“It took me time to understand my water lilies. I had planted them for the pleasure of it; I grew them without ever thinking of painting them.” — Claude Monet
GIVERNEY, France — Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas,” better known as water lilies, are as ubiquitous as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Every imaginable item of consumer goods — bags and purses, tees and scarves, notebooks and mouse pads — carry a digital imprint of the familiar paintings. Our culture is so saturated with this image that it would seem we hardly can be excited about the real pond that inspired the famous Impressionist master. Nothing is further from the truth, believe me. I just visited Giverny where Monet spent 43 years of his life.
It was a sunny day in mid-April, with the temperature somewhere in the lower 50s, when I stepped into Monet’s garden. The first impression was as if a black-and-white world suddenly exploded in colors. Flowers of all shapes and sizes covered the ground like a carpet as far as the eye could see. Planted in rows, they formed a colorful grid which inadvertently reminded me of the Impressionist painting technique — small patches of various colors placed next to each other.
First I paid homage to the artist’s home. This modest two-story cottage with narrow winding stairs was a maze of little rooms, with walls covered with Japanese prints and paintings by Monet’s contemporaries. The only spacious room was the artist’s studio. With a high ceiling and a large window which took the better part of the wall, it appeared grand, worthy of the great master. His own works (replicas of the originals scattered all over the world) traced his career from the early paintings of boats on the Seine to the well-known Impressionist masterpieces, such as the Rouen Cathedral and the cliffs of Etretat.
But even this splendid space proved to be inadequate for the famous Nymphéas paintings. Due to the gigantic size of the panels, another studio had to be built next to the cottage (today it houses the museum store.)
But let’s hurry to the pond. The garden path leads us to the tunnel which runs under a busy road. As we emerge on the other side of the road, we enter an enchanted world. It seems that time has been standing still since the day when Monet set his easel by the waterside. The pond is calm like a mirror and reflections of tall willows are intermingling with lily pads that are floating on its surface. Frogs, seized with spring madness, are filling the air with loud gurgling sounds and are occasionally leaping from one leaf to another in pursuit of a suitable mate.
Following a narrow winding path around the pond, we arrive at the familiar green bridge. It looks exactly like its painted image. But wait, here is another one, at the other end of the pond! Which one did Monet paint? Probably both…
I stayed till closing time taking pictures from every possible angle. The evening was warm and the village of Giverny was basking in the golden light of the setting sun. I did not want to leave. Walking along the street I admired brick and stuccoed houses overgrown with wisteria and ivy.
Just as I was thinking of turning around and going to the shuttle, I noticed a church. It had an austere look of an old Romanesque chapel, with grey stone walls, narrow arched windows and a black steeple. A graveyard nestled on a hill by its side, but one grave was set apart, on the path to the hill. When I approached it I realized that it was actually a family plot and it belonged to the Monet family. One of the plaques read, “Here rests our good friend Claude Monet, born on November 14, 1840, deceased on December 5, 1926, missed by all.” I would have left Giverny without stopping at his grave had I not stumbled upon it by accident. The artist was a private man in life and he continues to avoid publicity after death.
My trip to Giverny is over, but yours may still be in its planning stage. I would like to leave you with a few helpful tips. To get to Giverny from Paris, take a train from Gare Saint Lazare. By the way, this is the same train station that Edouard Manet painted in the background of his eponymous masterpiece, but its interior has been completely transformed to accommodate the needs of modern travelers.
From the subway “Gare Saint Lazare,” follow the signs that say “Grand Lignes” all the way to the upper level of the train station. As you get there, watch for the footprints with a water lily image. They will lead you to the ticket office marked “Grand Lignes” at the far end of the station where you can buy a ticket either at the window or at an automated kiosk. Choose destination Vernon-Giverny, direction Rouen. Remember to punch your ticket at a yellow stand (looks like a small parking meter) on the platform before you board the train.
It takes about 50 minutes to get to Vernon where you follow the water lily footprints again into the underpass and all the way to the shuttle stop. Fifteen minutes later you are in the village of Giverny. Just follow the crowd and you’ll get to Monet’s house with no problem.
For more information visit giverny.org/ gardens/fcm/visitgb.htm
Story and photos by Elena Ivanova
UP Staff Writer