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.