• Getting to know Monet as a 19th-century French Botanist

    Kimberly Glassman

    Though he is mostly known as the founder of Impressionism, Claude Monet was also celebrated as a 19th-century French botanist for his 'impressionistic garden' designs.

    Claude Monet the... botanist? Wait, isn't he that famous 19th-century Impressionist? Don't worry, you didn't read the title wrong. Claude Monet (1840-1926) was indeed a painter, the founder of Impressionism in fact, but he was also an avid gardener and botanist. He invented a unique 'impressionistic garden' design that combined his artistic eye for colour with his green thumb for botanical knowledge.

    When Monet arrived at his little house in Giverny and saw the decrepit and tasteless state of the gardens, he knew it just wouldn't do. Picture it: you arrive at the garden you plan to paint ‘en plein air’ for the next 40 years, in order to capture the beauty of the French countryside, only to find clusters of packed flower beds planted haphazardly, with zero cohesive design, and with more apple trees than you would ever need. What would you do? Although he merely rented the property until 1890 (when he bought it outright), yet Monet wasted no time setting to work. In a relatable 'finding-yourself-makeover-montage' moment, Monet ripped out practically all of the existing garden plants and, in so doing, created the largest blank canvas of his career. Though movie-magic usually condenses this process to about thirty seconds, Monet took 15 years to create his ‘piĂšce de rĂ©sistance’, the now infamous Giverny gardens, that became the primary focus for the second half of his career, until his death in 1926.
    He immediately painted the grey shutters green, a colour which became so identifiable with the painter that it was known as ‘Monet Green’ by the villagers. In 1893, he bought another plot across the road that had a pond. The pond was nice and would do well for his water-based plants, but it needed a bit of something extra! He appealed for planning permission to divert water from the narrow arm of the river Epte, known as the Ru, to create a water garden. Locals from the area were furious. They petitioned against his request, believing his aquatic plants would poison the water and kill their cattle. Relentless and refusing to back down, Monet's request was eventually granted. Then, in 1901, Monet bought more land just south of the Ru river, and petitioned the town for additional water rights that would allow him to triple the size of the water pond. Monet also wasted no time cutting down trees lining the pathway to the house (including his wife Alice's beloved spruce trees). Monet could not stand the flowerbeds bordered by trimmed box trees lining the main path leading to the house. He had the boxed trees uprooted, replacing the plain apple trees with cherry and Japanese apricot trees, which was much more representative of the ‘Japonisme’ trend that was sweeping through France at the time. The cypress and spruce trees were replaced with daffodils, tulips, narcissi, iris, oriental poppies, and peonies, covering the ground in geometric blocks by the thousands.

    Monet imported exotic trees and colourful flowers the likes of which France had never seen before. Instead of trying to control nature, as was the traditional French style, he opted to work with nature to create English-inspired, dramatic compositions. The main garden beside Monet's home, the ‘Clos Normand’, was organised in large symmetrical blocks of colour that changed beautifully throughout the seasons. Using his plants like pigments on his palette, Monet planned colourful borders to bloom throughout the year and used large designated zones of monochromatic colours to maximise visual impact. The vibrancy of the flowering hues resulted from Monet cleverly pairing complementary colours. For example, in his vegetable garden, he surrounded his quilt-like pattern of cabbage and lettuce with pink peonies. Monet also used white flowers in his gardens as he would paint on his canvases: sprinkled amongst the other colours to enhance their brightness and create a unique, special sparkle.
    Repetition was key to achieve this iconic Monet garden 'look'. The garden that runs along the path from the gate to the front of the house grows under the ‘Grande AllĂ©e Tunnel’. White, pink, rose and lavender penstemon and stock emerge three feet in height and, further down, flowering red phlox give depth to the arrangement. Monet also balanced flowering hollyhocks (Alcea) in soft pastels, foxgloves (Digitalis) in deep mauves and purples, and larkspur (Delphinium) in many shades of blue, each of which reflected the sky and brought colour into the planting.

    The overall look is impressive when we consider how Monet managed to curate the flowers' colours as they changed throughout the four seasons. Professional gardener and artist Elizabeth Murray offers full-colour Monet inspired garden plans that you can recreate in her book “Monet's Passion” (2010), or you can visit the New York Botanic Gardens website to learn how to make your own "Grande AllĂ©e", though of course, Monet himself did have the help of six gardeners...

    However, if you find yourself visiting the Giverny garden, look out for the nasturtiums (capucines in French). They appear in orange, red, and yellow and tend to spread across the paths at the end of summer, in preparation for autumn. Monet was so taken by them that they featured in two of his paintings: “Capucines dans un vase bleu” (1879) and “Vase de capucines” (1880).
    Any plant parent knows they would do anything to have their children thrive. Monet was no different, and his garden design was also therefore influenced by what would help his flowers grow. To deal with the pockets of limited nutrients in some of the alkaline soil in his garden (often called 'sweet soil' by gardeners), Monet added peat moss and manure to bring down the pH to a more neutral level so that he could grow the plants he wanted. Through trial and error, research and innovation, Monet worked and reworked his garden until he achieved his desired aesthetic. Even after 15 years he was still tweaking, changing and fussing about his design, as all gardeners tend to do.

    It could be said that Monet, in a way, painted with flowers by curating a garden with balance, symmetry, contrast, drama, and beauty. Though he is most famous for his Impressionist paintings, Monet himself regarded his gardens as his ultimate work of art. His style is now known by many as an 'impressionistic garden', and was regarded as an artwork in its own right as early as 1907—the year Marcel Proust described Monet's gardens as the ‘transposition of art’—and it continues to be seen as such today.