By Everett Potter
The New York Botanical Garden’s current exhibit, “Monet’s Garden,” is a sharp-eyed take on the painter Claude Monet’’s gardens in Giverny, France. Less slavish recreation than savvy re-imagining, it was clearly put together with the care that this institution seems to bestow on everything it does. I was at its birth in May, and if the intensity of the colors were profound, the arrangements themselves were even more so. Spontaneity like this can only be achieved through an artfully executed master plan – something the master himself would have done. The added bonus of two Monet canvases in the stately but little visited Rodina Gallery in the Botanical Garden’s Library are a gift. Go now, before the show winds up in late October, when the real Giverny concludes its seasonal display. You can read Bobbie Leigh’s detailed review here.
But how close was this Botanical garden’s vision to the real Giverny, Monet’s home and studio as well as gardens in the Normandy countryside? I had visited Giverny 20 years ago and had delightful memories. By chance, my wife and daughter and I were headed to France in June. I booked Giverny tickets on line before we departed and off we went.
I have to admit that our visit started off with more chaos than tranquility. It began at Paris’ Gare St. Lazare, where we stood in an endless line for tickets and nearly missed the train. Ticket machines in French train stations only work with credit or debit cards that are embedded with a chip, which few American-issued cards have. After an hour long train ride to Vernon, we got off the train with what seemed like a thousand other people and were duly herded onto a fleet of motor coaches. This Impressionistic pilgrimage was becoming more Disney-like by the moment. I could only imagine what the gardens would be like with wall-to-wall visitors.
Yet miraculously, once we got to Giverny, a village that lies a few miles from Vernon, the crowds seemed to be swallowed up by the small village with a handful of restaurants, gift shops, third-rate latter day Impressionist painters with their own galleries, and some quaint stone houses. Giverny – as in Monet’s house, studio and gardens – was busy but not overly crowded.
You enter through the vast studio where Monet painted his famed water lilly canvases. Now it’s a gift shop, peddling all manner of all things Monet. Never mind, the skylights and some strategically placed black and white photos of the painter leave you with some impression of what the space must have been like.
Then the real show begins. As you step into the garden, “magical” is a pretty good word to describe Giverny. The gardens are perfectly tended, in hyperactive bloom, and filled with exuberant life. The allées, lined with nasturtiums, seem to go on and on, repeated past the point that a Sunday gardener would consider reasonable. This garden is incredibly ambitious. When we were there, umbrella shaped trellises covered with climbing roses were in bloom and poppies were just coming to blossom. You don’t need to be a horticulturalist to appreciate the garden, as so much is in bloom, about to bloom, or will bloom shortly. On my previous visit, it was fall, and the garden looked completely different. Most memorable was that edging of nasturtiums. In June, they were an accent. In October, they become a carpet. This is the essence of Giverny, these dense, deceptively simple beds, which change with the seasons (and the labor of umpteen gardeners).
Inside the house, the rooms are perfectly kept, wide windows thrown open to the garden. The intense sunflower yellow dining room is memorable. But my favorite space is the studio, a room that you enter on a slightly raised balcony. It’s a dramatic space, requiring you to descend a few steps and make an entrance. Thanks to large windows, and reproductions of Monet’s paintings on easels and the wall, it’s easy to get a feel for what the house must have been like in his lifetime.
We walked through a tunnel under a road that leads to the Japanese garden. Here, amidst wisteria and the weeping willows, nearly everyone felt obligated, it seemed, to pose for a photograph on the arched bridge over the small pond. It was painted many times by the master, but he could scarcely have imagined the parade of humanity – with iPhones, tattoos and backpacks bulging with Evian bottles – posing, as if in a painting themselves. Well, make that an Instagram for those back home. The traditional garden trumped the Japanese garden for this observer, but I may well be in the minority.
We ate our picnic of sandwiches – bought from a branch of Monop’, the ready-to-eat food shop chain owned by Monoprix — in a grove of bamboo, looking at the water and a gaggle of Russian tourists. Think of it as a 21st century version of a lazy Impressionist lunch near the Seine.
Even amidst the babble of languages, the jockeying for position to photograph poppy flower heads, and the fellow pilgrims ignoring Monet’s beloved Hokusai woodblock prints on the walls of the living areas, it was a wonderful day. And it made us appreciate that we could taste the essence of this amazing assemblage of botanical splendor a mere 20 minutes from our New York home. The New York Botanical Garden has pulled off a remarkable feat, and while the Bronx may never be confused with Normandy, the intention and vision of Monet has been perfectly captured in New York.
Everett Potter is the Editor-in-Chief of Everett Potter’s Travel Report.