On my overnight flight to Paris, I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic remake of one of my favorite childhood books, The Secret Garden. Reminded of the purity of children’s love as the characters tended to an enchanted garden while healing their own delicate traumas, I lay down on my pile of small pillows as the movie lulled me into a haze of patchy sleep – the kind that leaves you wondering if you’ve slept twenty minutes or three hours.
In the same way that I was transported to a childhood memory of being engrossed in this classic tale, I entered a dreamlike state when I stepped into Monet’s garden – a wondrous world of flowers and trees that welcomed me into its lush embrace. Giant patches of petaled beauties greeted me with a rainbow array that made my soul dance with delight. I breathed in the cool, spring air fresh with the morning’s rain. Aaahh – a dream come true!
This garden paradise in Giverny, about an hour outside of Paris, is the former home and art studio of the famed French artist Claude Monet. Recognized by his brilliant brushwork, which blends a playful palette of intense hues, Monet and his short strokes have almost become synonymous with “Impressionism.” Looking at the panoramic canvas before me, I could instantly see how nature’s elements provided the perfect setting for this prolific painter. Mist of a soft rain functions as a natural filter to mute the sunlight, producing an ephemeral effect very characteristic of this region – a lighting effect that can be both a challenge and a dream for any artist.
In my own radiant dream, I sat and admired the layout of each bed of bountiful blooms, all of which were meticulously manicured to create an outdoor oasis of color. Seduced by the silky silhouettes of nearby tulips, I contemplated the corresponding colors of the chakras, commonly known as energy centers by devotees of yoga, tantra, and other meditative practices that integrate the body and mind.
Gazing at a deep red tulip edged with bright yellow, I thought of the root chakra, denoted by the color red. Corresponding to the base of your spine, the root chakra manifests as our grounding center, giving us a foundation of stability and security. The sunny yellow, connected to the solar plexus chakra, reminded me of a time years ago when a healer told me I needed to work on this chakra; the center of confidence. Glancing over at hyacinths that glistened like lapis lazuli gemstones, I honored my throat chakra, the energy center expressed by the color blue.
My musings over chakras and my intermittent episodes of healing took a brief pause as I headed to my private tour with the talented team that manages Fondation Claude Monet. With an informative introduction by Hugues R. Gall, Director of Fondation Claude Monet, I learned more about the history of this mecca for art lovers and garden enthusiasts. Mr. Gall, with an illustrious background that includes his positions as General Director of the Grand Théâtre de Genève from 1980 to 1995, followed by his post as Director of the Opéra National de Paris from 1995 to 2004, has made positive changes to the Monet property since his tenure began in 2008. Besides overseeing much of the property’s restoration, including Monet’s studio, Mr. Gall is who we visitors have to thank for tourist-friendly measures that allow us to visit this magical place seven days a week!
My tour continued with Jean-Marie Avisard, Head Gardener at Fondation Claude Monet, who educated me on the cyclical nature of managing this massive site. Having spent the preceding winter months in a nearby village, I was curious about what happens here while the property is closed.
“From November 1st, we strip the whole garden to be able to dig up the beds and replant the spring bulbs and the biennials. It’s a real race against time all winter to be ready for the opening in April,” Mr. Avisard explained, motioning to rows of blue, yellow, and red flower beds. “As for the layout of the plants, we mainly have color requirements in each bed. For example, a blue flower bed will always be blue, but the plants that we find within it will vary from year to year. There is a large dose of creativity and artistic sense necessary to be able to be a gardener in the gardens of Claude Monet.”
Creativity and artistry were in full bloom all around me! Walking along the pebbled path, I admired Mr. Avisard’s work and the commitment to detail that he and his team used to ensure that every inch of Monet’s garden was perfect for each visitor that this famous French destination would welcome that spring and beyond. I continued to ask Mr. Avisard questions about the garden, why he chose this line of work, and if he had a favorite flower. Drawn to nature from a very young age, Mr. Avisard groomed his love for the outdoors with an education at the Évreux Horticultural School, and shortly after he joined the team here in 1988. While he couldn’t choose a favorite flower, which I imagine would be a hard choice for any of us, Mr. Avisard mentioned the iconic water lily seen in much of Monet’s later works. “Of course, there is an emblematic flower of Claude Monet that we expect to see blooming again each year – these are the water lilies.”
The creativity and artistic genius present in Claude Monet’s paintings was honed right here along these magnificent flower beds. A sprawling, yet orderly garden that can be viewed from every room became the painter’s natural muse. Adjacent to the home that Monet shared with his wife and family, rows of flowers bloom in tune with the seasons and create a canvas of brilliant swatches that captivate tourists from every corner of the globe.
Fondation Claude Monet, nestled along the river Seine in France’s Normandy region, welcomes over 500,000 visitors a year. Bequeathed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts by Michel Monet in 1966, the Giverny property was restored between 1977 and 1980, and opened to the public on June 1, 1980. Honoring the original layout and preservation of Monet’s residence was achieved by compiling old photographs, articles about the gardens, and memoirs from family and friends, an effort well worth it for every visitor who walks through its charming doors.
Each room of the carefully preserved home offers a glimpse into the artist’s private life. Whether it is the Rouen blue tiles that line the kitchen walls, the 18th-century cylinder desk, or impressive reproductions of his own paintings, each detail transports you to Monet’s picturesque abode as if he were still there.
Beyond a peek into the well-maintained maison, visitors to Monet’s home will be privy to an impressive collection of Japanese art. The collection, shown throughout the house, features 46 prints by Kitagawa Utamaro, 23 by Katsushika Hokusai, and 48 by Utagawa Hiroshige, which make up a significant portion of the 211 pieces on display. While there are more in storage, the Japanese prints that adorn the walls of Monet’s home showcase his appreciation for a unique aesthetic, cultivated by his Japanese friends, colleagues, and fellow art collectors such as Tadamasa Hayashi, Kojiro Matsukata, and Théodore Duret.
No matter when you come, you will be greeted by a gorgeous masterpiece that is crafted by the hand of Mother Nature herself. Tall tulips titillate in April and May, while June and July give a warm welcome to bright pink cleomes and the slender, lavender-hued agapanthus throughout the summer months. Each season gifts visitors with a diverse display of flowers – a treasure to behold!
But the true treasure lies just beyond view from Monet’s house – the water garden made famous by his water lily paintings. Now in museums and collections around the world, including his posthumous installation of eight immense compositions that are on permanent exhibition at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Water Lilies is a collection of over 250 works, most of which were created in the final phase of Monet’s long life. His dedication to this illustrious body of work reveals a focus on the water that seductively reflects the sky and clouds above. Shrouded by tall trees, the water garden unveils a magical aura in its midst.
At first glance, one might notice that a water lily looks similar to a lotus flower. Both natives of the Nymphaeales order of flowering plants, these aquatic plants resemble each other in many ways. They both grow in muddy water, their leaves may float on the water surface, sometimes be held underwater, or may occasionally rise up out of the water, and their resulting flowers emerge in various, vibrant colors. Lotus and water lily flowers both have parts that are edible, medicinal, and sometimes poisonous. But for paleobotanists, this is where the similarities stop. With recent fossil evidence emerging in the scientific community, the history of water lilies has now been extended back to the Early Cretaceous period over 120 million years ago. Yes, the inspiration for the floral emblem of Fondation Claude Monet has been around since the time of the dinosaurs!
Plant genomes aside, the spiritual significance of these two symbolic flowers has been known to represent the creation of several goddesses and gods in religious practices around the world, while also being honored in cultural traditions throughout history. Romans used water lilies as filling for their pillows in an effort to promote sleep and dreams. A blue water lily helped heal Ra, the Egyptian sun god, while the lotus is associated with Heqet, the Egyptian fertility goddess who many women honor in childbirth by wearing lotus amulets. Mayan religious rituals often related the water lily to underworld and afterlife ceremonies, whereas Hindu and Buddhist traditions show strong reverence for the lotus as the symbol of spiritual enlightenment. In ancient Greek folklore, water deities were called nymphs, a name inspired by the Latin word for water lily, nymphaea. Whatever spiritual path you practice, there is no doubt that Monet’s Les Nymphéas offer an opportunity for interpretation and reflection.
I stood at the edge of the murky lake, eagerly looking for any sign of a pink or purple lily below the surface in hopes of snapping a photo of this iconic flower. Reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book and the quote “no mud, no lotus,” I thought about how challenges and muddy obstacles in our lives lead us to happiness and transformation, reflecting on the figurative mud I had trudged through in my own life. Scanning the scene, I wondered if I was too early to see this flower that had outlived dinosaurs. No, I was right where I needed to be.
Having practiced yoga for over twenty years, I have always wrestled with Lotus pose, a seated pose used for meditation. Seemingly easy, it’s the second leg that I always struggle to place securely on my thigh. I end up wrestling with my ankle, frustrated at the tightness in my hips, instead of sitting in the unadulterated bliss of a meditative state. During the last two years of my dedicated yin yoga practice, I learned that different poses help open up their respective chakras, allowing our energy to flow freely. So many questions emerged during my brief meditation peering into the muddy depths: did I need to master one chakra to move on to the next, or were these energy centers unraveled randomly? Would I revisit elements of my root chakra that would open up my heart chakra, the energy center of love? Would my foot ever stay in position for more than a minute so that I could reach enlightenment?
Staring over at the orange-faced daffodils, I suspected that my answers to these questions would reveal themselves in due time. Orange, the color of the sacral chakra, corresponds to our pelvis and sex organs, manifesting itself in our pursuits of pleasure, creativity, and sexuality. I pondered my own manifestation of this chakra and more questions poured forth: was I having enough sex, would more of it make me more creative, should I put “seeking enlightenment” on my dating profile?
I didn’t have a dating profile, actually, but what I did have was an ever-evolving understanding of how to untangle the experiences of my life. Working through the mud was necessary, whether in a relationship, by studying meditative practices, or during a pensive moment in Monet’s garden. Mulling over the principles of Tibetan sacred art, fresh in my mind from a recent read, I knew that colors and their symbolism played a large part in the spiritual and visionary experience of the artist. Was Monet drawn to a certain color palette as he moved through the mud of his life? Some questions might not get answered. Lost in thought, I wandered down the path with weeping willows hanging overhead while spring blooms bid me goodbye. The daffodils seemed to smile back as I walked past with a knowing glance, thinking about all that I had absorbed in this magical place.
Looking back at the boat docked at the water’s edge, I considered that by setting sail on his studio boat, or bateau-atelier, Monet might have been leaving something behind. Moving toward moments where he poured out his soul on a canvas, he turned his metaphorical mud into beautiful paintings. I wondered how Monet may have used painting as therapy, drowning in his devotion to heal himself through his art and the production of these masterpieces. Mourning the loss of two wives, a son, and his deteriorating vision, which might have felt as fleeting as the perfect lighting, Monet seems to have painted himself out of depression and into a meditative state that enveloped him in the curative element of water. As the artist created more works in the Water Lilies series, the water comes closer and closer to the viewer. Each sublime stroke leaves a lasting impression, indeed.
Back in my meditative corner of the main garden, I sat on a bench and watched visitors pass by. Some tried to capture the perfect selfie, others scoped out the ideal angle for the right lighting. Watching them, I realized that we all need to put down our cameras and phones, pause, and have the patience to succumb to nature’s seasonal embrace. Don’t compete with nature – you won’t win. Look at each magnificent flower, accept that it is not about you, and begin to commune with your spirit. Allow the healing power of nature to reveal itself through its colors, shapes, and essence.
The last stop on my tour was to the greenhouse, a real secret garden where the team at Fondation Claude Monet grows a myriad of orchids and lilies. Marveling at the gems in this sacred space, I was drawn to the corner of the room where a delicate cluster of violet orchids seemed to float in mid-air. Hung like a Monet masterpiece, the orchids enraptured my whole being, luring me closer. Violet, the color of the crown chakra – a message that enlightenment was near.
Thank you to Fondation Claude Monet for the tour and use of their press photography.