Read more about
Derek Fell

Derek Fell is the author of The Magic of Monet’s Garden (Firefly USA, Frances Lincoln, UK; and David Bateman, Australia/New Zealand). It is the most comprehensive of many books written on the subject. Fell’s wall calendar for the Monet Foundation is sold in the gift shop at Giverny and in bookstores worldwide. 


The Design Philosophy Behind
Monet's Water Garden
The Water Garden at Giverny became the
Artist’s Favorite Subject to Paint

by Derek Fell
 Click images to enlarge

Claude Monet (1840-1926) expressed the opinion that he was good for two things in life – painting and gardening. Today, his paintings fetch record prices at auction, and his restored 5 acre (2 hectare) garden at Giverny, France – an hour north of Paris by car – attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

The garden is composed of two equal parts – Monet’s flower garden immediately in front of his house, and his water garden on an adjoining property, today connected by an underground tunnel to avoid visitors crossing a busy highway that in Monet’s day was a railroad track. 

In his flower garden Monet created stunning color combinations using plants like paint. Although the layout is highly formal – mostly composed of long rectangular plant bands – by early summer the plants inside the borders start to spill out into the pathways to soften the effect.

The main purpose of these plant bands is to provide exaggerated lines of perspective, and create the impression that the paths disappear into infinity. This is especially true on mornings when a mist from the nearby River Seine pervades the garden and softens the quality of light. The long narrow paths draw the eye along them, and on a clear day extend the visual drama out into the surrounding countryside of trees and cloud formations. 

Monet’s water garden shows a totally different design aesthetic than the flower garden. The large circular pond mirror-smooth, the colors along its banks are more subdued. There is a greater emphasis on trees and shrubs to create texture, leaf contrasts and form. The trees and tall shrubs also help to create a sense of seclusion so that visitors tend to talk in whispers as though they are in a cathedral. A path encircles the pond, and the water draws the eye inwards for introspection.
There is an oriental aura from the use of weeping willows, an arched Japanese-style footbridge, and islands of waterlilies. In the oriental tradition of garden design, Monet’s water garden is a “cup garden”, the pond surface becoming the bottom of the cup and the pond-side plantings its sides. At intervals around the pond, the path opens out to create observation points so the water reflections and the waterlilies can be clearly admired. The high arched bridge itself provides a wonderful observation platform, allowing the entire length and width of the pond to be taken in at a glance. A concrete boat dock arched over by climbing roses provides another important observation platform. 


Although the inspiration for the water garden is Japanese garden design, Monet did not slavishly copy any particular Japanese garden. Rather, he created his idealized interpretation of a Japanese garden from reading magazine articles and speaking with his American neighbor and painter, Lila Cabot Perry.
He made the design more natural by avoiding traditional Japanese garden elements like bonsai’d trees, stone lanterns or tea houses. Rather, he relied on Japanese plants to create his interpretation of Japan. Not only do the weeping willows and the islands of waterlilies suggest Japan, but so also do colonies of bamboo, hosta, and Japanese coltsfoot with velvety heart-shaped leaves. Above all are Japanese tree peonies and canopies of wisteria – one canopy completely covering his arched bridge and another arching over a section of path so that when the petals drop they color the footpath blue.

The wisteria plays an important role in making the water reflections beautiful. Positioned close to the water’s edge, and elevated high above head level, the blue is reflected in the water, along with other pondside flowers, such as yellow European flag irises and blue Japanese water irises, both of which survive with their roots permanently submerged in shallow water. 


Other important flowering plants that occupy the water garden include the single white rose, ‘Nevada’, planted so its arching canes cascade into the water from the pond margin. Golden chain trees, European chestnuts, rhododendron, smoke trees, and American pillar climbing roses are strategically planted along the stroll path so that a walk around the pond is a visual adventure. 
Several inaccurate statements have been published about Monet’s water garden. It is not true, for example, that he disliked hybrids. Indeed, Monet’s water garden could not be so beautiful without them. All his waterlilies are hybrids – developed by the firm Latour-Marliac near Bordeaux.  

Bory Latour-Marliac, the founder, was an orchardist who turned from breeding plum varieties to breeding waterlilies about the time Monet acquired his Giverny property. By the time Monet was ready to plant his water garden, Latour-Marliac had developed forty varieties, cross-pollinating an American pink species with a yellow Mexican species and a European white species to expand the color range into orange and shades of red. 
Nor is it true that Monet disliked double flowers. Although most of his plantings are single flowered, he used many doubles, including double tree peonies, double dahlias on tall stems, and double waterlilies. He used lots of single flowered plants because when backlit the petals would glow like a Chinese lantern, creating a glittering effect. But doubles are useful because they can produce an intensity of color more dramatic than singles. The color intensity coupled with the twinkling – or shimmering effect from the singles – made Monet’s garden look distinctive.  

An interesting aspect of the water garden is that Monet photographed it frequently in order to help him decide the best compositions for painting. He had a darkroom and he used a camera to make a series of panoramic views of his water reflections. These helped him create the best composition for the series of large waterlily panels that today occupy two rooms in the Orangerie Museum, Paris. An archive photograph exists showing Monet’s reflection on the surface of his pond as he clicked the camera’s shutter.

Invoices between Latour-Marliac and Monet show that Monet always purchased in lots of three for testing, and if the plants pleased him he would then buy more. Varieties of waterlilies he purchased that are widely available today include ‘Marliacea Chromatella’ (a yellow), ‘James Brydon’ (a rosy red), ‘Caroliniana’ (a pale pink) and ‘Comanche’ (an orange). These are all hardy waterlilies, blooming from June through September. Monet tried tropicals, but found his water temperature too chilly for them. He did, however, grow tropicals in a metal tub in a heated greenhouse. At Temple-sur-Lot, in the Dordogne, water gardeners can visit the Latour-Marliac nursery and purchase plants for delivery by mail, as Monet did. 

Towards the end of his life Monet’s water garden became his only subject to paint. At first he delighted in painting overall views, many of them featuring his Japanese bridge, but later he painted the water surface with no horizon line visible. This makes the paintings of his waterlilies more mysterious, and causes the viewer to study the motif carefully to understand what it represents.

Monet declared his water garden his greatest work of art, and he delighted in conducting visitors around like the emperors of Imperial Japan when they entertained important dignitaries. He was also visited by numerous journalists who captured his thoughts as they toured his garden, and took photographs so that today we have an accurate record of what the water garden looked like at its peak of perfection, and why he designed it the way he did, as a cup garden and a subject to paint in all seasons and under all lighting conditions.

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