The scene is Monet’s evocation of late summer in his gardens at Giverny. Germaine, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Alice Hoschedé, walks up the grande allée, the wide path leading from the main entrance to the house; the stone garden wall and gate post are visible in the distance at the upper right side, behind which is the Chemin du Roy, the road that runs in front of the grounds. She is delivering two batches of flowers, freshly cut in the garden, to the house, to be arranged in bouquets to adorn the rooms, and perhaps even for the artist to paint. Around this time Monet, in fact, worked on the sole floral still-life he created that year—as he was occasionally wont to do with autumn coming on—a composition comprising two oriental vases resplendently brimming with yellow, white and red chrysanthemums (Wildenstein, no. 1212).
It had been little more than five years since Monet had settled at Giverny, a small farming community of only several hundred inhabitants, situated in the Norman countryside at the confluence of the Seine and the Epte rivers about forty miles northwest of Paris. It gratified Monet that the capital of his nation, and of the art world at that time, with all its cares and distractions, seemed a world away. In Giverny he had all he needed: produce as fresh as the air itself, a good school for the children—eight of them in all, his two sons plus the four girls and two boys belonging to his partner Alice Hoschedé, whom he married in 1892—and for his work, there was a marvelous variety of local motifs to explore and from which to choose. A rail line ran alongside the Chemin du Roy, and with little difficulty he could to get to Paris for business when necessary, or travel to more distant points elsewhere for painting campaigns and family summer holidays. He had leased the house and its grounds in 1883, and seized the opportunity to purchase it when the owner was ready to sell in 1890. When requesting financial assistance from his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel—which was gladly provided—Monet wrote he was “certain of never finding a better situation or more beautiful countryside” (21 January 1890, Letter no. 1079).
When living previously at Argenteuil and Vétheuil, Monet had installed a garden on those grounds that were available to him. Just as he needed the local landscape for his painting, he also required this kind of domestically cultivated site close at hand, not least for the visual joy it provided, but also for the study of color in nature in its purest form, and as convenient subject material for still-life painting, “to have flowers to pick for rainy days,” as he wrote to Durand-Ruel, averse as he was to losing any time before his easel (5 June 1883, Letter no. 356).
The Impressionists learned from Durand-Ruel and other dealers, as well as their own private collectors, that floral still-lifes were always in demand. Monet’s largest project in this regard was the series of 36 decorations he painted during 1882-1885 for the drawing room in his dealer’s Paris apartment (Wildenstein, nos. 919-954). Some of the blossoms that appear in the later of these panels might well have come from the very garden depicted here. It is actually rather surprising, given this ready resource, that Monet did not paint more floral still-life arrangements in his later years, as did Redon, for example, from the inspiration of his gardens in Bièvres. Instead of depicting flowers in the time-honored genre of the nature morte, Monet instead preferred to paint them while actually under cultivation, in all their freshest glory as nature vivant, just as Van Gogh liked to treat gardens as a form of intimate landscape, seen close-up, in which the painter might immerse himself among the wondrously colorful profusion of blossoms and leaves.
The property at Giverny, when Monet and his family moved in, already had a useful kitchen garden and apple trees in front of the house; it is for the latter that Monet referred to these grounds as the Clos Normand, the Norman orchard. But the flower gardens his landlord left behind were poorly maintained, and Monet quickly set to work re-arranging, replanting and expanding them. Within five years, as evident here, the artist had already laid the groundwork for the magnificent floral displays, selected and arranged in sections with great care, for which—when later augmented with the water garden of his lily pond—he would become famous in his lifetime. The Fondation Claude Monet has maintained these gardens, kept even more neatly than in the artist’s day, which have become a Mecca for those who love gardens as much as they may be admirers of Impressionist painting.
The most lavish of Monet’s garden paintings date from 1900-1902, from which people are absent. The artist only occasionally included figures in his landscape compositions after he left Argenteuil in 1878. There are distant rowers in various views of the Seine at Véthuil, both in paintings executed circa 1880 and during his return there in 1902. But unlike the paintings of Pissarro, for example, one never encounters in Monet’s rural landscapes such local inhabitants that the artist would have likely seen there—there are neither people at work in the fields, nor coming and going in towns. We become aware of the human presence in a Monet landscape almost solely through evidence of how people have shaped the land through cultivation—the lines of planted poplars, or the erection of grain stacks—or the presence of a douanier’s or fisherman’s cottage atop a falaise on the English Channel coast.
The occasional clusters of works which include figures that Monet painted during the late 1880s, however, are rare exceptions to this general tendency in his oeuvre. There are the two well-known versions of Suzanne Hoschedé holding a parasol and standing in dazzling sunlight on a rise near Giverny, 1886 (Wildenstein, nos. 1076-1077), plus a third showing Germaine, Suzanne, their mother Alice, and Michel Monet similarly viewed from a low vantage point (no. 1075). More pictures of figures in the landscape followed a year later (nos. 1131-1136 and 1148), culminating in several scenes of the Hoschedé women and girls standing and seated in the artist’s rowboats (nos 1150-1152). Monet wanted to paint, as he wrote to Théodore Duret, “figures out of doors the way I understand them, done like landscapes. It is an old dream that always plagues me and I would love to carry it to realization sometime, but this is so difficult” (13 August 1887, Letter no. 794). “This certainly was no coincidence,” Paul Tucker has explained, “clearly these paintings were his response to the challenges posed by Seurat and Pissarro as well as to the classical figure paintings that Renoir was producing at that time, together with the figural work of Morisot… The integration of the figure with her environment bespeaks Impressionism’s inherent belief in the importance of direct contact with nature” (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 126-127).
Closely related to the present painting is another in which Germaine stands front and center, similarly attired, together with the two boys Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet, as Suzanne Hoschedé and Jean Monet stand in the distance—Paysage avec figures, Giverny (Figures au soleil)—painted around the same time (Wildenstein, no. 1204). In these paintings Monet alludes by way of Germaine’s presence to the eternal feminine aspect of nature, and specifically in the present picture to a young woman as an emblem of Flora, the ancient divinity emblematic of flowers and the fertility of the plant world. Monet created only one more picture of this kind, when in 1895 he painted Suzanne Hoschedé, then married to the American painter Theodore Butler, one of the small number of American artists that had taken up residence in Giverny (Wildenstein, no. 1420). She was already in poor health, and died in 1899, at the age of only thirty. Monet deeply grieved her passing, perhaps one reason he never again painted a woman in his gardens.