Tag Archive: History

The garden paradox, part I


By Matilda Browne (1869 – 1947) (Peonies) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From outside the garden world, we don’t think of gardeners as inscrutable, enigmatic, dark.  We see them as gentle, methodical souls that nurture nature and animals: artistic, ethereal people imbued with magical knowledge of flora and soil.


You might take a gardening class or two, read books, sign up for plant and seed catalogues. It’s different if you get drawn into gardening.  You tumble down the proverbial rabbit hole and find yourself in a magical land for sometimes unexpected reasons. And you find yourself in some puzzling company.


Claude Monet was anything but a mild-mannered person. He led an unconventional life at home and in his pioneering art. Autoportet Claude Monet, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You can trespass on the tribute to the loftiest of gardeners, now a ghostly presence in parlors and paths. Claude Monet, the father of Impressionist art, shaped a farmhouse and rough ground into a work of art in Giverny, France.  Monet’s last residence is nestled in the Normandy region, where he would have painted and tended garden through the worst of the 1918 influenza pandemic and World War I.



Modification of Smithsonian map, (November_stay_2018update)

Monet purchased the farmhouse and a hectare of land in 1890, about 20 years after he first became interested in gardening. He had been devastated by the loss of his wife, Camille, who had died a decade before, and he had entered an unconventional communal living relationship with the Hoschedè family.  He would eventually marry Alice Hoschedè when her husband Ernest died and become father to her six children. Blanche Hoschedè accompanied Monet on painting trips, married Monet’s son, and cared for the house until her death in 1941.


When Claude Monet moved in with his extended family, he set about creating studio spaces and transforming the garden.


Monet and hired hands labored for years to create a scene shimmering with color in the Clos Normand. Monet laid out a plan for beds, trellises, and paths. Hundreds of bags filled with compost and mulch arrived to enrich the chalky ground. Sacks of seeds spread across beds transformed into carefully designed color clusters throughout the seasons. Tulips, all the rage at the time, dominated during my visit in April.

Monet005Monet purchased land across the road and created an engineered pond that artists and architects marvel at today.  He worked with the local authorities on permission to divert a tributary of the Epte River, and then excavated a pond to hold it.  Over the years, he created a bamboo-filled island, winding paths, and installed a bridge, and spread cultivated water lilies across the surface.  Monet described the ethereal result in paintings still beloved today.

Monet003Monet’s artistic efforts extended to the house, where vibrantly colored rooms housed collections of Japanese prints, Monet’s art, and art by friends of his.  The shimmering yellow dining room hosted his extended family for meals. The Blue Salon housed his cherished Japanese prints, inspiration for his own art.

The man who shaped this place would not be remembered as gentle and uncomplicated. No polite, meek person pioneers a new art form in defiance of rigid tradition.  Monet was described as moody, prone to rages when his art did not meet his standards or vision.

1024px-Claude_Monet_-_Water_Lilies_and_Japanese_BridgeThe garden became a place where he could exorcise bad moods and dispel dark clouds.  While he endured dark moods and raging self-doubt, the family would tiptoe around the house and eat silently. When Monet returned to garden work, everyone knew the dark period would lift.

In the end, Monet’s home and studio became a place where he could retreat from the chaos and terror of the world outside.  He died in 1926, leaving the home to his family.  Blanche stayed in the home, which then went to Michel Monet.  Michel left the home and gardens to the Acadèmie des Beaux Arts in 1966.


Ultimately, the panchromatic home and garden fell to neglect and rough grass until Gèrald Van der Kemp, famed for restoring Versailles, became involved.  Van der Kemp returned from retirement at the invitation of the Acadèmie des Beaux Arts, raised the funds and delved through photographs, letters, and accounts to recreate a version of the original home and garden. Hugues Gall, Director of the Fondation Claude-Monet, has carried on this work since 2008.


Image from Google Earth, gardens in upper half and pond in lower half.  Funding helped build a tunnel beneath the road to access the pond area.

Over 600,000 people a year visit these gardens, some wearing finery hoping for a lovely portrait among the seasonally changing palette.  They move quietly through the house, speaking in hushed tones about the Rouen tiles in the kitchen, and the vibrant colors and character of each room. They pose for photos on the restored bridge over the pond with its quintessential waterlilies.


61QH3ktR7eL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_How many of those people mistakenly see the ghostly gardener as a gentle, quiet man is not clear. The Acadèmie in its literature makes it clear that this garden is a work of art created by the hands of a haunted man who lived through historic times.

Monet exemplifies the gardener as an artist hand-making a sanctuary to salve a tortured soul.  He would not be the only gardener of this kind. Many of us manufacture a natural space as respite from the hard-edged man-made world of towns and cities, and the hard-eyed look of overworked people around us every day. That profusion of color and texture can be a flowering chapel in times of grief.

In our personal gardens, we are not always nurturing nature, but sometimes, ourselves.



As I kid I lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, along Marine View Drive.  Wealth didn’t afford us a view of Lake Michigan living across the street from Margate Park. No, our benefactor was a lawsuit-driven housing equity program for low-income families.

The neighborhood was much different then than now.  The Skid Row of Argyle Street was slowly being transformed by Asian immigrants opening stores. Shop owners emerged every morning with brooms to perform a daily  ritual of sweeping up garbage around sleeping drunks. Walking to school involved crossing Sheridan Road to avoid the stench of stale alcohol and the lurking men at the strip club. As kids, we stopped at the Jewish deli  to fish crunchy, cool dill pickles from a big barrel. There was a butcher shop with meat hanging in the window.

Away from the parks and beaches, a potpourri of skin colors and languages flourished in apartment buildings small and large.  I didn’t speak the language of the Hispanic family receiving a ceremonial suckling pig on holidays, neatly tucked on its back in a cardboard box delivered to their door.  I didn’t share the religion of the Irish family who seemed to grow despite hosting intermittent, boisterous wakes. The quiet Chinese family who walked my classmate Kathy back and forth to school was more polite and reserved than my big, rugged family could ever pretend to be.

What we did have in common was school.  We all trudged to John T. McCutcheon Elementary School every morning and learned to write in cursive, speak proper grammatical English, perform basic math functions, study geography and history.

Decades later, as I stand in the restored Prairie Union Schoolhouse at American Prairie Reserve, the view is so familiar in a place so faraway that I find myself tumbling back to my youth. It doesn’t seem likely that I would have something in common with a child sitting at a desk in a one-room schoolhouse in what would have been outer space to me back then.  prairieschoolclassroom

American Prairie Reserve’s restoration of the Prairie Union School includes an audio interpreter.  It’s a little jarring to press a button and hear a human voice over a speaker when you’re in the middle of what you hope is nowhere.  But the narrative, the objects in the room, and the view tell a compelling story that is more relevant today than ever.  As I listened to the narrator, I looked at the prairie expanding away from the window like a growing universe.  I glanced back at the map of Asia, wondering what a ranch kid felt like looking at the exotic planet beyond view.

prairieschoolmapWhen you live in the inner city of a massive city and your family is poor, the schoolroom is a place that will make or break your future. You have no more access to services and benefits of the developed world than a ranch kid living 100 miles from a town. You have no wealth, power or authority behind you. Your only hope for any kind of future is to get a good education and move upward and out.  Like any ranch kid, you have to be able to gaze out the window and dream of a different place to keep studying. You have to learn to walk a gauntlet to school- maybe it’s prairie weather and rattlesnakes, or maybe social problems and crime that plague cities.


Today, this schoolroom looks quaint, a well-restored photo opp if you’re a hurried and thoughtless tourist looking to populate social media pages.  Stay for awhile, though.  Think about your life past and present.  Listen to the story the building and objects and view are telling you.    Think about the state and role of education today in our electronically-entangled world.  And know that now, as then, to kids all over the planet, education means everything to our future.

The best kind of graffitti- temporary and beautiful.  This signature includes what I believe is balsamroot flower.  



My prairie selfie:  Looking outward to a world as far away to a ranch kid as it is to an inner city kid.