Read more about
Derek Fell is the author of The
Magic of Monets Garden (Firefly USA, Frances Lincoln, UK;
and David Bateman, Australia/New Zealand). It is the most comprehensive
of many books written on the subject. Fells 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
Artists 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
The garden is composed of two equal parts Monets
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 Monets
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.
Monets 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, Monets 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 bonsaid 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 waters 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
Several inaccurate statements have been published about Monets
water garden. It is not true, for example, that he disliked hybrids.
Indeed, Monets 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 Monets garden look
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 Monets reflection
on the surface of his pond as he clicked the cameras 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 Monets 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.