Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse opens at the Royal Academy

Artist Claude Monet's village house is as boldly colourful as an Impressionist canvas.

■ Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse opens at the Royal Academy, W1, on January 30. For full details, visit royalacademy.org.uk

The works of Claude Monet (1840-1926), father of Impressionism, are instantly recognisable. The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog), Haystacks and the numerous, ravishing depictions of water lilies are world-renowned — and three of the latter will be shown together for the first time since they were painted, at a Royal Academy exhibition in London this month. But Monet’s home in France, now fully restored, is a work of art in its own way.

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Monet's Water lilies 1914-15 (Portland Art Museum)

 

Ablaze with colour, the house in Giverny, 46 miles from Paris, is set in two acres, surrounded by the famous water gardens depicted in his work. While living there, Monet had a chauffeur, cook, butler and eight gardeners. He was visited by painters, including Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, and French prime minister Georges Clémenceau. However, this comfortable lifestyle belies the artist’s humble beginnings.

Monet was born to poor parents in Paris. His father was a shopkeeper, his mother a singer. His father wanted him to go into the family grocery business. Instead, aged 21, Monet enlisted in the cavalry. On a commission in Algeria, he came down with typhoid. His aunt managed to get him out of the forces and insisted he go to art school.  

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The exterior woodwork of the painter's former home is a startling viridian green

 

After living and painting in Paris, and visiting Holland and London, at 30 he married his model, Camille, mother of his first child, Jean. They later had a second son, Michel. In winter 1871, the family moved to Argenteuil, a picturesque village on the Seine. They lived there seven years and, like many painters’ families, they were very poor.

In 1878, chased by creditors, they left Argenteuil and went to stay in Vétheuil, between Paris and Rouen, sharing a house with one of Monet’s early buyers, Ernest Hoschedé, his wife Alice and their children, after Ernest, a department store magnate, went bankrupt. 

Ernest eventually fled to Belgium, abandoning Alice. When Monet’s wife died, he and Alice lived together as a couple, with Monet’s two children and Alice’s six. They married more than a decade later. On a train ride one day, on the railway that used to run at the bottom of what would become his garden, Monet spotted a house in the village of Giverny. In 1883, aged 43, he rented the house with two acres of land — and stayed there until his death aged 86.

The long two-storey house is light and airy, with shutters on the windows. When Monet rented it, the gardens were already laid out in long beds divided by trees and he kept that basic pattern. He began gardening at once, roping in the children as labour. 

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The bright blue kitchen has blue-and-white wall tiles and a massive range cooker

 

In 1890, he asked his art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, for money to buy the house. Three years later, he bought five acres of marshy land across the other side of the railway. The train driver used to drop him off, unofficially, at his own back gate. Once Monet had got the extra land, he diverted the River Epte to create a large pond. Local farmers protested at this plan, but the artist won the battle, and began creating his famous water gardens.

Now fully restored, it is clear the house was a painter’s home. Monet painted the dining room buttercup yellow, with traditional red ochre and cream floor tiles. There is a bright blue kitchen with blue-and-white wall tiles and a massive range cooker, mid-turquoise walls downstairs and pale green ones upstairs. The outside of the house is no shrinking violet either, with strong pink walls offset by startling viridian shutters. These strident shades are a perfect foil for the garden, which blazes with colour like a painter’s palette.

Monet’s first studio, and his botanical library, were downstairs. The bedrooms, bathrooms and sitting room were upstairs, all comfortably furnished with wooden floors, rugs and big wardrobes.

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Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil by Auguste Renoir (Wadsworth Atheneum of Art)

Although the house was never grand, as he became wealthier, it became more comfortable. Since Monet rose at 4am to paint in the water gardens — having first sent a gardener out in a boat to wash all the lily pads — a decent bed was a must for a good night’s sleep. He and Alice had their own rooms. From the windows, the intense drifts and washes of jubilant colour outside must have been a constant source of inspiration. 

Monet called Giverny his “most beautiful work of art”. While he was not alone in painting gardens, his 35 works on show in London demonstrate the depth of his passion.


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