in museum collections around the world. They also reside, as do so many objects of great beauty in our commercial society, on note paper, glass coasters, pencil boxes and calendars. All of which, incidentally, you can buy in the very large -- and very interesting -- gift shop at Giverny.

But the traveler in search of an experience that thrills both the eye and the spirit need never have seen one of Monet's paintings -- either in a museum or on a pencil box -- to understand that Giverny is a work of art. And a painter's garden in every way.

Monet, an avid amateur botanist, began in 1883 to create the gardens, eventually turning what originally had been an orchard into a work of art. "My most beautiful masterpiece," Monet said, proclaiming his tulips "paintings of color, spots of yellow against a blue sky."

But it is also a painter's garden in an especially intriguing way. While most painters of his era took as their starting point a scene from real life and filtered it through their imagination, Monet's work at Giverny was created in exactly the reverse order: First the artist imagined Giverny's gardens -- designed them in his head -- and then he proceeded to bring them into existence so that he might paint them.

Two great loves

It combined his two great loves: painting and gardening. In what surely must stand as one of the world's great understatements, Monet summed up his life this way: "Besides painting and gardening, I don't know how to do anything."

I arrived at Giverny halfway through a month's stay in Paris. After settling in at the Hotel de l'Universite, a small Left Bank establishment, I spent the first two weeks exploring the city. Street by street. But as wonderful as these excursions were, Giverny was always lurking in the back of my mind. I was waiting, however, for the perfect day -- a day when sun and shadow would play across the water and flowers just as it did in Monet's most striking canvases.

Such a day arrived about midway through my stay. "A perfect day for Giverny!" I thought the instant I saw the slightly overcast sky through my hotel window. Wonderful as the streets of Paris are, I was ready for a day in the country. Particularly Monet country.

Although several firms offer bus tours to Giverny, I wanted the adventure of traveling to Giverny on my own. Also, I wanted to see the area for the first time just as Monet is said to have seen it: from a window of the train that runs past the small town of Vernon and nearby Giverny.

The trains leave frequently from St.-Lazare Station in Paris, and the trip to Vernon -- which runs along the Seine as it winds northwest to Normandy -- offers a pleasant hour's trip through pastoral countryside. It is about three miles from Vernon to Giverny and the visitor can walk, bike or taxi the short distance.

At Giverny, I found to my delight that as beautiful as the gardens is Monet's charming house with its facade of pink crushed brick and painted green doors and shutters. There is also, apart from the house, the studio Monet had constructed in 1915 to accommodate the large paintings he was producing.

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