By Bobbie Leigh
Claude Monet always said that if he had not been a painter, he would have been a botanist. But it was only at the turn of the century when he became one of the wealthiest artists in France could he combine his love of painting with plants. From the 1880s until his death at 86 in 1926, Monet was as passionate about flowers as his art. The two really merged in his extensive series of paintings called “Nympheas” or “Water Lilies” where he transported his perceptions, in spite of failing eye sight, onto canvas.
Monet’s garden in Giverny, created in the Seine Valley 50 miles northwest of Paris, was his muse, his inspiration, and his source of worry—something every gardener will understand. He was said to be so worried about soot from passing trains nearby damaging his beloved lilies, that his gardener rowed out daily in a little boat every morning to clean them. He even instructed one of his five gardeners to dunk the lily pads daily so they would glisten in the sun. The light, colors, and images reflected in his lily pond were an important inspiration for his later paintings.
The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx has created an approximation of Claude Monet’s Giverny garden including the famous lily pads… but here they are cleaned only once or twice a week. The “Monet’s Garden” show is in three parts. The most exhilarating is the formal flower garden with rose-covered arches emerging from lush flower beds lining both sides of a path in the glass house Victorian Conservatory. It is what Monet called his Clos Normand or Norman enclosure. According to Elizabeth Murray, who documented the Giverny garden for 25 years, Monet’s flower garden followed the same principles as his canvases. He arranged colors of plants to create rich patterns, probably an inspiration for color field artists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman who also were drawn to the expressive power of color in large fields.
The path in the Conservatory leads to an indoor water garden with a recreation of Monet’s iconic Japanese bridge crossing a small pond. Dozens of water lilies including some varieties the artist depicted in his paintings float beneath the bridge. It is a replica of the Giverny arched bridge, a vibrant green, dubbed “Giverny green.” In the special Botanical Garden’s Shop in the Garden, you can buy some Giverny flowers as well as a replica of a bench in Monet’s garden. It is a strikingly handsome bench, made of plantation-grown teak with multiple layers of marine-grade paint in “Giverny green,” for $3,500.
The flower beds and the water garden with the iconic green bridge are indoors in the Conservatory. The outdoor display of water lilies is in the Hardy Pool in the Conservatory Courtyard. Monet first became an ardent admirer of water lilies when he saw them at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. In Giverny, he created a separate garden for his lilies which is more or less replicated in the Hardy Pool.
Water lilies are a challenge. The Hardy Pool water lilies required a loamy soil and were placed about a foot under water to ensure optimum growth. According to a Botanical Garden horticulturalist, they grow in full sun to bloom well and should be fertilized with a special aquatic fertilizer once a month during the growing period. In early spring when the Monet garden show first opened, the water lilies had not yet reached their peak. In the heat of summer, visitors can expect brilliant colors and some giant Amazon water lilies with leaves up to five feet across.
Monet corresponded with eminent horticulturists and bought seeds and plants from Japan as well as Europe. “He filled his pond with rare aquatic plants that nearly covered the entire surface with carefully sited water lilies of every color,” according to Elizabeth Murray’s essay in the show’s catalog. The best way to approach this dazzling display of a lily paradise is to head first for the Botanical Garden’s Ross Gallery to admire Murray’s photographs. Murray — painter, writer, photographer — is featured in a YouTube clip of a photography lecture shown at Eastman House on Monet’s Garden “Monet’s Passion.”
The show opened with spring flowers—clematis, morning glories poppies, and peonies. In summer, you will see what Todd Forrest,VP for Horticulture and Living Collections, calls the “hot hues” of summer flowers— yellow and orange nasturtiums, zinnias, hollyhocks, while the roses on the arches should still be in bloom. By fall, expect yellow, oranges reds and purples along with towering sunflowers.
Most surprising about this brilliant burst of color in the gardens is that almost all the flowers were grown in the Botanical Garden’s Nolen Greenhouses. Even more astounding is that they will be adjusted for the seasons so like the Giverny original, the gardens will be filled with colorful blooms until Monet’s Garden closes October 21, 2012.
Two paintings by Claude Monet are on view in the Rodina Gallery in the Botanical Garden’s Library, a short walk from the entrance. Yale University’s The Artist’s Garden in Giverny, painted around 1900, shows a large sweep of deep purple and violet irises while Irises, painted around 1915 and never shown in this country until now, portrays a close up of the spring flower. Monet was so precise about when his irises would bloom, he once told a friend to “come Tuesday…the Irises will be perfect.” Monet’s paint encrusted wooden palette and some historical photographs showing the artist creating and enjoying his garden are also on view.
If you have never had a chance to visit Giverny, Monet’s Garden offers an opportunity to deepen your understanding of the passions of this complex artist. “I want the unobtainable,” he wrote. “ Other artists paint a bridge, a house, a boat, and that’s the end. They are finished. I want to paint the air which surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat, the beauty of the air in which these objects are located, and that is nothing short of impossible.”
NYBG in Bloom is a free iPhone app available from iTunes for those who would like more information about Monet and his garden. A special feature of this app is that you can view Monet paintings currently at the Met via a link to the Met’s web site.
Visit “Monet’s Garden.”
The New York Botanical Garden is at the Bronx River Parkway (Exit 7W) and Fordham Road. Parking is available. You can also take the subway or Metro-North Railroad. For tickets and more information, call 718-817-8600 or nybg.org.
You can read Everett Potter’s tale of visiting the real Giverny here.