Impressions of Giverny Claude Monet's house and gardens in a lush, French river valley retain the colors and beauty that moved the artist's brush.

March 29, 1998|By William A. Davis | William A. Davis,BOSTON GLOBE

Claude Monet, founder of the impressionist school of painting, settled in Giverny, France, in 1883 and remained until his death 43 years later.

Inspired by the tranquil Normandy countryside and his own artfully landscaped surroundings, Monet did some of his finest work here. So did many other artists, including a number of prominent American painters attracted both by the presence of the master and Giverny itself: a place profoundly rural but only 50 miles west of Paris.

Nearly two dozen of Monet's dappled landscapes from this Seine valley village go on display today at the Walters Art Gallery. The exhibit, "Monet: Paintings of Giverny from the Musee Marmottan," will continue through May.

The artists' colony broke up at the start of the First World War, but Monet remained in Giverny. Its artistic past is still a powerful presence, one that attracts about a half-million visitors to the village annually.

The big draw is Monet's house and its magnificent gardens. However, a museum devoted to the American artists who worked in France -- most of them Monet-influenced painters who spent at least some time in Giverny -- is also a major attraction.

A two-story pink stucco and green-trimmed building, the Monet home is comfortable but unpretentious, more like a large farmhouse than a celebrated man's mansion. The gardens, however, are something else again.

By his own admission, Monet was "ecstatic about flowers" and created in Giverny colorful and fragrant gardens of his own design as sources of inspiration and sensual stimulation. The walled main garden, a so-called "Clos Normand," has paths lined with brilliantly colored shrubs, beds of blooming flowers and archways of climbing plants that provided Monet with a palette of changing colors from spring through autumn. A separate Japanese-style garden, centered on a lily pond, was the subject of some of the most memorable paintings of his later years.

Restoration

The house and gardens were neglected in the decades after the painter's death and fell into serious disrepair. Eventually acquired by the Claude Monet Foundation, they were completely restored -- largely with donations from wealthy American art lovers such as Doris Duke, Henry Ford II and Laurance and David Rockefeller -- and opened to the public in 1980.

You enter the Monet House (frequently after a wait in line) through a large, high-ceilinged room that was the artist's principal studio. It was in this atelier, now the foundation gift shop and bookstore, that Monet worked on his famous series of large paintings of waterlilies, "Decorations des Nympheas."

No original Monet paintings remain in the house, but the walls of the old studio are hung with full-scale copies of the waterlily series.

Much of the furniture in the house is original, and Monet's single-color room schemes -- white for the reading room, yellow for the dining room, blue-green for the kitchen, etc. -- have been retained. The house appears essentially as it was in Monet's day, although the throng of visitors streaming through his study, studios and bedroom would have appalled the reclusive artist.

Monet's own paintings have been replaced on the walls by copies, as have those given him by close friends such as Paul Cezanne, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Camille Pisarro.

But, walls on both floors of the house are still lined with Monet's large collection of 18th- and 19th-century Japanese prints, many by great masters of the genre such as Hiro-shege and Hokusai.

Japanese art was a major influence on Monet, and his lily pond water garden -- which has Japanese-style half-moon bridges, groves of bamboo and a giant weeping willow -- was modeled after one in a Japanese print. The water garden, the place in Giverny Monet came to love most, is beyond the back wall of the Clos Normand and beside the Epte River, which was diverted to create it. A tunnel running beneath a road, now often lined with parked tour buses, connects the two gardens.

A grand view

The best view of the gardens is from the second-floor master bedroom. Here, where camera-toting tourists now jockey for places at the windows, Monet would arise at 5 each morning (when the dew-soaked blossoms were most fragrant) and look out at -- and breathe in -- his very personal version of the Garden of Eden.

One of Monet's next-door neighbors was his close friend the American painter Lilla Cabot Perry of Boston, an influential figure in the American artist community in France.

At Perry's urging, a number of noted American artists of the day set up easels in Giverny, among them Mary Cassat, Childe Hassam, Frederick Frieseke, Alfred Sisley, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Thomas Meteyard and John Leslie Breck (who, like Monet, loved to paint haystacks). Following Perry's lead, Frieseke -- who, with Metcalf and a number of other French-trained American artists, exhibited in New York at the turn of the century as "The Giverny Group" -- also bought a house next to Monet's.

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