For Monet, Giverny was a site for poor eyes

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Report on a lecture entitled A Site for Sight: Monet in His Garden at Giverny, and given by Michael Marrinan, associate professor of art and art history, during a talk on 3/13/01 in the auditorium of the Cantor Center for Visual Arts as part of the Department of Art and Art History's Faculty Talks series. Courtesy of John Sanford, writer, News Service of Stanford University.

The boat on the lily pond at Giverny, photo Anne Chrysotème
Every morning, a gardener would boat around the pond next to Claude Monet's house in Giverny, meticulously cleaning water lilies that had collected soot from passing trains. The master insisted that, when he got out in his boat in the morning, the water lilies would be pristine.

Monet moved to Giverny, a village along the Seine about 46 miles to the west of Paris, in 1883. Here, he designed a pond, redesigned much of the garden and, most famously, created those paintings of water lilies, flower beds and the Japanese footbridge.

However, many of these later works do not fit the classic definition of Impressionism. Monet's technique underwent an enormous change while at Giverny.

Impressionism, a style of painting that originated in France in the 1870s, is characterized by small brush strokes aimed at reproducing reflected light and, more important, the artist's visual "impression" of an immediate scene (usually outdoors). Monet is considered one of the founders of the style.

But at Giverny, Monet's work increasingly begins to reflect his memory and emotions, rather than an impression of a transitory scene. Monet's painting style also became more "physical": The minute brushstrokes of his earlier work give way to broader brushstrokes. If the 1870s were about wrist movements ..., the 1920s were about body gestures.

Along with the more "physical" motion of the brush, Monet's canvases grew larger, requiring more physical movement on the part of the viewer. Monet created the Grandes Décorations (1918-1926) - sweeping, large-scale paintings of light and images reflected in his lily pond - on panels more than 6 feet high and 9 feet wide. The paintings were intended to surround viewers, who would have to walk around a gallery to look at them.

"Nymphéas", circ.1920 (detail) Musée Marmottan, Paris

"Le Jardin de Monet, les iris" Claude MONET (1900) Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Monet felt more liberated to experiment with technique ­ to use larger canvases and rely less on constantly checking a motif ­ because, in his garden, he could control nature. Here, a motif was not the result of an accident but, rather, the result of deliberate organization: Monet designed the flower beds and coordinated the colors. When a white lily petal was soiled by soot, it was wiped clean.

The garden was planted in light of paintings not yet painted, and paintings took on a kind of audacity in light of the fact that they were responding to a garden that had already been organized. So you get this kind of reciprocal relationship between gardening and painting. Monet ranged more widely with his technical experimentation than when he was facing the chaos of what we may call raw nature. In this way, the garden was more than a subject, but it was a site ­ a site for a specific way of seeing and, finally, a specific way of painting.

Let us compare Monet's "Boulevard des Capucines" (1873), a classic Impressionist work, to one of the 1908 water-lily paintings.

The 1873 work depicts a street scene from above. Men leaning over a balcony in the right-hand side of the painting have roughly the same view of the scene as we do.

In this work, Monet packed the information of a transitory moment into the frame. The painting also depicts a specific place.

"Carnaval, Boulevard des Capucines à Paris"
Claude Monet. (1873) Pouchkine Museum, Moscow 

"Nympheas" (detail) Claude Monet  (1908) Private collection The water lilies, on the other hand, offer no such set of geographical coordinates; they are more dreamlike - less reflective of a specific place and point of view. Indeed, it is doubtful that Monet was checking his motifs very often while engaged in some of his later works at Giverny.

For Monet, the garden was a living still life that freed him to plumb the depths of his memory and emotions, rather than simply record his "impression" of a scene.

In the same way, the series of hut-shaped haystacks Monet painted between 1890 and 1891 were, by roughly the same definition, still lifes. The hay would remain in the same form day after day. Here, we find Monet daring to experiment with color and technique in new ways.

Monet no longer feels that he has to pack the image with perceptual data so as to maximize the effect of our 'instant of recognition. A new kind of duration develops in these pictures over a series of canvases. Memory, rethinking, double-backing and moving through space all become part of the act of seeing. Similarly, when working on the series of paintings of the Rouen cathedral between 1892 and 1894, Monet could improvise with his painting technique, using as his motif the unchanging façade of the church.

"La maison vue du jardin aux roses" Claude Monet (1922-1924)
Musée Marmottan, Paris
In 1912, Monet was diagnosed with a cataract in his right eye. Eventually, cataracts affected both eyes. The painter's failing vision pushed him even more in the direction of depicting memory and emotion.

Monet's later paintings of the weeping willow, the wisteria and the Japanese footbridge, among other denizens of his garden, should not be considered geographical landmarks. Rather, they reflect the complex of sensations and memories left over - what we take away --when we visit the garden.

Many of these later paintings verge on the abstract, with colors bleeding into each other and a lack of rational shape and perspective. For example, "The House Seen from the Rose Garden, 1922-1924," is an explosion of orange, yellow and red hues, but leaves the reader barely able to discern the vague shape of the house in the background.Monet's diminished sight opened up a new vista for his art, one in which memory and the unseen play a more important role than the perceptions of direct experience.

In a certain sense, we must learn to see these last pictures of his garden at Giverny not as increasingly confused by his inability to see clearly, but as pictures in which Monet's memory traces of the site he had planted and tended and lived with so long - the paths, the plants and the waterways of his garden - came to replace the ever more fragile images of his failing eye.

Report by John Sanford, lecture by Michael Marrinan. Stanford University

See also :

A visit to Claude Monet's garden
List of plants and flowers of Claude Monet's garden
Flowering calendar in Claude Monet's garden
Claude Monet's garden in Autumn
Map of Claude Monet's garden (91Kb)
Aerial View of Claude Monet's garden (78 Kb)
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