“Critic asks: ‘And what, sir, is the subject matter of that painting?’ The subject matter, my dear good fellow, is the light.”
It’s a funny thing when you visit a place that has lived for so long in your imagination. The experience expands your mind and spirit, filling you with new insights, inspiration and ideas. Instead of the satisfaction of mentally crossing off an item on a bucket list, you leave wanting to return, wishing you could simply press rewind on the previous few hours.
And so it was for Giverny and me. If you had asked me the name of my favorite painter when I was fifteen or twenty-five or fifty, the answer would always have been the same. Claude Monet. Even today, it still is. I’ve forever loved the Impressionists, and I’ve loved Claude Monet most of all.
Rain was forecast for our early morning visit to Giverny, but the late September sky was clear, with a smattering of low-hanging clouds. The ms Sapphire had docked overnight in the nearby town of Vernon, less than a ten-minute drive to Giverny. When we met our favorite guide Natalie, who had led our tour in Rouen, she greeted us with a big smile. “You couldn’t have asked for better weather,” she said. “The light is absolutely perfect!”
Jardin d’Eau – The Water Garden
Claude Monet lived and worked in Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926, creating the magnificent gardens that so famously starred in his paintings. Our tour began in the Water Garden, home of the bright green wisteria-covered Japanese bridge that arches over one end of the water lily pond. The wisteria blooms and lilies had faded months ago when summer spilled into autumn, but that didn’t make the water garden appear dormant at this time of year. Instead, the pond was vibrant and alive, surrounded with yellows, greens, purples and bursts of crimson.
Monet planted for the seasons. When blooms from one month began to fade, new colors appeared, creating a palate as rich and varied as the paint he used to preserve their memory. The Giverny Foundation provides a month-by-month list of various flowers that bloom between April 1st and November 1st, when the garden is open to the public. For our visit in September, the list included nasturtiums, asters, dahlias, cosmos and rudbeckias.
And then there is that matter of the light. Wherever and whatever he painted – be it the cathedral in Rouen or his garden in Giverny – Monet was constantly chasing the light. On this early morning in late September, it was simply extraordinary.
The Clos Normand – The Normandy Garden
For his Clos Normand, Monet continued planting a palate of colors that change with the seasons. Metal arches covered with wildflowers span the pathway leading to his bright green front door, and flowering trees add even more color to the thousands of flowers carpeting the ground. It’s an absolute wonderland of color and beauty!
Monet’s House at Giverny
Our guided tour ended at Monet’s delightful pink house with green shutters. Natalie explained that guides were not permitted inside because they slow down the traffic flow as they stop to talk. Once inside the long, narrow home, it was easy to understand what she meant!
Monet’s house simply oozes joy, and I got the feeling that he had a happy life. Unlike so many painters at that time, he was able to make a good living with his art. I thought of Vincent van Gogh, who did some of his best work in an asylum and later took his own life in a town not too far from Giverny. And I remembered a sign in Maurice Utrillo’s Montmartre bedroom that said bars had been installed on his window to keep him from throwing things at people below. Gifted geniuses with tormented souls who gave so much to the world, but who seemed to take so little joy for themselves.
Monet’s life, however, was rich with family and color and all those flowers. Walking through the rooms in his pink-and-green world, I was struck by how he boldly lived his life on his own terms. Never mind that exterior shutters were typically painted gray in those days. It was as if he took a brush and covered the entire property with the brightest shade of green he could find. And a dining room bathed in the color of the sun? What a happy place for his family to gather.
Giverny – The Town
Monet’s Garden is the main attraction in the village of Giverny, population 496. There is one main street – rue Claude Monet – which has a few cafés and a hotel or two. After the tour, Herb and I walked to the end of town to find Monet’s grave. On the way, we ran into several friends from the cruise who joined us on this pilgrimage.
The Monet family plot lies behind the Église Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny. A pathway around the side of the church leads to Monet’s grave. The cemetery continues further uphill, with tombstones backing up to the countryside beyond.
Back on rue Claude Monet, we stopped at a café for a coffee and final French pastry of the trip. The patio at Au Coin du Pain’tre proved to be a perfect ending to this wonderful morning.
We met the rest of our group in front of the Musée Giverny des Impressionisme and walked to the bus for the ride back to Vernon, where our riverboat was waiting to sail to Paris. It was nearing noon, and the sky was starting to look threatening. At the exact moment we set foot on the bus, it started to rain, and by the time we were ready to leave, it was a downpour. Herb and I looked at each other and laughed, not quite believing our good fortune. The good weather gods had been incredibly kind to us on this trip, especially here, a place I’ve dreamed of visiting for all these years.
Claude Monet once said that he believed his garden was his most beautiful masterpiece. It’s hard to agree with that when you look at his remarkable paintings. But after spending some time here, I now understand what he meant. “My heart is forever in Giverny,” he said.
And after this glorious day in his garden, I left a little piece of mine here, too.