I’ve visited Giverny several times, but since it was a beautiful day, and I was in my mellow French state, I decided to join her. Also, I could hang somewhere near the Nymphéas (perhaps next to the bridge) and write with the sun in my face while Helen did her thing.
So we bought some saucisson and fromage from a Paris marché (translation: sausage and cheese from an outdoor market), Helen packed her watercolors and paper, I took my journal and pens (and some ink cartridges just in case), along with three of the books that I might get to in the garden (depending on the mood), and we caught an early morning train to Vernon.
The train leaves from the Gare St.-Lazare, which still looks much like the 1877 Monet painting. Smoke no longer blocks part of the view, and there appears to be a part of a building out the back that might not have been there in the nineteenth century, but it still is recognizable. It feels….well, right – that’s it – just…right……to sit at small tables in that particular train station as we drink tiny cups of coffee and wait for our quai to be posted on the wall schedules.
Forty five minutes after the train pulled out of the gare, we arrived in Vernon, and less than ten minutes after that we were on the bus heading out of town and down the country roads towards the village of Giverny.
The start of a day here feels very much as though you’re on a tour with a bunch of midwestern middle-aged couples. Though the bus is the local public vehicle, it’s primarily filled with American tourists and a couple of locals. The bus stops in a parking lot that I guess at one time was just across the road from the main part of town. Now, you are directed down an incline, through a tunnel and around an underground circle that ends up beneath the road–very much like the entrance to an amusement park ride.
Then you walk down one street, turn right down another, and you’re in front of the entrance to a small building through which you enter the garden and Monsieur Monet’s house. I believe this long and narrow building was once a studio; now it houses the cashier and gift shop.
The first bus arrives just in time to make sure that you wait in line about 30 minutes before the doors open. You can purchase one or two tickets: one gets you into the garden, the other into the house. You can exit and enter the garden any number of times (and go through yet another tunnel, under a busy country road dividing the house/garden from the lily pond and bridge) as many times as you want, but once you exit the house, there‘s no re-entry.
The house is a wonderful country home done in rich, deep yellows and blues, dark woods. Oriental art (Monet was a collector) is displayed throughout the house, especially the fine Japanese wood-block prints loved by the Impressionists. Reproductions of Monet’s canvasses hang in his workroom in much the way that he usually displayed the real thing (this you can see from one of the many photos). The kitchen looks as though he is about to come in and sit down at the long table for a meal. Pleasantly cluttered, its every surface is covered with family photos and other personal paraphernalia.
After a few minutes, I left the house, since I’d been there before, and it was crowded with visitors. I wandered back into the gift shop for a bit and found an absolutely wonderful book–a biography of Claude Monet written by Georges Clemenceau. Yes, France’s WWI prime minister. These two old guys were very, very close, and hung together on a regular basis, with Monsieur Clemenceau apparently there much of the time during the last years of Monet’s life.
The book is seemingly not available in English, but it’s so wonderful, full of photos and personal recollections of the author about the man behind the paintings, that, with my dictionary, some food and a bottle of water, I spent two hours sitting on a bench right near the bridge. In full view of the spot under a big tree where Monsieur Monet himself stood in one of the photos, I read about the man and his art and his philosophy, and his fear of having lost it when his eyesight faded in his last years.
Then I opened the book to the photo, set it on the bench, and wrote in my journal.
Another photo in the book (all are in black and white, of course, considering it was written in 1928): Claude Monet in full white beard, suit with vest, open jacket, and trench coat, stands on the bridge turned to the right but with his head (topped with a dark fisherman’s hat, the brim turned down) towards the camera. Behind him, in a dapper black or navy blue vested suit and a white shirt, shiny dark boots, and a similar hat on top of his white moustached face, stands Monsiur Clemenceau, leaning on a cane. His body is turned exactly like his friend’s, and his face is also angled towards the camera. Both below and above them, the foliage is so lush that there is no view of the water at all.
An example of some verbiage from the book: Monet asks his friend to look at one of his last works and asks whether it is better or worse than the others. Clemenceau responds that Monet is so perfect a painter that he can achieve masterpieces (and indeed, has achieved) even with his eyes “desaccordes” (“out of tune,” according to the dictionary). Monet responds that it is an accident. Clemenceau reassures him that it is an accident that the unhappy Turner had not known. In other words, even Monet’s accidents are better than Turner’s on-purposes.
Finally, Monet sighs and responds that it’s finished. He’s blind, he has no longer any reason to live, his efforts were only by chance or luck better than his real power, and he instructs his old friend that not one more of his canvasses is to ever see the light of day until he is dead, at which time he is giving them to his country and will leave them to its judgement.
This is the kind of thing that makes the book such a rich emotional experience for me. It’s filled with these kinds of anecdotes and quotes – very personal insights into the man from his close companion who, after Monet’s death, personally inaugurated the room called the “Salle des Nymphéas” in the Orangerie museum. In this gallery at the edge of the Tuileries gardens are the walls on which, in one lower round room, the final paintings of the nymphéas were “permanently” affixed per his instructions. Unfortunately, the paintings were removed a few years ago and are not scheduled to be restored to their original location for another year or so. There is a photo of the presentation in the book, taken on May 16, 1927.
So, there I was, sitting on Monet’s bench, a few feet from the Japanese Bridge, looking at his photos and reading such personal stuff about him. The experience was more filling than the food – in fact, after a couple of pieces of cheese and some olives, I forgot to eat. It was just chilly enough that the heat from what had become a high and very warm sun was perfect, and the breeze wafted the scents of the flowers and trees, newly resurrected spring grass and lily-covered pond towards me.
Later, we walked through the village, spent some time at the American Museum of Art connected to the gardens by another tunnel, and had some wine in the outside cafe connected to a wonderful old hotel with a garden around the back, and the work-room where the first of the impressionist artists to arrive in Giverny had done their paintings. A wonderful, long day.
We arrived back in Paris early evening, in time for dinner at a restaurant on a quiet street that I’d walked by and around a hundred of times and never knew was there. More about that in another installment.
Now, here’s the piece from a couple of years ago:
(A Prose Poem in Honor of Color and Light)
I don’t know whether he actually painted there. He probably didn’t. But historical facts are irrelevant here.
The forest, fields, and lakes of the Bois sit on the western edge of Paris and just to the west of the sumptuous chateau now known as the Musée Marmotten Claude Monet. This is the first time I have visited either.
There is something more at this “Monet Museum” than the paintings donated by his son’s estate. It is Claude himself, looking out at me from an almost life-size photograph on the wall. His crew-cut hair is white and he wears a dark suit and vest over a white shirt almost obscured by his beard.
And there is one more thing here. His Pallette.
Yes, there on the wall, hardened but still vivid, are gobs of paint squeezed by Monsieur Monet onto the circular board.
I return the gaze from his dark eyes surrounded with little laugh crinkles, and know that the humor would be of the charming, story-telling variety, not belly laughs. He seems more open and vulnerable than in other photographic or artistic appearances. Maybe because the usually gigantic Father Christmas beard is flecked with grey and much shorter here, the mustache is almost completely black, and his broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses have been left behind so that his head, eyes and brows are not hidden or in shadow. They are open to the light. Perhaps that is also why his spirit has chosen to appear to me in this place.
Much as I feel the presence of Van Gogh when I stand close to his work and see the huge, thick, manic strokes of his brush, this combination of Monet’s eyes on one wall and the palpable evidence of his hands on the other – and…. to me, he is there. A wonderful unexpected companion for this light-filled fall day in Paris.
He follows me when I walk into the next room.
I sit facing the wall, on a bench in the middle of the main downstairs room of the Musée, and imagine the large canvas across from me to be a portal through which I can will myself into the dark but sun-specked coolness of its pond and float around on my back among the lilies, eyes closed, feeling the warmth on my cheek and the light through my eyelids. As I kick my feet slowly and my head bumps against the shore, I hear the crackling of dry leaves. There he is, standing on the lake edge, smiling at me and into his reflection.
I twist to face the opposite wall, and the haunting shadow of the London tower rises grandly from a river glowing with the russet of a setting sun. I stroll along the Thames, and he walks between me and the water. He closes my top coat button and raises my collar to ward off some of the evening dampness.
On yet another side of the room is that wonderful bridge from which I have looked down at the descendants of his lilies, in his garden at Giverny. Only this time, he stands there with me, describing the colors that he will use to paint them next. Together, we wander through the garden and up to the house to sit and have a glass of wine in the yellow and blue kitchen.
I assume he will remain behind when I leave the building, but the feeling intensifies when I walk from the museum across into the Bois de Bologne.
There, crunching my toes through the yellow leaves, and smelling the crisp air, still warm but with a slight hint of winter nipping at the edge, I again feel him walking beside me. All of my senses seem heightened. Colors shimmer and glisten, wispy trails of white sail through the azure air above, and textures are enhanced by the radiating light that plays on the surfaces of the trees and the mottled dirt trails under our feet. He laughs at my surprise – he knew this world was here all along.
I stroll down one of the paths in the wooded park to the edge of a long, undulating lake. Little sparkles of sunlight are spattered on the moving water, and on the hair and oar tips of rowers as they glide by, pulling their oars in and out of the water with silent splashes.
Across the lake a restaurant spreads out around a patio facing the water. I pay ten francs, float across on the little ferry, and ask for a table close to the water – one of the few still in sunlight. A glass of red wine and the sun in my face momentarily chase away some of the late afternoon chill, and I notice the panoply of color in the trees clustered together along the opposite shore.
They stand side by side in the descending late afternoon sun, preening in the warmth, toes pushed into the grass and bony arms raised to fluff their rainbow hair. Both Claude and the sun smile down on them from a shimmering blue sky.
Like the disembodied hand that drips color from a huge brush to paint the first frames of a Disney cartoon, my friend Monet stands just out of view behind one of the few clouds floating above me, holding a ten storey brush with colors splattered on its black wood handle. From its bristles, he drops bright pieces of sunlight to glitter on the lake’s surface and glow on the leafy heads of those lovely ladies.
My perception of reality may be affected by the red wine, or the heat of the waning sun, or just the glow from still being in Paris.
But as I descend from the ferry to leave the Bois, he stands on the shore, now wearing his white broad-brimmed hat and balancing on a cane. He tips the hat, and slightly bows his head to say adieu, and I tell him I’ll be back. But first, I intend to visit him in his gardens at Giverny. I hope that he will be there, too.
A bientot, Monsieur.
Michele Kurlander is a 59-year-old Chicago corporate lawyer, writer, small business and womens issues advocate, and mother of three grown children. She fell in love with France and all things French many years ago and travels back to France at least once each year (sometime two and three times), whenever her addiction overwhelms her and she can find a discount airfare.