Life

In the garden where Monet's great paintings were brought to life

In the 1880s Claude Monet bought a house in Giverney, 50 miles west of his native Paris, and art was never to be the same again. Roisin McAuley visited the house and gardens, inspiration for the 'father of Impressionism', and found you can almost feel his best-known works come to life

Water lilies in Monet's garden at Giverny Picture: Roisin McAuley
Roisin McAuley

THEY are among the most recognisable images in the world – water-lilies floating on a pond; weeping willows trailing on the water; a pair of skiffs moored by the bank; a Japanese wooden bridge reflected in the water.

They are the paintings by the artist Claude Monet, of his garden at Giverny – open to the public from the beginning of spring to the end of autumn.

Monet moved to the farmhouse at Giverny, 50 miles west of Paris, on the unspoiled plateau known as the Vexin, in 1883. He was 43. His wife, Camille Doncieux had died. Monet was living with Alice Hoschedé, who would become his second wife, his two sons and Alice's six children.

The farmhouse was home to the Monets until the artist's death in 1926. Here Monet welcomed his fellow artists and friends: Camille Pissaro, Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Rodin, Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot.

Monet's son, Michel, inherited the house and gardens but didn't live there. A step-daughter, Blanche, took care of it. But the property was damaged during the Second World War, and neglected thereafter. Bomb blasts broke the windows in the house and the glasshouses, parts of the roof and the staircase in the house collapsed, a tree planted itself in Monet's studio, the gardens became a wilderness.

Michel Monet left the property to the Academie de Beaux-Arts. The long years of restoration began. The restorers used memories of Monet's friends, fellow gardeners, records of local plant nurseries, old black and white photographs, Monet's letters, and, crucially, his paintings, to recreate the gardens. Finally, in 1980, the house and gardens were opened to the public.

The house is a museum dedicated to Monet. But the principal attractions for the thousands of visitors are the gardens he created.

Inspired by tranquil scenes from Japanese prints (which still hang in the house) Monet diverted a channel of the river Epte, a tributary of the Seine, to make a pond filled with water-lilies. He planted willow and bamboo along its banks and designed a graceful, green-painted, wisteria-covered wooden footbridge across it. And all the time, through the seasons, in the open air, he painted it in sunshine, rain and shadow.

In the last half of his life, Monet's vision was clouded by cataracts. He began painting on bigger canvases, with less detail, the same subjects – large scale. The pond dotted with water lilies, the bending willow branches, the bridge, wisteria, clouds in the sky, all reflected on the surface of the pond. Creating, in Monet's own words the "illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore".

Monet's painting, Impression – Sunrise had, years earlier, given the movement known as 'Impressionism' its name. Monet's own art now became ever more impressionistic, and, just as he had led the movement towards Impressionism, he was now leading the move towards abstract art.

The paintings in his high-ceilinged, light-filled studio in the house, are copies – lacking both the vibrancy and the subtlety of the originals now hanging in art galleries and museums across the world.

I file through room, after room, including a blue and white tiled kitchen with an ancient wood-burning stove and shining copper pots and pans. But in every part of the house, my attention is drawn to the view of the flower garden beyond the windows. The garden through which the visitors walk, and in which, like me, they linger, en route to the Japanese garden with the water-lilies, bridge, boats and weeping willows.

This was the original garden, the 'clos normand' of the farmhouse. It had an apple orchard and a kitchen garden and a hen-run when Monet moved here. The hen-run, complete with hens, is all that remains of the original garden. Monet replaced the apple trees with Japanese cherry, apricot and maple, laburnums, chestnuts and lime trees. He carpeted the ground with spring and summer flowers.

These spring up between paths lined with beds of agapanthus, alliums, hollyhocks, poppies, nasturtiums, dahlias, daisies, delphiniums – to name but a few of the flowers Monet planted under iron pergolas of trailing roses. Not planted in rigid patterns, but free-flowing with seemingly random blocks of colour and a sense of underlying design – not unlike the paintings.

Only a few metres beyond the Japanese garden, on the other side of the stream which feeds the pond, cows graze in what is still an agricultural landscape, the verdant plateau of the Vexin. Monet did not have to walk far from his garden to set up his easel and create, in 1890-91 a series of paintings of hay, corn and wheat stacks. One of these sold last year at auction in New York for $81.4 million.

In Monet's day, the two gardens were separated by a railway and a road. Now they are linked by an underground walkway. Visitors move freely between the two.

It's a busy place. On the day I visited, it seemed that every schoolchild in France was there. Yet there was space to wander, to stand or sit still, contemplating the play of colour, light and shade on the water and feel the paintings come to life.

FACT FILE

:: Roisin flew to Paris-Beauvais Tillé with Ryanair and rented a car. Giverny is one hour 10 minutes from the airport. You can also take the train or bus from Paris. Details http://giverny.org/transpor/

:: Two hundred yards from Monet's house and gardens, the Museum of the Impressionists has temporary art exhibitions

:: In Paris, the Musée Marmottan http://www.marmottan.fr/ and the Musée de l'Orangerie are must-visits for Monet fans

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