The canvas garden

The specialty of French designed gardens,Jardin à la française,is their demonstration of man’s mastery over nature.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published: September 8, 2013 3:05:37 am

When people plan on buying a piece of land,it’s normally to make a country house,plant an orchard or grow some crops. Have you heard of a painter who invested in land to grow his imagination for his painting canvas? A hundred and thirty years ago this French artist,looking out of a running train’s window on a journey across Normandy County,west of Paris,identified Giverny as the place for an incredible paradisiacal garden for all time. If you go there,you will never forget his exquisite arrangement of nature’s colours.

Control over nature: Unstructured is how this garden was considered compared to typical French formal geometric gardens that started from the 16th century. The specialty of French designed gardens,Jardin à la française,is their demonstration of man’s mastery over nature. All plants are constrained and directed,clipped and stylised symmetrically to impose order over vegetation. Emperor Louis XIV had a landscape architect called André Le Nôtre who designed the grand Gardens of Versailles in the 17th century. It was inspired by 16th-century Italian Renaissance gardens characterised by laying out patterns at different levels,with fountains,cascades and sculptures animating the garden on mythological themes. It sought to represent the Renaissance ideals of harmony and order.

Several new technologies were developed for these stupendous gardens. There was géoplastie,the science of moving large amounts of earth,hydrology for bringing water to irrigate plants and activate fountains,and hydroplasie,the art and science of shaping fountain water to erupt in different shapes. Similar effects were used in fireworks to control fire. Fountains and fireworks were accompanied by music in a design that displayed how the will of man could shape nature. French garden designers considered their work a branch of artistic architecture. They constructed the space outside walls of buildings according to the rules of geometry,optics and perspective. Architecture’s dominant role in the garden remained until the English garden concept arrived in Europe in the 18th century. That’s when gardens were inspired not from architecture but from romantic painting.

Village made famous by an artist: The artist who zeroed in on Giverny was so in love with nature that he wanted control over the painting of nature. Normally the painter’s palette has mixed in it the painter’s perspective or imagination of the universe,nature and everything else the mind thinks up when a brush of colours touches a canvas. But this painter was of an exceptionally different breed. On visiting the Louvre,he’d see painters copy from the old masters,but he would instead sit by a window to paint what he saw,with the paints and tools that always accompanied him. At the end of the 19th century,when the European artistic society went through a mutation between classic and neo idealism in art,he broke all norms and trends. He settled himself to create an incredible garden,and painted multiple large,panoramic canvases which are the symbols of the genesis of Impressionism.

This was Claude Monet,founder of French Impressionist painting and culture. The Impressionist art movement was derived from his painting called ‘Impression,Sunrise (Impression,soleil levant)’. Monet best expressed the philosophy of Impressionism with his hundreds of landscape paintings. From 1887 onwards,his presence in Giverny attracted several American artists to settle in this small village. Archaeological finds of this settlement date from Gallo-Roman times,even earlier to 1st and 2nd centuries AD. In 1789,Giverny’s population was 450; by 2008 it had increased to just 550. But the American artists,inspired by Monet’s work,lived and worked in Giverny up to World War I. In fact Madison Gallery in New York held an exhibition called ‘The Giverny Group’ of six American Giverny artists,Frederick Frieseke,Richard Miller,Lawton Parker,Guy Rose,Edmund Greacen and Karl Andersonlike. American painter Theodore Earl Butler even married Monet’s stepdaughter Suzanne Hoschedé in 1892. Prolific American practitioners of Impressionism in the Giverny art colony included Willard Metcalf,Louis Ritter,Theodore Wendel,and John Leslie Breck among others.

It’s the American connection of Monet’s Giverny that has been a boon to the Monet Foundation. His son left Claude Monet’s Giverny property to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1966. Several American donors have contributed to keep Monet’s home and gardens an exceptional living place where over 400,000 visitors come every year from around the world. Monet lived and painted in Giverny till his death in 1926,although he travelled outside for long spells of painting. He is interred in the village cemetery.

Visiting the infinite space he has created,you feel like you are walking on the canvas of the master of Impressionism. His passion for gardening,colour and art made him personally design compositions of flowers and water lilies to arouse his creative instincts.

My pilgrimage to Monet in Giverny started in the early 1980s. I’ve found this floral masterpiece interspersed with large trees like weeping willows and poplars,Japanese bridges to be truly inspirational. Last June when I asked my Parisienne friend and colleague Jose and his wife Christiane to join us for a weekend Giverny visit,he hesitatingly admitted his guilt; being an artist and Monet admirer,he had never gone there. With great enthusiasm he accepted my invitation,saying it would be better to enjoy Giverny with an Indian-origin French artist to get a perspective different from the French.

From the non-descript exteriors of the pink brick building in Giverny you can never imagine a magnificent garden museum inside,especially in non-season winter. Now in summer,there was an hour long queue of visitors to enter through a very small door to enjoy this hallucinating garden,the living home of a genius.

To forever carry away a flavour of Monet’s Giverny,we bought flower seeds at the museum store there. They are germinating and will soon give us the fragrance of Monet’s art in our garden in India.

Shombit Sengupta is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (www.shiningconsulting.


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