American Impressionist artists began to settle in the small French village, Giverny, beginning in 1887. They were charmed by the atmosphere, the light, the landscape and above all, the presence of Monet.
The famous artist had first glimpsed the village from a train window, and as some Islanders experience their first glimpse of Shelter Island from the ferry, it was indeed love at first sight. By 1890, he had saved enough money to buy the house and land he was renting; he began to build his famous gardens, with their archways of climbing plants, brightly blooming shrubs and the water garden, complete with the Japanese bridge, the wisterias and the azaleas. His famous painting, “Water Lily Pond,” was painted in 1899. He lived in the house until his death in 1926, and both he and a number of family members are buried in the local village cemetery.
Monet was not into restraint; he wanted his flowers to grow freely and he heaped color upon color with great freedom. Beds of different heights were often bordered with fruit trees, and iron arches crisscrossed the central allée where climbing roses grew. “All my money goes into my garden,” he said, but it clearly gave him great pleasure. He loved everyday plants — daisies were a favorite — but he never hesitated to spend large sums for rare specimens.
The house and gardens became a museum opened to the public in 1980, after much restoration work was completed. It was a gift to the village from his son; his studio was restored and the gardens replanted, the house becoming a popular tourist attraction. The famous bridge was too damaged to be saved but was rebuilt and stands where the original was. “Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism” by Philippe de Montebello can be found at Amazon; hardcover editions are inexpensive.
Islander Paul Surerus and his French wife, Noelle, whose roots are ,in Brittany, first glimpsed Giverny on their honeymoon in 1989. Much of what Paul saw resonated on a deep level; he was determined to re-create some of the effects in his own garden. He was especially entranced with Monet’s use of water, “Flow, ponds and pools, the sounds and reflection of water, there’s nothing like the sound of running water on a hot day,” he said. His Island garden is full of burbling fountains and his long allée of grass ends at the lily pond.
Like Giverny, restraint is not the watchword here; surprising vistas open. Expect the unexpected seems an underlying theme. Lilies are plentiful, many spent, of course, by this time in the summer, but it’s not hard to imagine them in their full glory. There is an alcove with a huge trumpet vine in full bloom, the lower sections with stems thicker than my upper arm. “I cut it back every year, you can’t trim it enough,” Mr. Surerus said. He trims it in February and prunes the roots as well, using a spade to damage the roots on the north and south sides one year and on the east and west sides the next, thereby spurring even further growth.
“I’d rather create my own environment. It’s easier to build new than to renovate,” he said. He has done just that. There is a long swath of lawn, and although neighbors are quite close on either side, plantings completely obscure their presence. Walking the long allée down to the lily pond, one feels miles from civilization. Bottle brush bushes and wild berries line either side. In the distance, at the edge of the pond, three columns stand, bright white against the water. “It looks like a ruin, don’t you think?” he asked. And indeed it does.
There are nooks and crannies along the way, filled with statuary of all kinds, small or life-sized, surrounded by stands of lilies, many still in bloom. It certainly puts the idea of art in the garden front and center, a good topic for next week.
Many thanks, Paul, for the invitation to your garden.