Impressionist Writing in Monet's Gardens
Updated: Sep 13
A travel writing exercise and fan cross-over
Woman in the Garden
This piece is going to be different from my usual historical pieces. Normally, I'd tell you some tale about Monet himself, the history of his house and gardens, etc. But today, in the spirit of the impressionist art movement, I thought I'd experiment instead with giving my impression of the place. Like Monet did with his paintings, I'll take you on a walk with me so we can experience it together.
Let's start with an overall template. This place is luxury without being quite luxurious. It’s …humble abundance.
And with this phrase rolling around in my head, I find a shaded bench to sit under right across from a giant pink rose that stretches for the sky. I pull out a box of macarons as colorful as the flowers around me (we are in France, after all, I have a box of macarons on me at all times) and pick one to eat based on the fruity smell. I offer a “cheers” to the rose and bite through the pastry’s crunchy outer layers to its inner filling. Blueberry. It melts in my mouth and I tilt my head up to the sun. My eyes flutter but they don’t close. Who can blink in Monet’s gardens?
I find myself wishing I was a flower. I lift my wrist to my nose to see if the spicy Egyptian perfume I put on this morning is still there. Flowers get to mind their own business and somehow beautify their world at the same time. They’re appreciated and admired for being exactly themselves. And these flowers, in particular, get to be beautiful among hundreds, if not thousands, of other variations of equal beauty. What a life. I find myself longing for something that's right in front of me. I wonder why it's so difficult to experience beauty without attaching longing to it.
Woman with a Parasol
Monet painted this place with undefined brush strokes as if he spent all his time looking at it through unfocused eyes. I find it reminds me of those antique 3D paper shadow boxes I love so much. The ones on display at the Frederic Mares Museum in Barcelona. It feels playful and ornate here. Every layer of color, shape, texture, and height is placed thoughtfully in front of the next.
I can feel my whole nervous system slow down. What was I worried about earlier this morning? Train schedules and losing time? This place lives outside of time. There's nothing to worry about here.
I can see now why Monet used strokes. Almost as if to capture the gentle breeze swaying the flowers or the scent coming off them. Their aura. Bright greens as a base. Dots of white, blue, pink, and red. Lighter and darker shades indicate depth.
There's a man on one of the paths drawing individual flowers with colored pencils — zooming way in where Monet zoomed out. He's not capturing the auras, he's capturing the exquisite detail. It's a different form of appreciation for nature's complexity, but there still seems to be something worshipful in the attention he's paying the flowers. There's a meditative quality to it.
The house itself is a dream. A little pink cottage covered in thick climbing vines, with picture-window frames and a front porch fence painted a happy Spring green. Surrounded by so many flowers, the house looks like it's sprung up from the earth itself.
The inside may be packed with people but the colors on the walls and the light coming in from outside feel bountiful enough for everyone. Like an eternally juicy still-life cornucopia. It's not difficult to imagine waking up in this house on a quiet Saturday to the orchestra of songbirds and the swaying of the leaves outside, going down to the blue-tiled kitchen, boiling a pot of tea in a bronze kettle, and settling in at the modest dining table in the all-yellow breakfast room as the cat curls up in the sun-filled corner.
The yellow here isn't harsh. It's intentional. Gentle, like the sun is supposed to feel. The walls are covered in Japanese art prints with thick outlines that contrast with Monet's own borderless style.
Corner of a Studio
I’m going to take a brief interlude here to list things in Monet’s study that Just Make Sense:
A lounger and a couch (floral upholstery, of course)
A writing desk
A little table with comfy wicker chairs for taking tea
A human bust of an old man (Maybe Monet himself? Fair enough)
A second human bust of another old man (Maybe this is Monet. Maybe neither is.)
A giant picture window surrounded by lush vines
A vase with peacock feathers in it, sitting on a stack of old books
His own art, covering every spare inch of wall from wainscoting to ceiling
Earthy pottery lining the top of the wooden wainscoting
White, slightly opaque curtains that waft in a gentle breeze from a smaller, open window
Another desk in front of the open window, with a big green-velvet lamp and dainty little white flowers in a blue-and-white china porcelain pot
Ornate rugs you want to dig your toes into
Overhead lighting covered in glass or crystal beads like hung spider's webs
An easel, of course. And a blank canvas.
Water Lily Pond
Finally, I travel through an underground tunnel. The inside is covered in vine trellises painted the same spring green as the window panes of Monet’s house.
I emerge into a forest of bamboo. Water glitters in the spaces between the stocks until I’m guided over a charming green bridge to the pond itself. This is THE lily pond. The source of all Monet’s influence and staying power, if you want to think about it from a business and legacy perspective. This pond was so compelling that, even when he started to lose his vision, he was drawn here, painting what version he could see. Was he still trying to be relevant in an art world that had moved on without him? Or was it something purer that drew him here over and over and over again in his old age?
I can’t see it from so harsh a perspective. His cash cow is just a peaceful lily pond. Smaller than you would think and so calm. He made it look bigger by tilting the perspective down in his paintings so you couldn’t see the sky. That way, there was no beginning or end point to the pond. Only endless water and flora.
Lily pads gather and dot the surface of the water, disrupting the spots of sunshine reflecting off the surface. Long, wispy branches of willow trees create a rounded border for your visual plane. Every color of the surrounding flowers duplicates itself on the reflective surface of the pond. All I want to do here is reflect.
How many colors can I spot in the water? Green, blue, brown, red, yellow, white…More importantly, why did I want to come here so badly? Why make the solo trip all the way from Barcelona, Spain? I suppose I hope I can someday have what Monet had — a solitary artistry, which wasn't actually solitary for its connection to something universal. A blessed and comfortable life. And, after two years of quarantine and five years of family illness, I wanted something aesthetic to spark a spiritual and creative rehabilitation. I wanted to feel the way a Monet painting felt — fresh, expansive, unhurried, free of obligation.
I sit down on a bench underneath a willow tree, right next to the sketch artist I'd seen before. He has his sketch pad and his multicolored pencils rolled out on his knee. I have my notebook and my words. He shows me how hard he's worked to get the texture of a yellow flower just right and how many colors he's used besides yellow on a single petal alone. I ask him what he thinks of the phrase "humble abundance". He smiles.
The Artist's Garden at Giverny
If you'd like to visit Monet's gardens, there are two ways: by tour or by train.
You can go for a full-day or a half-day tour with a group. By the time I'd thought to book, all the full-day tours were sold out and the half-day tours are actually more like four hours total — two for travel by bus from Paris and back and two to explore both the gardens and the house. That wasn't going to be enough time for me.
I'm sure it would have been interesting to listen to what a tour guide had to say. That would have been the historical article I normally write. But I felt a strong personal urge to go by myself, to be free to roam and contemplate. This meant a lot of travel planning but I figured out the details so you don't have to.
I took the metro to the Paris Lyon train station,
rode a train from Paris to Vernon,
and took a shuttle from Vernon to Giverny (pronounced Gee-vair-nee), the little town where Monet planted his home. The shuttle was easy to find, I just followed the Monet-style footprints on the ground at Vernon Station.
The whole trip there, if I hadn't fallen asleep on the train, would have taken around three and a half hours. I saved 70€ by opting to go by train…50€ after I bought a bunch of flower seeds from the gift shop and snacks for the ride home.
Keep in mind that French trains are notoriously late or can be canceled altogether. If I'd known this, I would have known not to schedule my flight home immediately after getting back to Paris from Giverny, as my train back to Paris was canceled entirely and I had to then rush to the airport.
Schedule the gardens for a day when you have nowhere else to be.
Bring whatever type of art through which you communicate. Plant something of your own making in the gardens (figuratively, not literally). Monet's genius may have been his revolutionary style on the canvas, but I know now that it was also in creating a world for himself that so effectively cultivated creativity and soothed a weary soul that it continues to inspire artists long after he's gone.