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June 8th, 2012

Monet’s Garden Lessons

Claude Monet. Artist's Garden.

Claude Monet. Artist's Garden.

The current floral extravaganza at the New York Botanic Garden is devoted to a celebration of Claude Monet’s famous garden at Giverny, just north of Paris. I was fortunate to be there at the opening event as a guest of the photographer and author, Elizabeth Murray, who spent her formative gardening years assisting in the restoration of this garden. With her subsequent books, lectures and photography, Elizabeth has established her credentials as one of the leading authorities on the hows and whys of Monet’s horticultural “painting.” For that is what his garden-making was all about; painting beautiful landscapes with flowers and so creating a world in which, with his eyesight failing, he could continue to find the inspiration to render a three-dimensional world in two. Monet on the footbridge crossing the lily pond.

And what a world it was. Anyone who has created a garden knows how intimately we connect with each plant and benefit from the diversity they create for us to enjoy. Even a handful of soil, rich and loamy from years of feeding and mulching and working speaks to our hearts.

The exhibition begins properly in the NYBG library building where two Monet paintings face each other across the room, framing the centerpiece display of his wooden paint palette. Blobs of color intact — smears of rose madder, iris mauve, watery yellow and delphinium blue — speckle the old, gently curved board. Behind, from an enlarged photo the old artist peers back at us through bottle bottom glasses. I could imagine his hand on the palette, his thumb poking through the grip. What I can’t imagine is being an artist slowly losing my eyesight. Yet, Monet serves as an example of how such adversity can be turned to advantage, and his last works, monumental collages of vividly colored shapes, show that even in the dimming light of his world he could express an inner vision of beauty.

I’ve been to Giverny several times, but thanks to this wonderful exhibition, I have seen it for the first time. It runs until 21 October and the garden display in the Enid Haupt Conservatory will change with the seasons.Claude Monet (1840-1926) in front of his paintings 'The Waterlilies', in his studio at Giverny, 1920 (gelatin silver print) (b/w photo) by Henri Manuel (1874-1947) Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, France/ Giraudon/ The Bridgeman Art Library

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