I was 18 years old when I took my first art history class in Madison, Wisconsin. My professor, a painter named Adrienne Michel Sager, breathed life into stories about Gothic cathedrals, made me ache to walk the labyrinth at Chartres, and discussed the fine differences between Michelangelo and Donatello. But it was how animated she became while talking about the French Impressionist, Claude Monet, and his gardens at Giverny, that I’ll always remember the best.
“When I talk about his gardens,” she said, “things happen… The lights flicker.”
A few months later, Adrienne told us about how Monet settled his family 55 kilometers away from Paris, in Giverny, developed a hectacre of flower beds next to their home, and then, after buying more land in a neighboring property, dug a pond and set to work developing what I consider to be his tour de force: a garden inspired by the Japanese prints he collected and hanged in his house; the lovely space dedicated less to flowers than to the play of light and the ephemeral nature of the seasons.
As she talked, the row of florescent lights above her flickered- indeed, her passion and energy for her subject emanated into everything around her, and I really got a sense of the joy Monet must’ve felt as he painted his masterpieces in his gardens. In that moment, he became for me less an artist who’s estate had over-saturated the art world with his kitschified reproductions splayed over refrigerator magnets and calendars, than a man who- in straw hat, and toting gardner’s tools amid his paintbrushes- directed the energy of his last years towards the living things around him. I knew that someday- somehow- I needed to visit his gardens.
Because ‘waiting’ doesn’t seem to know the different between a year or a hundred years, and because I had a few pressing things to do before visiting Giverny (e.g., going to school; raising my child; supporting my family; starting a career), it took awhile… 18 years.
Last summer, I decided to take my daughter on a two-month trip to Europe. There were many places I wanted to visit, but I was careful not to fill too many of my kid’s days with visits to cathedrals and museums- after all- those are my interests, not hers. She prefers climbing mountains (as we’ve done in Switzerland, Iceland and in Peru), and having adventures on rivers, lakes and oceans. Besides, we would only be spending ten days in Paris, and, given the fact that I had already dragged the kid to the Louvre, Notre Dame, Saint Michel, Sacre-Coeur and the Pantheon, and having spent an entire day going to Versailles, it didn’t seem fair to force her to take a train to Giverny so that I could fulfill yet another of my romantic dreams.
See, the day before, I had forced my girl to visit the Sewage Museum. Bear with me, I had two very good reasons for doing this: 1.) I was writing a fiction book about a boy adventuring in tunnels beneath a city; and 2.) I had read Victor Hugo many times as a child, and couldn’t wrap my head around NOT seeing this stinky, disgusting place that had inspired the poignant scene in Les Miserables in which the main protagonist saves his daughter’s lover by dragging him through miles of Paris’ underground tunnels. (Yep, now you know a little about what my kid is up against… an insane mother who chases characters from literature into the sewage system.)
OK, and the day before that, I might’ve also dragged the kid on a treasure hunt (AKA super hot and boring multi-houred trek) through the city just to visit the Arenes de Lutece (which I had promised would be the MOST AMAZING ROMAN AMPHITHEATER EVER, but was, sadly, not quite what the kid had in mind).
“Anevay,” I finally thought to ask. “What would you like to do during our last couple of days in Paris?”
The kid cocked her head. “Well,” she answered. “I don’t really want to walk anywhere, see anything, smell sewage, get lost on the Metro, be forced to try to speak French to any more bakers or old people sitting on benches in parks, or pose for pictures along the Seine.”
I sighed. I supposed I had pushed her a bit. We had only been on the road for two weeks, and already, I had packed in as much as many parents might pack into an entire summer. A couple days of rest before heading to visit family in Switzerland might be nice.
As fate would have it, just as I was resigning myself to two days of relaxation, a recently-acquired Parisian friend of ours- Philippe- a guest who had stayed with us the previous month in our Brooklyn apartment (via AirBnB), sent me the following email:
“J’espere que tout va bien et que vous avez bon voyage! We should maybe go to visit Giverny this weekend…”
Does a cat have whiskers? Do rats have tails? Allons-y!
The next morning, I woke with a special feeling I usually reserve for lovers: excited, yet apprehensive. I was making projections about what Giverny might be like, mentally exploring it before I ever laid eyes on it. What if I was disappointed? There was only one way to find out.
Wonder of wonders, the next morning was sunny, which wouldn’t have been strange if it hadn’t been raining every other day of our visit to France. As we sped down the Highway A13, I made a silent prayer that the weather would hold. An hour later, we pulled off the highway into the town of Vernon, and, crossing a bridge over the Seine, arrived in the small village of Giverny.
You know those rare moments when everything is right in the world? When everything you’ve ever done coalesces into One. Perfect. Moment., and everything you’ve ever been manifests into the Perfect. You.? Well, if you have, then you’ll know how I felt as I walked through the Giverny, bought our admissions tickets, and entered Monet’s gardens.
Perhaps a more adequate description would be this: remember that second when Charlie walks into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory? How his jaw dropped? Well, this was like that, only better. Poppies, my friends, everywhere. Lilies and roses, too, and a thousand other species of flowers.
Around us walked other tourists, each in his or her own little world, silently, almost reverently, absorbing the gardens.
We made our way to the back of the garden, walked through a tunnel under train tracks and a road, and exited to the other side into yet another world. This garden- forested and lush- looked like Monet’s paintings. Or rather, his paintings look like the garden.
When I saw the weeping willow hanging over the pond, and the small, green foot-bridge, I confess to tearing up (see the photo at the top of this post to get an idea of what I’m talking about).
Oh! And the water lilies!
As anyone who has breathed on this planet knows, water lilies are synonymous with Monet. He single-handedly (at least, in Western culture) took them from being a humble pond flower to being one of the most recognizable flowers on the planet.
How many times had I stood with Anevay back in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art in front of Monet’s Water Lily paintings? Countless. At the time he was painting, Monet was doing something new- something inspired- instead of using black paint to convey shadows, he used COLORS. Using his powers of observation, he saw that there is no such thing as a black shadow- all objects, except for in pitch darkness, are bathed in light, and thus, everything that we see- every single thing- is light. Therefore, he will always be remembered by art historians for being the “Painter of Light.”
Around me, the world melted. It was a profound moment, and one that I can’t adequately describe in words. I can say that I imagined Monet sitting at that pond, examining everything around him at various times of the day, noticing how the play of light changed depending on whether it was early morning, noon or evening.
Adrienne might be happy to know that the lights, indeed, flickered, both metaphorically and physically.
Later in the day, we walked through the small town to visit Monet’s grave. As crazy as it might sound, I think he was there. Not the Monet that he must really have been, but the one that lit a fire under my ass for so many years- the one who made me paint and pore over old art history texts into the wee hours of morning. I kissed my fingers and put them to his gravestone.
Stars, thank you for aligning. Thank you, Gods, for not punishing me for dragging my kid around to an insane number of Parisian tourist haunts. Thank you, Philippe, for inviting us to go with you to Giverny, and thanks, Adrienne, for sharing your love of Monet with me. I will be forever moved by my visit to Giverny.
Want to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny? Have kids? No worries! Yhey’ll love it. The gardens have chicken, paths on which to run, a small, utterly French town to test out their mastery of the language, and welcoming restaurants and shops. They’ll love it as much as you do.
Once there, you pay 9,5 euros for adults; 5,0 for kids (free for kids under 7), and you’re in.
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