When I was a child, I was obsessed with Monet. I thought that his impressionist paintings were almost like the original optical illusion. I love the way it was a painting from far away, but up close it was a series of brush strokes and paint smears. When I was around 10 and we learned about Monet, I remember how badly I wanted to see one in person. I wanted to stand really close to his paintings and see gobs of paint plopped onto the canvas and then step back to reveal a gorgeous landscape. It’s silly, but to a 10-year old, that was pure magic.
My mother bought me a big book full of his work, but the first time I saw a Monet painting in person was on a field trip to the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville. To my surprise, they had one of his paintings of a church on a hillside with greens, yellow, and aquas. I was so impressed to be standing in front of one of these world famous paintings, yet disappointed. I wanted to see the water lilies. I wanted the gusty painting of the woman with a parasol in her white victorian dress and big hat… like a character from Swann’s Way. Still at 10, I remember the connection I had with this particular painting at the museum.
Since then, I still have to do a double take every time I see a Monet in a museum. At 12, my mother took me to the art institute in Chicago. It was there that I saw water lilies for the first time. They were huge and they took my breath away. I already knew they would be big though. I remember seeing a photo of an old Monet in his studio surrounded by paintings, like that Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come.
I recognize so many Monet paintings when I see them now. I’ve seen the Woman with a Parasol and Rouen Cathedral at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I’ve seen haystacks, the harbour at sunrise, and countless others. Although nothing is quite as recognizable as the water lilies.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, but I have an old edition of the book “Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die” which showcases 40 different destinations around the world. It’s one of my favorite travel books, and I find it much more achievable than its rival “1000 Places to See Before You Die.” I swear by this book. It has lead me to some of my favorite places like Jaisalmer, Yangshou, and Wat Phra Kaew. The only place in France to make the book is Giverny, Monet’s home and private garden.
In May of 2015, I had the opportunity to make a day trip to his garden in Giverny. It was one of those spring days that is chilly, but sunny. I think many people traveling to Paris wouldn’t think to take time out for this side trip, but I have to say that it was to beautiful to miss. I spent the morning roaming around the gardens and being surrounded by blooming flowers in clusters that were overwhelming. I felt as though I was seeing each color for the first time, and my eyes, nose, and camera lens had no idea which way to turn.
You enter the grounds at the back of his house, on the Rue Claude Monet. The Maison was perfectly provençal, with copper pots, and a color theme to each room. Yet I found the house to be quite confining, especially if the big windows would have been closed. The rooms themselves were like big gobs of color, overwhelmingly contrasting against each other, with hardly any space to move.
Yet, like one of his paintings, as you make your way out the front door, and onto the terrace that overlooks the gardens, you understand it. You feel as though you’ve stepped back… or out. Your no longer standing up close, surrounded by overwhelming color. You are now out, and amongst the landscape. Just as if you were in a museum looking at a Monet painting.
In the first garden, the shrubs and flowers are surprisingly untamed. They almost look as if they’re growing wild, yet in these perfect rows. You make your way through rows of flowers, in every color and variety, on little gravel paths. We walked through the rows of flowers and then under a passageway that takes you beneath the highway (which I can’t imagine was a highway when he lived there) and into the water garden. I was anxious to go, excited, yet drawing out my venture to the water garden. I wanted to see the Japanese moon bridge, the water lilies, the weeping willows. I came up from the passageway and walked along the narrow paths, almost sheepishly looking around like a child waiting for Santa. Then there it was, the pond, the moon bridge, and the blossoming water lilies.
At once I was in one of Monet’s paintings. I was seeing his muses all around me. It was a real wonder to see something tangible, alive, to know that someone else had seen the very same sight that your eyes were resting upon, and created a work of art that moved the entire world. It was humbling. Yet there was more to it than offered in the paintings. The colors more vibrant than I could have dreamed. The willow blowing in the wind, the creak of the bridge as you walked across it, the shadows of the canopied vines. It was breathtaking. And there were ducks! I was grateful for that experience, really. I was happy to not only have a favorite artist, to see some of his beautiful paintings, but also to see a sliver of his life that brought some of the greatest works of art from mind to canvass.
If you have a half day in Paris, I suggest you make the trip to Giverny. Take your mother. Take your grandmother. Take your children. Drink some wine, pack a picnic. It’s worth the trip.