Too beautiful for words

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Monet's numerous paintings remain the greatest expression ofhis Giverny waterlily garden's glories, observes Kevin Berry.

The word "cute" can be overheard often enough to be irritating, and there are always formidable crowds, but Claude Monet's garden at Giverny is a "must see", a life-enhancing experience.

The hordes of teenagers from California and the retired couples from Illinois might be over-using their favourite adjective but Monet's garden does leave people groping for suitable words. This is where modern painting began and familiar views from some of the greatest impressionist paintings are there in front of you.

Giverny is a good two-hour drive out of Paris and the gardens need at least half a day to explore. Time should also be allowed to walk down the nearby poplar-lined lanes and wander the banks of the Seine. The views and impressions are sure to be memorable.

Guide sheets are available, in French, but GCSE students should be able to use them without too much brow-furrowing. The people who take bookings would appreciate a minimum six months' warning of a group visit and the advice, given with much Gallic head-shaking, is to avoid June when there are probably more French schoolchildren there than flowers. You can hire a guide, but they talk and move too quickly. A gentle pace is necessary to take everything in.

The light at Giverny is intriguing, strong without too much glare, making flowers even more radiant and teasing out an astonishing array of tones as the sun moves across an unblemished sky. Monet often had several canvases on the go at any one time, waiting for the right moment to catch the qualities and sensations he was looking for. He was a painter of light and air, as his friend and former French prime minister Clemenceau said.

Monet's gardens are magnificent, pleasing for plant enthusiasts and even more so for the artist. Rich and delicate colours blend almost unnoticed, and are soothing and pleasing to the eye. There is not the fastidious, clipped order of an English garden but trees somehow seem to have been set in just the right place, bushes have an appropriate shape, a sudden burst of flowers looks perfect, rampant growth seems to have an artistic order.

Turn in any direction and you see a view that cries out for a paintbrush or a camera or a writer's skills. The water garden, with its canopied trees casting shadows, looks wonderfully natural. The gardens were Monet's studio, as Clemenceau once observed, for he did paint outside. He would often sit for hours looking at a particular corner, weighing up the possibilities and pondering over how and when to start.

The curved Japanese bridge and the gorgeous water lilies are prominent attractions, and deservedly so, but there is enough to surprise and delight anyone walking at a gentle pace and looking carefully. Reflections in the water are rewarding. Even the wheelbarrows and stacks of plant pots can inspire.

Monet's house is equally stunning, a soothing pink surface with shutters, steps and doors painted in a distinct solid green. The same green is used around the garden for seating and ornaments. Inside the house, much of Monet's original furniture and ornaments have been restored and some correct period pieces introduced to give a "just as it was" look and every room has its own special charm and interest.

The kitchen, the epicentre of the house, is typical of a large Normandy house but quite unlike any other I have seen. A recurring theme throughout the building is Monet's vast collection of choice Japanese engravings, filling many rooms on the second floor.

Pictures of Monet dominate, very much the patron of the house surrounded by umpteen relatives and hangers-on, rather like Tolstoy. The force of his personality and fame sets him apart and his sons and daughters must have had a miserable time trying to escape from his shadow. When black moods struck him they had to walk around on eggshells. There are similarities with Henry VIII. Monet had the vast bulk and a bristling beard, but inspect the furniture or trees around him and he is no taller than Captain Mainwearing.

He loved wine, loathed drinking water almost as much as W C Fields, enjoyed good food and got through 40 cigarettes a day.

Visiting Giverny will give a greater understanding of Monet the artist. Seeing the views that an exceptional artist painted is well worth the trip. However did he get such a garden started? There is a lovely quote from Clemenceau: "There is no longer any need to know how he created his garden. It followed the successive order of his eyes' commands, according to each day's invitations, to satisfy his appetite for colours."

Details: Monet's garden is at Giverny, about half way between Paris and Rouen. Booking is essential. Tel: 00 33 16 32 51 28 21

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