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By the time Claude Monet died in 1926, the 86-year-old painter had spent almost half his life in a charming village some 45 miles from Paris. He had three large studios there. And in those studios, Monet painted his final great works.

In the last of her series on Impressionism in Normandy, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg takes us to Monet's house, and more importantly, to his gardens.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Walking now, on the road just outside the place where Claude Monet lived, worked, created his extraordinary garden and lily ponds.

By the time he moved here, Monet had lived in Le Havre, Paris, Etretat, Argenteuil, Veutheil. He moved around a lot - at night sometimes to avoid angry landlords - with him, his first wife, Camille and their two sons. He also took short trips, alone, to paint in various places.

Guide Brigitte Mueller says Monet was on a train in Normandy when he first spotted Giverny.

Ms. BRIGITTE MUELLER (Tour Guide): He looked out of the window and saw this charming village. So he just got off the train. Probably it was a hot day. He walked into the first pub and he sat down, had a big jug of cider, and talked to the local people. And someone said, oh, there is a farm on rent. It was just inherited by a carpenter - he didnt need it.

STAMBERG: Monet did. So he rented it in 1883. By then, his future wife, Alice, was running the household - quite a crowd with his two children and her six. Alice, by most accounts, was rather authoritarian. Claude, according to Lauren Eshobar of the Monet Foundation, was not.

Mr. LAUREN ESHOBAR (Monet Foundation): In fact, you know, he loves life. He loves eating. He loves women. He likes smoking.

STAMBERG: Forty cigarettes a day, loved fast cars, too. Big, hearty, disciplined Norman fellow, loving life and work.

In Giverny, devotedly, deliberately, in and around the house he would buy in 1890 - by then he was earning nicely, selling paintings to America - Monet created works of art that visitors, like Londoner Sara Whitham, can walk through today.

Ms. SARA WHITHAM: Well, his house is covered in ivy. I would say that was climbing ivy.

STAMBERG: But it's pink behind - pink paint.

Ms. WHITHAM: Yeah, kind of like a candy frost pink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Yeah.

Ms. WHITHAM: Would you say?

STAMBERG: Yeah. And those bright green windows. What a combination. You wouldnt expect it.

Ms. WHITHAM: No.

STAMBERG: And we're going past the roses. Can you smell them?

Ms. WHITHAM: I was going to say, I smell it, absolutely gorgeous. It's amazing, you can almost imagine Monet here in his garden. His spirit's here.

STAMBERG: You stroll through a world of flowers at Giverny. Everywhere you look, yellow, pink and red roses on the ground and draping over metal arches, patches of bright red geraniums, purple lavender, deeper purple pansies, iris, impatiens, peonies.

Mr. NIGEL WHITTAKER: It's almost like he's flicked his paintbrush...

STAMBERG: Nigel Whittaker is here from Birmingham, England.

Mr. WHITTAKER: ...and it's just landed on the green. And it just looks like one of his paintings, and brings out all the color and the light.

STAMBERG: Claude Monet made this garden with the help of his family and six gardeners; planted it, nurtured it, changed it, composed it; splendor to be seen at every glance, outdoors as well as from inside the house.

Again, Normandy guide, Brigitte Mueller.

Ms. MUELLER: And the most beautiful thing here is the look out of the window. And if you'll look through the window, it's like a frame, it's like a picture. It's like a painting.

STAMBERG: Before Giverny, Monet painted what others had created: the cathedral at Rouen, haystacks, steam locomotives. But at Giverny, Monet made the subjects he wanted to paint. Place the flower beds just so, shape the paths in pleasing curves. In Giverny, he built his paintings first in flowers then in paint.

He bought some adjacent land and put in a pond. Small green footbridges span the pond, clumps of bamboo line the edges, willows bend toward their watery reflections. And the water just moving in soft little wavelets, little indentations. And the silence here - only the birds.

And then the lily pads; floating circles of green with spiky white and pink blossoms.

Ms. MUELLER: The lilies are open because it has been warm and they are open only when the water temperature is 18 degrees and over.

STAMBERG: Celsius.

Ms. MUELLER: Yes, Celsius.

STAMBERG: About 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brigitte Mueller says the pond and these lilies were - are - pretty high-maintenance.

Ms. MUELLER: Monet had one gardener who was in charge of the pond. And his task was to fish out all the dry leaves and avoid that the water rats eat the bulbs of the water lilies. They loved them.

STAMBERG: What the artist loved were the reflections. The way light moved over the lily pond, how it shifted the space. Painting these floating lilies from various perspectives, Monet was making patterned abstractions that were the obsession of his final years.

And Brigitte Mueller points out, in order to realize these masterpieces, Monet had taken some daring steps.

Ms. MUELLER: He needed water to have his pond. So without any official permission, he brought one arm of the river through his garden.

STAMBERG: Call it the artistic imperative. Monet confronted nature and local officials for his art. He brought the River Epte to his easels. The town tried to fine him. His friend George Clemenceau - the powerful journalist, politician and future prime minister - stepped in. Monet kept his water pond.

(Soundbite of song, "Douce France")

IN UNISON: (Singing) Douce France, cher pays de mon enfance. Berc�e de tendre insouciance...

STAMBERG: In the major museums of the world now, as well as in a new Museum of Impressionism in Giverny, an abundance of canvasses Claude Monet created two centuries ago at his gardens and pond in Normandy, reminders of the sweetness of the French countryside; Douce France, in the words of this old song.

IN UNISON: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la...

STAMBERG: Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

IN UNISON: (Singing) Cher pays de mon enfance. Berc�e de tendre insouciance. Je t'ai gard�e dans mon cur.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

KELLY: And you'll find photographs of Monet's house, his gardens, his water lilies and of course his paintings, all at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

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