While the garden came to be one of the most beloved subjects within the Impressionist circle, Claude Monet’s idyllic outdoor scenes have emerged as some of the most iconic and easily recognizable garden pictures of the 19th and 20th centuries. Though he began exploring the motif as a young artist in his aunt and uncle’s manicured lawns, it was not until he moved to Argenteuil in 1871 that the subject became increasingly more important, culminating in the sweeping Nymphéas at the Musée de l'Orangerie that serve as both a celebration to the artist’s historic career and his legendary garden in Giverny.
Painted a year after the Parisian public was first introduced to the revolutionary plein-air aesthetic at the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, Monet’s Au Jardin, la famille de l’artiste (1875) depicts the artist’s family caught in a moment of suspended leisure. Last exhibited in 1919, the painting will be offered in Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale this November in New York.
Below, Research Professor in the History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, Richard Thomson, introduces the fascinating history of Monet’s gardens and the proprietorial and creative inspiration that the artist drew from them.
Monet and Gardens
The garden was a central theme in Claude Monet’s art. His life’s work culminated in the grandes décorations on the theme of his water-garden at Giverny, with their sweeping vistas of the water-lily pond and the sky reflected on their still surfaces. Installed in the Orangerie des Tuileries in May 1927 after his death the previous year, these serene canvases of his own garden were his gift to the state in the wake of the First World War, an old man’s fusion of the private and the national. But throughout Monet’s long career, the garden had encouraged his painterly gifts in the most varied ways.
Monet’s garden paintings can carry a strong suggestion of the proprietorial. As a young artist in the later 1860s, he painted his prosperous uncle and aunt’s manicured garden at their large property at Sainte-Adresse and depicted them among gladioli and geraniums on a terrace overlooking the entrance to the busy port of Le Havre (Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, 1867, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In the following decade, the decorations he made for the wealthy Ernest Hoschedé feature the extensive gardens and turkeys on the lawns in front of the family’s mansion of Montgeron to the south of Paris (Les Dindons, 1877, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). By contrast, Monet was conscious of his then comparatively modest status. Painting his garden at Vétheuil in 1881 when his finances were very difficult, he four times painted a deceptive composition which suggests an expansive property, but he had inventively used a low viewpoint to exclude the main road between La Roche-Guyon and Mantes that separated the house from the garden.
While in London from 1870 to 1871, Monet had been pleasantly surprised by the central green spaces of Hyde Park, which he painted, and he continued this awareness of metropolitan gardens on his return to Paris. During the following decade, he painted both the Tuileries Gardens, looking down from an apartment on the rue de Rivoli, and the Parc Monceau from its stately paths. In 1884, while painting on the Ligurian coast at Bordighera, Monet came across the private garden of Francesco Moreno, where he discovered exotic species such as mimosa and palms under the Mediterranean light. This kind of experience — one might say — seeded in Monet a quasi-professional interest in horticulture, in the ordering of garden spaces and the professional choice of plantings, one that would blossom with his own enthusiasm for seed catalogues and specific blooms.
Another discreet but nevertheless central aspect of Monet’s fascination with gardens both as a social space and as a motif for painting was the notion of the hortus conclusus, the garden as an enclosed terrain. Private, familial space, safe territory for children to play, shade and agreeably colourful surroundings for women to enjoy the summer sunshine: these are the norms of comfortable society to which Monet subscribed in many canvases during his early and mid-career. At Argenteuil in the 1870s, with his wife Camille and their two sons Jean and Michel, Monet made paintings which enveloped his young family in the protective surroundings of their rented garden. The first painting he ever identified as decorative — Panneau décoratif, exhibited at the 1876 Impressionist exhibition and now known as Le Déjeuner (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) — shows just such a private domain, calm, unpretentious but clearly bourgeois. Unlike his Impressionist colleague Camille Pissarro, Monet did not paint kitchen gardens.
That sense of the intimate and secluded could be refined further, reaching into inner realms. In the early weeks of 1899, both Monet’s old friend Alfred Sisley and his step-daughter Suzanne Hoschedé died. During the ensuing months, Monet painted a dozen canvases of the Japanese bridge he had constructed over a stream in his water garden four years earlier. These paintings, often on square canvases, use the curving arc of the bridge to span the water symmetrically, the foliage of lily pads, reeds and weeping willows creating a textured green cohesion. Colour, composition and canvas format combine to create an ensemble that offers a therapeutic, healing harmony at a time of personal loss.
Above all, the garden provided Monet with creative expression. While we have seen how that took diverse and even unexpected forms during his early decades as an artist, his triumphant last quarter century was largely dedicated to his Giverny garden. In 1890, he purchased the property he had been renting for seven years and with the success of his exhibitions of series paintings, he was able to buy adjacent land including a stream and pond, build greenhouses and hire gardeners and even, in 1901, negotiate with the local authorities’ permission to divert a branch of the river Epte through his land.
By now a substantial proprietor himself, with half a dozen gardeners in his employ by the early 1890s, Monet developed an eager expertise in plant choice and actual planting, taking advice from professionals such as the director of the botanical gardens in Rouen, and of course, keeping an eye on his garden’s constant care. Painterly decisions lay behind the plantings. Views painted in 1902 of the allée leading from the Japanese bridge to the house show how he had chosen flowers with predominantly red blooms as a colour contrast to the green foliage which overhangs them. He planted willow trees along the banks of the pond, using their trunks as solid, rooted forms to counterpoint the fluid, floating clouds reflected in the pond’s surface and their dangling branches as a linear feature against the circular lily pads. Monet exercised control over nature both in horticulture and painting. Looking at the grandes décorations, their plant forms life-size, is an immersive experience, a pictorial equivalent of a stroll in the Giverny garden.
Above all, gardens were a creative inspiration for Monet. In 1873, Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted his well-known canvas, Monet peignant dans son jardin à Argenteuil, picturing the artist in a garden surrounded by dull suburban houses (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford). Implicit in this composition is that the artist could arrange his surroundings at his will, excluding the mundane man-made and reveling in the glorious natural. That is what Monet did throughout his sixty-year-long career. Richly diverse in his approach to the subject, one of the greatest consistencies of Monet’s mighty oeuvre is the glory of the garden.
Richard Thomson F.R.S.E. is Research Professor in the History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, where he was Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art 1996-2018. He was also lead curator of ‘Monet, 1840-1926’ at the Grand Palais from 2010-2011