Only a thirty minute train ride north of Paris is Monet’s home in the little village of Giverny. His most renown paintings of the waterlilies were done in his perfectly manicured garden which is now an attraction for anyone who appreciates his work. Having painted in Cezanne and Van Gogh’s backyards I had to take the day trip up from Paris to paint here.
For a Monday the crowds were surprisingly large. Waiting in line to enter his home and garden I began to wonder how big it was in there. ‘Where should I setup to paint? Wherever there’s space I guess.’ When I approached the ticket counter the bag checkers were eyeing my canvas and easel suspiciously. Immediately one approached me and said painting on the grounds is prohibited. This was a distant worry in my mind earlier but from my past experiences most places encouraged en plein air. This was a major let down. I still went in of course. Once in I realized that I wouldn’t have wanted to paint here anyways.
There were so many people! The walkways between the flowerbeds were cues of slow moving people taking pictures of every flower. When I entered his house it was the same way; slow shuffling from room to room through his studio, bedroom and even the kitchen. Every inch of floor space was occupied by the crowd. I skipped out of the procession before the kitchen. What the hell do I care about Monet’s pots and pans? Stepping back into the garden was hardly the fresh air I needed.
The garden in its natural state is a true marvel. Every plant and tree were strategically placed providing balance on multiple levels. From any place in the garden the scene is picturesque. The colors of the flowers are perfectly spread, not too hot or cold in any one spot. As the plants come into bloom in spring some opening earlier and dying to be replaced by mid and late summer blooms, this too was equally balanced from what I hear.
The waterlily ponds behind the garden are what Giverny is most known for. The water is channeled from an adjacent stream and fills in the manmade ponds. A cool shade is created by the overhanging willow trees. Several green bridges cross over and hidden paths crisscross the surrounding woods, all leading back to view to waterlilies floating perfectly atop the still water. All of this together was Monet’s self proclaimed greatest work, and that is why it is one of the most famous gardens in the world.
I did my wandering around the ponds. Not a free bench or secret nook was found for a much needed escape. All was occupied. The scene was just appalling. Everyone saw Giverny on their screens and not through their eyes. The famous arched bridge was no longer serene. People stood on it snapping selfies and checking to see if they look good. ‘You can’t even get a picture of the bridge when you’re standing in it! Do these people even know where they are!?’ A brief calm came when I spotted a huge fish skirting lazily around the lilypads. I wanted to point it out to a neighbor. No one saw it though. No one saw below the surface there.
I was very dissatisfied with my experience. In a place where one should feel tranquil I was claustrophobic. I’d had enough. In and out in thirty minutes. My train back to Paris was at at five and it was only half past ten. What am I going to do today? Paint of course but no one gave good answers when I asked for a good spot to go.
I sat on a bench and thought about that fish. What was it like swimming under those famous lilypads? Can it see all the people from underneath? The water must feel nice at least. I thought of how that diverted water once pure and innocent was now corrupted by the crowds only to go back out to the stream in a changed state. Up river it must still be quite nice. ‘That’s the answer! Go upstream.’
It turned out just out of town the stream flowed not far across the main road. I walked along side it and eventually found a path that followed the stream as it turned from the road and came out of the unfettered countryside. So quiet. The stream ran smooth and slow without a riffle; just a continuous deep pool.
It was not quite as hot in Giverny as it was in Paris. The thought came to me that I hadn’t showered in four days. This isn’t entirely disgusting. France is so damn hot, might as well be Florida. Ever since my arrival I have been perspiring, day and night. A shower is just a brief interlude between periods of sweating. Why dirty my towel when I know I’m going to be dirty again in five minutes. Also I’m not using my towel because my disgusting hostel roommate of an unknown nationality secretly used it while I was gone. I quickly came to the decision that I would be going for a swim.
The path led far back until it dead ended into an old stone wall. This is where I slipped my way in the water. By doing an easy breast stroke I was able to maintain my position next to the shore. I swam a little quicker to an overhanging branch. I held on for minutes and slowly trolled against the current. No thoughts. ‘Thank you.’ All previous bitterness was washed away.
I washed my clothes too. Once dry I set up my easel down stream on a section that reminded me of a mountain tributary in North Carolina.
I don’t really know much about Monet’s technique but I was trying to emulate it. He had very short brush strokes almost like pointillism. Remembering a Seinfeld episode where Morty Seinfeld went to the Met with Elaine’s close talker boyfriend he was convinced that Monet was near sighted. So the paintings are blurry. I took this limited information and started.
I’m not sure if I was doing it right. The spotted stream quickly became overrun with color. I surrendered to line in the trees. The painting came out too busy. Maybe it is not my best work but it still shone green and was a fulfilling afternoon.
My train left an hour after I finished. I killed time eating goat cheese and reading Hermann Hess’s “Narcissus and Goldmund.” The train was packed. I met another artist on the train from Norway that spoke English. We exchanged stories of our disappointment with the garden and how we both found serenity in the country. The doors opened at Gare St-Lazare and the rush of the unnecessary busy life swept over. “Welcome back to Paris.”
I decided to walk back to the hostel without a map and got truly lost. By taking the most uphill route through the streets I eventually arrived at the base of Montmartre where my new hostel was. Montmartre is a neighborhood on the only hill in Paris and on top sits the Church of the Sacré-Cour. I watched the sunset behind the Eiffel Tower with my Australian roommate. We talked about why we both came to France while we drank our warm beers.