Living Relics

There is bamboo in the water. There are azaleas, too, and lilies and lupine. There are weeping willows and alders, ginkgos and poplars and Japanese quinces, hollies and irises and two wooden walking bridges, one of them dripping in pale purple wisteria. The water does not move. The garden rests on its surface; the lily pads scattered across the pond—slick and deep green, bleached yellow and brown in spots, darkened to a rich mauve in others, and tinged along the edges with black rot—are the only obstructions to this perfect feat of reflection. They send tangled roots down to the bottom of the pond. Upcurled edges reveal bright undersides. The lily pads congregate in piles, sliding over one another so that some rise up out of the water: the tranquil tectonics of the water garden. Resting atop these piles, the raisons d’être of the entire garden, the delicate white, pink, and yellow blooms of the water lilies preen in the afternoon sun. The surrounding trees, which grow toward the pond to receive more light, seem to be bowing in reverence.

This is perhaps the most famous water garden in the world. Here, in the small town of Giverny, France, Claude Monet painted the water lily canvases that became icons of the impressionist movement. But 130 years ago, this place did not exist. Where the water garden sits today, the Ru, a tributary of a tributary of the Seine, ebbed by instead. There were no sparkling reflections of exotic flora, no regal lilies. There was movement, flow, and cool clean water. At the brook’s edge, cows drank and women did their laundry. Giverny was an agricultural village of just three hundred, not much changed since Gallo-Roman times, when it was known as Warnacum. There was a school for the village children, a charity bureau, five bars, and little else.

Then, in 1883, Claude Monet and his family moved to Giverny. Over the next forty-three years, he expanded his property and remade it in the image of his art. He converted the barn into a studio, redesigned the formal front-yard garden, which he named the Clos Normand, and diverted the Ru to build his lily pond. The sleepy town became a flourishing artist’s colony and a respite for some of the most prominent French figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Paul Cézanne, Auguste Rodin, Mary Cassatt, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro all spent time here. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was a friend of Monet’s and a regular visitor. Writers Émile Zola, Stéphane Mallarmé, Octave Mirbeau, and Marcel Proust all made pilgrimages to Giverny.

When Monet died the town grew quiet again. Relatives inherited the property in succession, but during World War II it was badly damaged by the bombings in Normandy. The gardens lay fallow for decades. Then, in 1977, Gérald Van der Kemp, the former curator of Versailles, began fund-raising for the property’s restoration. Three years later the restored house and gardens opened to the public. Today they receive half a million visitors per year.

I am one of them. Sort of. For the month of June, I will hold the rank of volunteer gardener under the auspices of La Fondation Claude Monet, along with five others from around the world. Blair, my housemate here, is the only other American. For a month, we will all occupy a strange intermediary position in this small town, at once guests and workers, visitors and residents, admirers and creators.

My interest in Monet’s garden began when, as a child, I received a copy of the picture book Linnea in Monet’s Garden. Linnea, a round, happy, apple-cheeked girl in a black-and-white smock and a straw hat, travels to Giverny, where she gets lost among the flowers and stands triumphantly on one of the water garden’s Japanese footbridges. On some pages of the book, Monet’s paintings are arranged side by side with photographs of the same locations in the gardens, as if to say, This painted world really exists. On one page, Monet’s 1887 painting The Boat flanks a photograph of the historically reproduced green wooden rowboat floating calmly in the water garden today.

I have been in Giverny for just a few days when a gardener assigns me to work aboard that rowboat for the afternoon. The job seems simple. I row up and down the length of the pond, scoop up algae and the thin crescents of fallen willow leaves in a net, and dump them in a black bucket at the stern of the boat. This net also serves as my paddle, though not very effectively, especially when it comes to avoiding the water lilies. As I paddle away from a group of lily pads, the stern of the boat swings out wide and lodges comfortably on top of them. A pale yellow lily presses up against the side of the boat and then disappears underneath it. An outcry, in eight languages, among the tourists. I panic. I have killed Monet’s lily and the gardeners will be angry. But when I finally dislodge the boat, the flower pops right back up, miraculously intact.

Nymphaeaceae, the family of water lilies, produce flowers that can endure much more than the petty abuse of my small boat. They are made to stand the test of time. Some scientists now believe that the water lily—a diminutive version no more than a few millimeters wide—was the planet’s first flowering plant. It may have evolved as early as two hundred million years ago. If they are correct, the water lily is the ancestor of nearly every other flower on earth. That the first flower to color a solidly green earth would, two hundred million years later, become the obsession of an artist who revolutionized the depiction of color makes a certain kind of sense. It is as if Monet recognized in the water lily a kindred creative spirit.

When I complete my rounds aboard the boat, the pond gleams spotlessly, and the lilies stand against a background of unblemished green water. At first, I blame the tourists—and their desire to see a perfectly maintained space—for prohibiting the pond from existing in a more natural state. But in fact this cleaning is performed to maintain historical accuracy. With his water lily canvases, Monet captured the play of light and reflectivity on water, and a perfect, glassy surface was necessary to create the desired effect. His gardeners cleaned the pond every morning. Monet was so concerned about the clarity of the water that he paid to have the dirt road near the garden tarred to reduce dust. Even the basic shape of the pond—with its asymmetry and dramatic curvatures, and the design of the plantings around it—was conceived to maximize the scintillation of light on water.

This pond has never been natural. It is a managed place and always has been. To build it, Monet had to gain permission from the local prefecture, overcoming the opposition of the Givernois, who believed the aquatic plants he wanted to cultivate would toxify the water and poison their livestock. But besides being a product of environmental engineering, physical might, and local politics, the pond is also an enclave of exoticism. Almost none of the trees or flowers are native to France. Monet imported most from China and Japan. What he achieved at Giverny, then, was a strange artistic innovation that inverted the concept of the landscape painting. Instead of painting a place, Monet envisioned a place he wanted to paint, and he made it. Artist became architect, and a landscape was built to be depicted.

Giverny threads through the dusty green countryside of Normandy in a narrow strand of color, a single street lined with tiny art galleries, a charcuterie open just four days a week, L’Hôtel Baudy, and the Romanesque church behind which Claude Monet is buried on a grassy hillside.

Blair and I live in the second-floor apartment of an old stone building built when Monet still lived in Giverny. Nestled in a small courtyard behind a green metal gate, the building is painted pink to match the color of Monet’s house and lies directly across Rue Claude Monet from the Monet house and gardens. At night the stone walls of our apartment exhale a cold, damp smell and from the hills above the town the sweet fragrance of dry grass blows in through our open windows. A blue glow hovers outside. Our apartment has no overhead lights. The standing lamps, with their stained linen shades, emit a dim brown that makes the space feel like an incubator, a place of incredible security.

While Blair and I made all sorts of plans and agreements about speaking and reading only in French in the apartment, we abandoned all such projects not long after our arrival. The inside of our apartment has become a staunch American enclave. We prepare chili instead of cassoulet, and as we cook, I cannot shake a feeling of embarrassment about making this kind of food in a village in France. Are we really so hopelessly American? This feeling follows me into the gardens, where I speak English softly, as if afraid of revealing myself to the tourists as an impostor. The American visitors who ask me questions in English always look a little disappointed when I reply without an accent. After all, I am part of the tableau for them; my foreignness must diminish their sense of the place’s authenticity.

But Americans have long had a conspicuous presence in Giverny. Impressionists from the United States, inspired by Monet’s landscapes, flocked to the town in the late nineteenth century and formed a burgeoning expatriate community. John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Willard Metcalf, and Theodore Earl Butler (who would marry Suzanne Hoschedé, Monet’s stepdaughter) all lived in Giverny for extended periods. To cater to this American invasion, Madame Baudy, the proprietor of the local grocery store and bistro, turned her home into L’Hôtel Baudy and began selling maple syrup and marshmallows in her store. In November she served a full Thanksgiving dinner. Even Monet often ate an American-style breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. On Christmas he insisted on monkfish “cooked American style.” The village became so Americanized that one resident remarked, “To take part in Givernois society, it is essential to speak English.” While American visitors today may wax longingly over visions of Giverny as an untainted French village, in Monet’s time the American visitors were likely waxing over the same thing. Giverny had already become a tourist town.

Sweeping gradually downhill from Monet’s famous pink house, the formal rectangular flower beds of the Clos Normand counterbalance the calculated disorder of the water garden. Encompassing nearly one hectare of land, the Clos Normand is bisected by the Grand Allée, a wide walkway leading up to Monet’s green front door. Creeping nasturtiums, sunflowers, coneflowers, asters, and delphiniums fringe the walkway, and climbing roses hang heavily from iron arbors above it. To the left of the Grand Allée, a Japanese cherry tree weeps snowy blossoms onto a square lawn. Farther left, irises, peonies, primroses, and heliopsises form blocks of bright color, like paint straight from the tube. To the right of the Grand Allée, two rows of pergolas drip with roses and clematises, and a moss-laced wooden wheelbarrow rests in the shade of a maple sycamore tree. By the time I leave Giverny, the final border row on the right side of the garden will be aflame with red, orange, and yellow lilies.

Blair and I spend most of our days deadheading and clipping brown leaves in the Clos Normand. It is a strange thing to spend a month searching for dead things in a garden of such vitality. It changes the way you see things, making what is least beautiful most vivid.

In the beginning of June, the height of iris season, we devote the mornings to shearing wilted iris blooms on the left side of the garden. On this side, Manu is the head gardener. He has a voice like Kermit the Frog’s and the other gardeners mock him relentlessly but affectionately. On our first day of work, he explains to us where to clip the dead blooms. “Juste ici,” he says, cutting the bloom where its tributary stem connects back to the main stalk. “Ne le faites pas ici,” he says, showing us that we are never to clip in the middle of a stem. Crossroads and intersections only. He gives us each a pair of shears and a plastic bucket, and leaves us in peace.

Just as we are about to begin our work, another gardener approaches. He does not introduce himself. “Faites attention!” he says. “Ne coupez pas les fleurs vivantes! C’est si important!” Whatever you do, don’t cut the live flowers. His face is young and gentle, full of feeling for the flowers, but he gives us a look so grave that for the rest of the morning Blair and I are on edge. Later we will learn that this is Rémi, the head gardener to the right of the Grand Allée. This side isn’t his domain, but Rémi is the kind of person who never really trusts anybody but himself, and Manu’s jocular personality and occasional carelessness unnerve him. On Manu’s side, plastic trays of flowers are sometimes laid out in rows but never planted, left to wither in the sun or rot in the rain. When I first arrive at Giverny all parts of the Clos Normand pulse with color indistinguishably, but as I learn its details I am startled by the differences between the left and right sides of the garden. The left side is still beautiful, of course, but that beauty is interrupted by pockets of neglect, whereas on the right side of the garden, texture and color saturate every last inch of space.

Because we must be careful not to clip live flowers or buds, I work slowly enough to consider each flower individually. There are bright white flowers with shocks of purple running through them, pink flowers feathered in orange, a reddish-brown variety that looks like a bronzed antique, and purple flowers so dark they appear almost ultraviolet, with brilliant yellow stripes flying out from their dark centers.

Half an hour in, I clip one stem when I meant to clip another, and a big purple iris falls to the ground. I pick it up and study it, a violet clot in my hand, soft and quivering as a moth, full and heavy as a fruit. A perfect bloom. I cannot tell you how much like murder it felt. In a display garden, where half a million tourists come from around the world every year to see Monet’s flowers, Monet’s irises, raised like children to be full and glowing, to explode with color and fulfill everybody’s expectations of how it must have felt to walk in Monet’s garden when Monet lived here, to kill a flower is a trespass on history. And of course I must contend with Rémi.

I call in a whisper to Blair, down the row from me and bent over a formerly white, now puddle gray, flower. When she looks up, I show her the flower in my hand. “What should I do?” I ask.

“Destroy the evidence!” she says.

I crumple the iris and knead it until it becomes pulpy, then bury it in my bucket. When Rémi comes to inspect the contents of our buckets, I stand nervously until he looks at me, smiles, and says, “Très bien.” A few minutes later Blair, too, nails a flower.

Fortunately for us, the visitors are not allowed to get close enough to this row to see our mistakes. They may stroll up only two of the walkways on the left side of the garden. Green chains block off the rest. Controlling visitor traffic seems reasonable enough. The gardeners need to be able to tend the flowers freely, and La Fondation Claude Monet wants to minimize the impact on the gardens. But there is something very strange about this stringency, about the chains and the guards in suits carrying walkie-talkies. The green chains are no different,
really, from the velvet ropes inside Monet’s house, which prevent tourists from touching the original family furniture and the prized Japanese woodblock prints on the walls; it’s as if this garden were a historical relic. Which it is, in some sense. The difference is that it’s a living relic, one that is being constantly remade, with new flowers planted and old ones cleared out every day. And yet the experience of a visitor to the gardens is supposed to be strictly look-don’t-touch, as if irreplaceable things might be broken, as if the garden itself is as singular as the Monet canvases it inspired.

The gardens operated very differently when the Monet family was installed at Giverny. Picnics in the garden were a regular occurrence. The Monet family and the family of his second wife, Alice Hoschedé, weathered the Great War at Giverny. Children died here and mothers grieved, that financial burdens were heavy and good friends many. It must be hard for visitors to imagine—when filing dutifully between the chains—that this garden once felt lived in, strung through with Monet and Hoschedé children.

At the end of every workday, I head over to the employee garage to put away my equipment and wash off a day’s worth of dirt, stopping on the way to empty my bucket in the wheelbarrow parked beside the greenhouse. Throughout the day as I fill up my bucket, I compress its contents more and more. When I finally unload it, the dead petals are so tightly packed that they retain the shape of the bucket, like a cake sprung from a pan. The colored stratifications of the petals tell the story of my movement through the garden. On the bottom are the irises, shriveled and atrophied. Next come the roses, which have already taken on a sepia patina, as if they have rested a long time in a vase in an old house. On top of that the geraniums, wet and slick, smell sickly sweet, already half decomposed. Layer upon layer of dead flowers. How many—three hundred, eight hundred, two thousand?

The garden is a shifting palette. The blues, pinks, and purples of early June will transform to reds, oranges, and yellows by the time I leave, in July. Lilies and poppies will replace irises and roses. With the lilies, the deadheading I have done all day for a month becomes something more. The lilies detach from the stem so easily it is as if they start to fall a moment before I touch them, as if they sense my approaching hand and surrender. I feel that I am graciously removing the old and dying from a world of color and light that has passed them by. Floral euthanasia. It feels like an act of compassion.

With the poppies it is a different story. When they bloom, Manu gives an additional and unusual instruction: we are to cut any flowers that appear more orange than red, even if they are in full bloom.
Why? I ask Manu. The answer is that Monet did not have orange poppies in his garden. He had red ones. In fact, many of his poppies were of the variety Papaver Moneti, a crossing of the Oriental poppy and the field poppy created for Monet by his stepson Jean-Pierre and his son Michel. With the poppies we perform not only floral euthanasia but also floral eugenics.

For the first time I realize how fastidiously historical accuracy in the garden is maintained. Accurate to the point of foolishness, it seems to me. Why kill a blooming flower? Then again, in order to attain the right image for his paintings, Monet himself could be much more brash. In May of 1889, wanting to finish a painting of a chestnut tree that he had begun in February, Monet paid the tree’s owner fifty francs to strip the tree of all its leaves: a winter tree in the summer.

Attaining historical accuracy during the garden’s restoration was a long and arduous process. The gardens had not been well maintained for over thirty years. Jean-Marie Toulgouat, the great-grandson of Alice Hoschedé, researched the flower varieties and their locations in the original garden. But the reproduction would have been impossible without the help of a man named André Deviller. Deviller had been the director of the nursery at Versailles and a friend of Gérald Van der Kemp while he was curator there. During World War I, Deviller traveled to Giverny every week to talk with Monet about seeds and flowers. He recreated the garden from memory, right down to the shade of the poppies.

Determining the appearance of the original Clos Normand was part of the larger effort to reconstruct the entire property. Van der Kemp had already succeeded at the enormous task of restoring Versailles during his tenure there. For him, Giverny was a kind of retirement project. When he arrived in Giverny, he found the Monet house and gardens in complete disrepair. Nature had reclaimed the house. Weeds pierced the cracks between rotting floorboards. Trees grew in Monet’s studio.

All was returned to order. In the house, broken pottery was reassembled, furniture refurbished and reupholstered, new floors installed, and the Japanese woodblock prints hanging on the walls restored. The trees in the studio were uprooted; a photograph hanging in the studio—now the museum gift shop—is the only reminder of their towering presence.

The lily pond had to be almost completely rebuilt. Its basic shape had been lost, and had to be reestablished and dug again. The original bridges were replaced. The water had grown so polluted that groundwater wells had to be dug to refill the pond with clean water. The pond also suffered from an infestation of guinea pigs, which burrowed underneath it to eat the roots of aquatic plants. To combat this rodent threat, the entire pond was lined with sheet metal.

Today the Monet house and gardens are a mosaic of original, restored original, and copy. But how can one differentiate an original sofa from a replica? And how would any visitor ever guess that the pond is a copy dug in the 1970s and lined with metal? Is Giverny a restoration? A re-creation? Whenever I go inside the house, I obsess over the origin of each object. Was this Monet’s dish, chair, pillow? Did he touch it with his own hands, lay his gray head against it? The place loses its coherence without answers to such questions. It fractures along the lines of authenticity, like a bead viewed through the angled mirrors of a kaleidoscope.

After nearly a century and a half of manipulation, after the invention of new flower varieties and the importation of exotic species and the painstaking cultivation of the oldest flowers on earth, after the arrival of the American impressionists and the restoration workers and the tourists, after the abandonment and the renewal, who can say what is authentic to this place and what is not?

Gone are the apple trees that grew in the Clos Normand during Monet’s early years in Giverny. Gone, too, are the trees that rose in his studio after his death, beautiful and striking. When I first saw the photograph of them in the gift shop, I wished they had been allowed to remain, like the trees strangling ancient temples at Angkor Wat, or the overgrown ruins of abbeys throughout the United Kingdom. But then this place would be something else, with a different agenda. Instead, what endure are the Japanese cherry trees; or, rather, they are what Giverny’s curator decided to reinstate. The gardens at Giverny were restored to return us to a particular historical moment. What moment? It is a vision—cobbled together from photographs, paintings, and memory—of Giverny at its peak. It is the landscape as Monet built it to meet the demands of his art, and as its restorers have remade it so that we might enter the world of that art. For if there is one thing that has always held true of Giverny, in its many incarnations, it’s that this has always been a landscape bent to the desires of its beholders. The gardens are a place of complete reflectivity, mirroring the beauty we wish to see.

Yet I can’t help but feel that all the research, labor, and engineering behind this beauty somehow dampen it. When I returned home from Giverny, I blew up and framed a single photograph. It depicts the Clos Normand just after a heavy rainstorm. The garden is lush, and from the upward angle at which I’ve captured it you can’t make out the neatly organized rows. The garden looks like a wild place, a riot of poppies and roses and tall grasses and trees tangled together and grasping at the hills beyond. It is my favorite photo of the garden, but it deceives. The garden doesn’t really look like this. Yet this is how I like to think of it, as a place that simply appeared. A place that nobody had to make—a place that existed without us, as if the land knew our desires before we could name them.

There is a stone house in the middle of the courtyard where our apartment is located, and it belongs to Jan, a Welshwoman who teaches English to the French employees and French to the foreign volunteers. While the other people living in the apartments in this courtyard are temporary, Jan, who has been at Giverny for fifteen years, has become a fixture. Thin, with skin like polished, butter-brown leather and hair dyed deep red, she wears pastel pink lipstick, leggings, sheer blouses, and flowing scarves. She is both gracious and sassy. She resents the hollyhocks planted around her house, finding them too saccharine and country-cottage. She would never plant them herself, but this is not her house, it is La Fondation Claude Monet property, and everything must accord with the idyllic ideal. The inside of her house feels wonderfully subversive. Her artist boyfriend has filled it with quirky furniture—a couch improvised from a bus seat, a bookshelf made from a ladder. This is Giverny at its hippest.

One night, Jan hosts a dinner in the courtyard for the volunteer gardeners and the two artists in residence. She has prepared a feast. There are three pâtés from the charcuterie down the road, a salad dressed simply in oil and vinegar, a heaping basketful of baguettes, and a tray with an archipelago of cheeses: a smooth chèvre pressed into a tidy log, a brie with its insides overflowing, and an almost geological crag of bleu cheese. We drink a lot of wine. Later there will be a potato gratin and, for dessert, a miraculous apricot tart.

“How was your meal with Florence Van der Kemp?” Jan asks one of the male volunteers. Florence is Gérald Van der Kemp’s widow. She lives in an apartment in the Monet house. The entire month I am at Giverny I never see her.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to open the wine,” he says.

“Oh yes!” Jan says. “The man always has to open the wine. It’s the traditional way, and she is so traditional.”

“So we were all just sitting there, looking at the food,” he says. “And I’m thinking, What the hell is going on? Then she says, ‘Aren’t you going to open the wine?’ The whole meal she’s correcting me, telling me where I should put my arms, what side I pour the wine from.”

We laugh, and up in the big blue night our laughter joins the echoes of conversations shared over meals a century earlier. Monet was a sometimes gruff but always hospitable host. The atmosphere at meals was casual, infused with the warm glow of Monet’s yellow dining room with its simple wooden chairs and tiled floor. As guests ate they looked out the window at the Clos Normand. Recipes were exchanged. Cézanne introduced Monet to a salt cod bouillabaisse, Jean-François Millet to his recipe for petits pain. The crowd was eclectic, the spirit convivial.

Out in our courtyard, I enjoy myself truly, but I cannot help feeling that I am merely playing French. Even my impulse to marvel at our classic French summer meal is a sign of my foreignness. I may be able to do as the locals do, but I cannot feel as the locals feel while doing it. Yet is this not how Monet’s foreign guests felt? I am one in a long line of visitors who have found at Giverny—along the blurred border between authenticity and contrivance—something genuine.

On the day before I leave Giverny, I go into the Clos Normand after closing time to take photographs. I zoom in on a single allium flower, a big purple sphere like a lollipop, made of tiny flowers that somehow know how to grow together in a perfect orb. I snap pictures of hollyhocks soaring up into the sky, their stalks like the necks of giraffes. I cross over to the water garden and stand on the Japanese bridge, documenting the lily pond, its water dark green in the late-afternoon shade.

On my way out of the garden, I see that the wheelbarrow next to the greenhouse is still filled with the flowers I dumped earlier that day. Realizing suddenly that I have wanted to do it all month, I reach my hand into the wheelbarrow, bury it in deep, and squeeze a big handful of dead flowers. It seems as if I hold every texture in the world in my hand. I feel waxy stems, pollen dust, and the prickly heads of coneflowers. There are petals that feel like ballet slippers, cats’ tongues, oil, skin, velvet, insect wings, bird bellies, and wet paper. The outside of the pile may be baking in the sun, but here in the deep, dark middle everything is cool and moist. I open my hand and close it again, trying to fit more and more flowers in, wanting to touch them all.

I take my hand out and smell it. It smells of dirt and water and worms and moss. It smells of the fading perfume of a thousand flowers and of the first flowers that ever bloomed in this garden and of the very first flowers: two-millimeter-wide water lilies staking their claim two hundred million years ago on a world that from then on would be colorful and bright and alive in a way that was entirely new.

 

Photo: philsajonesen