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Monet’s “Living” Masterpiece Blooms in the Bronx

A re-creation of the gardens of Giverny at “Monet’s Garden.”
Photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen

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.

Visitors on the Japanese footbridge at “Monet’s Garden.”
Photo by Talisman Brolin.

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.

Monet in front of his paintings in his studios, 1920.
Musee Marmottan Monet/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library
Gelatin silver print by Henri Manuel.

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.

Water lilies on display at “Monet’s Garden.”
Photo by Mark Pfeffer

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.


Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
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1 Comment

  1. August 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm — Reply

    A wonderful exhibition; anyone that loves Monet & Giverny will enjoy this treat in the Bronx.

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